Selflessness & Selfishness

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


Charity, Altruism, & Zedakah vs. Narcissism


From a very early age we learn to give, to be selfless, to be kind, to be generous.  It is a major tenet in our religion.  It does not demand that we be ascetics; it is a rational dictum that states that we must love our “brother” as we do ourselves.  We know that if we do not like ourselves we will fail in loving others.  If we look at our prayers, we find the words dealing with giving. Zedakah:  Thou shall give “bechol levovcho, uvchol nafschecho, uvchol meodecho”, with our whole heart, our soul, and our hand. We must feed our animals first before we eat ourselves; we must leave some grain for the poor so that they too can still their hunger.  One of the greatest mitzvoth is to give a drink of water to a sick or dying person – in other words to extend our love and our caring to someone who cannot return anything to us. 

           Here I recall several childhood prayers that are not just about the self, but of our families as well:  Eli, Eli, Schemor Ovi, Schemor Ovi, Vegam Imi, Schelach Maloch, Schelach Maloch, Ki Ani Ohev Ossoch! ( My G’d, My G’d, watch/(protect) over me, watch over my father and my mother.  Send an angel, send an angel because I love you.  A similar prayer was taught to Jewish children who lived in Germany:  Lieber G’tt, lass gesund, Papa, Mama, Tante und alle gute Verwandte, mich selber omen!  Dear G’d, keep my father, my mother, my aunt, and all of my good relatives healthy, as well as myself! We are taught to respect and love our neighbor as well as ourselves:  “Hine matov” etc.  “See how good and beautiful when brothers hold hands” (when they extend themselves to one another).   All charity is, of course, not total altruism.  We know that folks sometimes give to be in the proverbial limelight, to be recognized as generous, and to stand out in the sight of others. This is not a crime, because for the most part it is for a good and charitable cause.  If the giver needs the accolade he is entitled to it; for whatever reason, he has extended his earthly goods for the stated purpose.  The giver may sometimes be a person who feels inadequate or useless and wants others in his circle to judge him in a more positive light.  We also find the “Robin Hood” who steals from the “rich” and gives to the less fortunate.  This kind of giving is by no means altruism or charity.  It is theft by whatever name we wish to call it.  Let us hope that we recognize that real zedakah is given from the heart, to help the recipient in meeting his needs!

From the time we are very young, a good parent teaches her child to extend him or herself.  The baby is trained to smile in response to the adult’s smile.  This is how we see giving love in the newest of human beings. Sharing is a natural part of giving.  The child must give to his siblings, to include his brothers and sisters  in playing with whatever toys or good things there are.  He must share attention and he must learn to give of himself. 

Narcissism is total self love.  The person is unable to give anything, to extend him or herself to others and to be the proverbial Dorian Grey who admires his image in the mirror.  The narcissist is afraid that he will owe something and frequently when he is unable to exploit another will rather stay to himself.  Narcissists will reject their siblings or “friends” if they believe that it will delete something that should be theirs; they will ignore anything that will detract from their imaginary or other accomplishments.  They will go so far as to deny the existence of their parents if they believe that these folks will cast a shadow on their evaluation of themselves.  There are humans who will sell out their country if they can gain an advantage.

           There is a deep chasm between narcissism and appreciation of the self, as quoted from the “Mishna” in Ethics Of Our Fathers:  “Im ein mamili”: If I am not for myself who is for me?  Imrac ani li ma ani li” “If I am only for myself,  who or what am I?” 


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of  Deviant Nurses & Improper Patient Care (2006).

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