What is selflessness?

My 11yo son asked me this last night. It was late so I had to give him the short answer – doing things for others without thinking about how it might affect you, and not expecting gratitude or thanks for doing it.

It’s a concept I think about often. In the Sikh religion, acting in service of others is central to what we do. Our first guru – Guru Nanak Dev ji – installed this philosophy with his own actions as well as his teachings. When you go to a gurdwara – Sikh temple – pretty much every moment is designed around service to you. People are there to provide ‘seva’ – selfless work. This can be in different ways – serving food, cooking food, washing dishes, cleaning the temple, cleaning your shoes (shoes aren’t worn in a gurdwara), sitting with the Guru Granth Sahib (holy book) while it’s being read. All these acts are there to remind us that humans are all one regardless of stature or status in society.

Being brought up with this mindset and such way of living, means I’m clearly biased about seeing and living selflessness as a virtue.

Selflessness is, I believe, as true a human quality as there can be. It encompasses so much when we act selflessly. We show our humanity. We display vulnerability. We freely love and care for others. We appreciate others. We empathise and feel the pain of others. We uphold values of right and of good. We value life. We accept others.

Sadly, in modern society, selflessness just isn’t high on people’s agenda. Because everyone has an agenda. Everyone’s out to seek something or do something or achieve stuff. We’re so focused on the getting and the receiving we forget the regular importance of the giving and the offering. To be human is to offer of your best to others.

In recent weeks we’ve seen continued frayed arguments about Brexit. What deal can we get that’s the best? How are we going to cope as a country once Brexit happens? Hard questions to answer with a real lack of leadership or clarity on any of that. When people are faced with prospects that life is going to fundamentally change and you don’t know what that means – both literally and figuratively – they get very protectionist.

Protectionism is the arch nemesis of selflessness. I don’t know how we’ll cope as a nation. All signs point to a very difficult decade while we try and understand what our new future looks like. I’m not hopeful we’ll be taking care of each other as much. I believe in the human spirit profoundly, and I’m sure there will be many moments of pride and hope. Amongst all things, I hope selflessness continues to prove to be an invaluable human quality.


Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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