It would not be surprising if how deeply happy one can be depends on the depth of his well-being. For example, those who are at peace with their luck will likely feel calm, while those who long for things they don’t have will tend to be restless.
When someone delights in meeting the needs of others, his satisfaction is his own reward. But when instead we take pleasure in antagonizing others or being greedy for superficial things that cannot provide deeper satisfaction, the consequences would be very different. Will not the long-term effect be discontent and frustration?
Aren’t we happy doing what we want no matter what it is?
In Swedenborg’s message, the more, for example, neighborhood, community spirit, and honesty become a way of life, the more we will experience a sense of satisfaction and delight. On the other hand, a life of selfishness, with its resulting unrepentant greed or delusion, can only result in superficial pleasure.
So why might we think Swedenborg is right? That selfishness only results in superficial happiness? Aren’t we all a little selfish anyway?
Selfishness means putting yourself first, seeking first to enjoy bodily pleasure, praising and admiring others, getting our way in all things, etc. But from a spiritual perspective, isn’t this whole way of seeking happiness nothing more than wishful thinking? Doesn’t true happiness come when it is not sought?
At the risk of coming across as prudish, I firmly believe that permanent happiness arises from genuinely focusing our minds on the needs of others. It comes from wanting to fulfill some useful function in any situation in which we find ourselves.
Isn’t it happiness to see who we live and meet?
A relevant observation that might also help explain why selfish pleasures result in less happiness concerns something Swedenborg observed. He reports that at some point in the next life, those with selfishness mix with those of a similar character and this has ramifications. The depth of one’s happiness will vary according to the company one has.
In general, observe that in the next life, one associates with people of similar character to oneself, who have a similar level of personal development or lack it. Sensitive with sensitive. Fool with fool. You end up associating with those who have similar desires. In this way we would be more comfortable. Each of us would be interacting with those who see things in comparable ways in terms of similar values: ethical or criminal, spiritual or materialistic.
One can see some of this trend in this life, in terms of the friends we choose. We partner with others who share an interest in a worthy cause. Those who like to gossip spend time together. Those who have the same social prejudices tend to find each other. To express hostility, one can join a gang that seeks to enjoy violence.
If each person connects with like-minded people, different social circles will form. Some groups have mutual interest and common sense. Others just consist of individuals who want possessions for themselves or to get their own way.
Imagine that we focus on ourselves and serve ourselves, but find ourselves in the company of considerate and selfless people. Those who don’t share our ‘I’m fine Jack’ attitude, teasing jokes, or self-indulgent fantasies. Wouldn’t we soon feel out of place like fish out of water and want to go back with more people like us?
The problem is that when you yearn for what you want for yourself, there can only be restlessness and frustration because others like us want the same thing. When everyone is like this, there is rivalry and there is no sense of shared community. No peace and goodwill. Swedenborg noted the social sphere of very selfish people. He observed that there was no mutual love or mutual respect between the sexes. He only encountered a bitter rivalry because each person sought to dominate the other by compulsion or subtle and low cunning.
The unpleasantness of this dark afterlife state is really just the frustration that selfish people experience when they cannot get what they want from other selfish individuals, for example, admiration from others, possession of what others have, being obeyed. The reality is that this frustration would not be a happy existence.
If happiness comes with being altruistic, can’t we stop being selfish?
We might wonder about young people who die tragically before their adult life has begun. It would seem extremely unfair if, in the afterlife, they continued in an endless state of sadness. Why couldn’t these people learn to consider the needs of others as well as their own in the next life? What is the reason that one cannot learn the lesson and find peace and contentment? Why can’t anyone, however self-centered at first, become a very different person after death? Don’t we have something to say about what our life will be like after death?
According to Swedenborg, in the early stages of the next life, what is selfish in people can sometimes be put aside. This is probably the case with those whose selfishness is not so ingrained; these, if they wish, can learn the error of their ways. Perhaps thinking practically only of themselves was necessary when they were alive on earth. Perhaps they had never experienced anything other than disappointment and rejection. They could have had a very crude treatment so no one else would take care of them. Fighting for emotional and financial survival was all they knew.
So in the next life can we stop being self-centered?
Swedenborg also writes that self-concern in some people can be really ingrained. They usually confirm this state of mind with their actions. So much so that in them selfishness is equivalent to contempt, hatred or even cruelty. His point is that these characteristics cannot be mixed with love for the highest principles and compassion for others. Consequently, he declares that those of the basic selfish character remain in their selfish state. Your level of happiness is permanent.
We can compare this dark side of the afterlife with a prison. Jail is literally hell on earth. Prisoners are often repeat offenders, as they do not admit that there is a problem and therefore cannot solve it. They usually have an upside-down view of what is right and what is wrong. They promote what is bad on the false basis that “the more bad we are, the fewer people will try to harm us.” In this way they earn the illusion of respect through fear.
Can’t we develop less selfishness when we have self-understanding?
Wanting to change requires a personal understanding of the tragic mistake of one’s own paths. Insight that requires enlightened understanding. However, the worst type of selfishness equates to narcissism, hatred, and sadism. In fact, these are dark states of mind. Consciousness lacks the light of self-perception.
Who among us would appreciate an assessment of our character? In fact, who likes to be faced with constructive criticism of himself in light of social conscience? Anyone who has developed a serious pattern of selfishness, and shows himself what he is, would probably be uncomfortable to say the least.
Let’s imagine for a moment that we have various aspects of a selfish character. In the light of truth, we would realize that a much deeper level of happiness is possible. Understanding it means focusing our minds on the needs of others. In addition, that implies wanting to fulfill some useful function for our community.
Isn’t self-perception possible in the next life?
According to Swedenborg’s vision, in the next life, we would recognize our true character only when this light of truth sometimes shines. Then the light would be clear enough to show the ugliness of our surroundings. An ugliness that we had not noticed before. It would reflect the ugly state of heart and mind that we had formed. It is not a welcome sight.
Some internal conflict would immediately arise within us if self-perception entered our minds. We would be forced to acknowledge the inappropriate nature of our selfish behavior. For example, if we prefer a life of selfish idle action, we would certainly suffer distress and want to hide from the light. All we want is to return to our normal state where we would not have to honestly confront ourselves for who we are. Being selfish people, we would prefer to continue in the deceptions of self-justification.
Then, we would move away from the light that would have illuminated our understanding and the suffering stops. The light is always there, but we would prefer the dark.