Being human is given. But keeping our humanity is a choice.
I was about 18 when a man I greatly admired told me it was important to be disinterested in life. It sounded odd at the time, until he explained himself.
Today, ‘disinterested’ is often used to mean ‘uninterested’– e.g. “I tried to engage the students, but they were completely disinterested.” But ‘disinterested’ didn’t used to mean ‘uninterested’; it meant impartial or without a vested interest; as in, “His action was not disinterested because he hoped to make money out of the affair.”
So why am I keen to write about it? Because it’s something we’re missing. Big time.
I was very taken with a comment in Curtis Sittenfeld’s book on Hillary Clinton, “Rodham”, when a friend of Hillary’s remarks, “Some people want to effect change in the world, and some want to be loved.”
I wonder what camp if any you’d put yourself in? Friends of Boris Johnson sometimes say that all he wants really is to be loved. This is true of many famous performers, a good proportion of whom believe that to be admired is the same as to be loved. In order to capture this love, time and again they will say what they think a particular audience wants to hear, even when it is untrue. They succeed in making easy rapport with people, but at the expense of honesty. They also like to make big gestures and take risks, imagining people’s gasps of love/admiration at the sheer chutzpah of it all.
“This will make people love and admire me” is not a good reason for action. It’s the opposite of disinterest. Disinterest leaves “I” out of it, and asks with a passive grammatical construction,
“What is needed here?”
Every decent doctor, nurse, paramedic and home-carer asks this question. One of the reasons we love the NHS is that medical professionals do ask that question again and again, unmuddied by additional considerations such as, “Will this be more profitable for me?” or “Will this enhance my reputation?” or “Will this make the patient like me?”
It’s relevant in every profession. There are the moments when you perform sublimely, entering entirely into your focus; times when you are in flow, dancing in the moment (disinterested, your self has disappeared). And other moments when you are too aware of your own impact to be able to produce your best work. (self-interested, or self-conscious).
Of course, we’re all a mix of different desires – it isn’t quite as simple as I’m making out. Or maybe it is. Look around you; observe the people you come across every day. “What is needed here?” is an outward looking question, and some people approach life with that outward attitude and forever ask themselves, “What’s the best all-encompassing outcome that can be achieved from this situation?” The world is forever thankful to such people. Others consider their self-interest, even as they assure people that they are only thinking of others’ best interest, even as they gerrymander, dance attendance on people with money, invade other countries – whatever it might be. Look no further than your family, friends and colleagues – I guess you’d have little difficulty in sorting the self-interested from the disinterested – it’s almost printed on their brow.
And what about within ourselves? I think we know what it is to act with disinterest. You feel it in your gut – yes, to this, no to that. Some people would call it the still small voice within, a feeling for justice, maybe. When we go with our gut feeling – even when the choice is scary – there’s a little nod of satisfaction from heart and gut, a silent, “Yes, that’s right. You could call it ‘right-thinking.’
Disinterested decisions can be hard to make, but they more often turn out well, and are much more likely to bring you closer to people who respect you and friends you can trust. As you may have recognised, it’s all about ego.
The amazing Judith Delozier, one of the pioneers of NLP, still travelling the world with her clear-sightedness, often talks about recognising that we are all the “two-legged ones”; she encourages us to celebrate our common humanity in a deep somatic way. Self-interest is not going to save us. My goodness, if ever there were a time for the world to recognise the truth of that comment, it’s now, at this planet’s late hour.
If you want to ask me anything about what I’ve written, please get in touch.
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