Being an eighteen-year-old boy, fully in the throngs of the questioning phase of life, I often reflect on the course of my mental development. It’s hard for me not to be fascinated by the progress of my understanding of the world. I remember my kindergarten teacher explaining how to enunciate the letter “d” as well as my high-school calculus teacher handing out a test on infinite series. Just as my academic brain has matured, so have my ideas on morality. The most significant moment of my moral development came in 5th grade. I was sitting around a table with 5 or 6 of my friends when someone brought up being a movie star. We all raved about how that’s the lifestyle we all aspire to acquire. Then a comment was made that forever altered my opinion of individuality – “do you guys ever think that when you leave a room, the world stops like a movie production?” I was stunned as each of my friends said they shared this thought and then turned to one another looking as if they had just seen a naked woman for the first time. In this moment, our beliefs on consciousness reached a pivotal moment. No longer could we each believe that consciousness was a unique quality possessed by only us. We had to abandon our neutrally selfish mentality and see the world as a place filled with equal individuals.
I believe that all human beings start off with a vacant understanding of the world. Their first breaths occur in a surrounding completely foreign. Now, many people might argue that after these gasps and following formative years, children develop ideals adjusted to their unique environment. For example, a child growing up in a Buddhist monastery might value compassion for nature more than someone from inner city Los Angeles. It is hard to deny that a sixteen year old from these respective worlds would generally support this idea. However, I believe that the gap between the basic learning years and adolescence is one filled with a neutral selfishness. For the purpose of this article, neutral selfishness should be understood as a person believing himself to be the center of the world, but not thinking he is superior. Why does this neutral selfishness exist? It is the product of ignorance in regards to empathy. A ten-year-old child is not able to envision himself in the shoes of another person well enough to see the other person as an equal. He isolates himself in the world because he needs to focus on developing his own understanding. This is why young children aren’t usually saddened when hearing about travesties around the world. They are not void of morality, but simply don’t understand everyone as being a conscious individual. In short, their empathy is limited.
There comes a time, mine being the topic of the first paragraph, when the neutral selfishness dissipates. This is one change in mentality that occurs in a single moment. It is not a gradual learning and understanding, but rather a sudden realization. There are not many developmental moments that work in this way, which speaks to the power of this experience. As the veil is lifted, connection to humanity, a greater sense of responsibility, and an increase in emotional capacity all emerge. I believe that the tumultuous mental nature of puberty is a result of trying to deal with these new ideas. Additionally, adulthood comes about when a satisfactory level of comprehension is achieved. It’s all a necessary developmental arc.
When everything in this article is taken together, an unexpected relationship arises; it is selfishness that unites us all and selfishness that brings about compassion.