I came across the term “selfism” in Dick Meyer’s 2008 book, Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium. He defines it as “American individualism redefined by the age of marketing, self-help, moral relativism, and the belief that the “self” is something that can be deliberately found or made” (36). He warns that “it is different than the older, can-do, self-made-man American spirit because it substitutes feeling for doing” (37). Later in the chapter, Meyer ties this hyper-emphasis on self to a growing belligerence in society. He writes, “On the Internet, belligerence can be anonymous, faceless, and hence risk-free. In schools and offices, for example, the Web is a problem, because parents and workers say nasty things in e-mail that they would never say in person. Chat rooms, blogs, and online comments are clogged with vitriol and hate-mongering…the need to make others wrong has turned into an addiction” (44). One of his points in the chapter is that the elevation of self is not just a problem of narcissism, but it has become commonplace to vaunt self by stepping on, insulting, and ridiculing others to do it. We are witnessing an ever-growing game of “King of the Mountain,” where in a rush to get noticed we are shoving off anyone who might eclipse or overshadow us.
Selfism is Satanic rather than sanctified behavior, but each of us must wrestle with it. The temptation to join them rather than “beat” them through Christlike humility is ever-present. What is “one-upmanship” if not an effort to present self as above another? In certain circles, the ability to respectfully and civilly discuss differences has been assassinated by hired killers like vanity, self-importance, animosity, and contempt.
Do we have a more difficult task than obeying Jesus’ command to deny self (cf. Mat. 16:24)? When Paul urges Philippi to eliminate selfish ambition and conceit while esteeming others as better than self (Phi. 2:3), do we appreciate the polar opposite this is to the cultural arch-hero of selfism? Jesus came into this world to show us the selfless life. It is scary to live that way, especially in a world full of adherents to the cult of self. We fear that being selfless with selfish people will lead to being walked over, preempted, or mistreated. What will help is developing the faith to trust that living the way God commands leads us to the best life possible. The best life possible is one where self is suppressed in deference to Christ and others. Such a life will be noticed as a beacon in our choppy seas of selfism!