It would not be surprising that how deeply happy one can be, will depend on one’s depth of well-being. For example, those at peace with their lot will likely feel calm, whereas those craving things they haven’t got will tend to be restless.
When anyone delights in meeting the needs of others then their satisfaction is its own reward. But when we take pleasure instead in antagonising others, or being greedy for superficial things that cannot provide any deeper contentment, then the consequences would be very different. Won’t the long-term effect be discontent and frustration?
Aren’t we happy doing what we want regardless of what it is?
In Swedenborg’s message, the more that, for example, neighbourliness, community spirit, and honesty become a way of life, then the more we will experience a sense of fulfilment and delight. On the other hand, a life of selfishness, with its resulting greed or deceit without remorse can only result in shallow pleasure.
So why might we think Swedenborg is correct? That selfishness results only in superficial happiness? Aren’t we all a bit selfish anyway?
Selfishness means putting oneself first, looking first to enjoy bodily pleasure, praise and admiration of others, getting our own way in all things, etc. But from a spiritual perspective, is not all this way of seeking happiness nothing more than an illusion? Doesn’t real happiness come when it is not sought?
At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, I firmly believe that permanent happiness arises from genuinely focusing our minds on the needs of others. It comes from wanting to serve some useful function in whatever situation we happen to find ourselves.
Isn’t happiness to do with whom we live with and meet?
One relevant observation that might help also 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 with similar character and this has ramifications. The depth of one’s happiness will vary according to the company one keeps.
In general, he observes that in the next life, one associates with those with similar character to oneself, who have a similar level of personal development or lack of it. Sensible with sensible. Foolish with foolish. One ends up associating with those with similar desires. In this way we would be most at ease. Each of us would be each interacting with those who see things in comparable ways in terms of similar values – ethical or criminal, spiritual or materialistic.
One can see something of this tendency in this life, in terms of the friends we choose. We associate with others who share any interest in some worthy cause. Those who like to gossip spend time together. Those with the same social prejudices tend to find each other. To express hostility one can join a gang looking to enjoy violence.
If each person does connect with like-minded people, then different social circles will form. Some groups having mutual concern and good sense. Other ones just consist of individuals who want possessions for themselves or to get their own way.
Imagine we are self-focused and self-serving but happen to find ourselves in the company of considerate and unselfish people. Those who don’t share our ‘I’m all right Jack’ attitude, sneering jokes or self-indulgent fantasies. Wouldn’t we soon feel out of place like fish out of water, and want to get back to people more like ourselves?
The trouble is when one craves for what one wants for oneself there can only be restlessness and frustration because others like us are wanting the same thing. When everyone is like this, there is rivalry and no sense of shared community. Nothing of peace and goodwill. Swedenborg noticed the social sphere of very selfish people. He observed there was neither mutual love nor any mutual respect between the sexes. He found only bitter rivalry because each person was seeking to dominate the other by compulsion or subtle low cunning.
The unpleasantness of this dark state of the afterlife is really only the frustration experienced by selfish people when they cannot get what they want from other selfish individuals e.g. admiration from others, possession of what others have, being obeyed. The reality is this frustration would not be a joyful existence.
If happiness comes with being unselfish, can’t we change from being selfish?
We might wonder about young people who tragically die before their adult life has really got going. It would seem extremely unfair if, in an afterlife, they were to continue in an endless state of joylessness. Why couldn’t such individuals learn to consider the needs of others as well as themselves in the next life? What is the reason one cannot learn one’s lesson, and find peace and contentment? Why cannot anyone, for that matter, however self-centered to start with, develop into a very different person after death? Don’t we have a say in 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 set aside. This is probably the case for those whose selfishness is not so entrenched – these, if they wish, can learn the error of their ways. Perhaps thinking pretty much only of themselves was necessary when alive on earth. Maybe they had never experienced anything other than disappointment and rejection. They might have had a very raw deal so that no one else was looking out for them. Fighting for emotional and economic survival was all they knew.
So in the next life we can grow out of being self-centered?
Swedenborg also writes that self-concern in some people can be really entrenched. They habitually confirm this state of mind by their actions. So much so that in them selfishness amounts to contempt, hatred, or even cruelty. His point is that these characteristics cannot be mingled with love of higher principles and compassion for others. Consequently, he declares that those of a basic selfish character stay in their selfish state. Their level of happiness is permanent.
We can compare this dark side of the afterlife with a prison. Jail is quite literally hell on earth. Prisoners are often repeat offenders as they won’t admit there is a problem and so can’t sort it out. Usually they have an upside-down view on what is right and wrong. They promote what is bad on the false basis that ‘the meaner we are the less people will try to hurt us’. In this way they gain the illusion of respect through fear.
Can’t we develop less selfishness when we have self-understanding?
To want to change requires personal insight into the tragic error of one’s ways. Insight that requires enlightened understanding. However, the worst kind of selfishness amounts to narcissism, hatred and sadism. These indeed are dark states of mind. Consciousness lacking the light of self-insight.
Who of us would welcome an evaluation of our character? For that matter who likes being made to face constructive criticism about themselves in the light of social conscience? Anyone who has developed a serious pattern of selfishness, and are shown up for the way they are, would probably feel uncomfortable to say the least.
Let us imagine for one moment that we have various aspects of a selfish character. With the light of truth, we would realise that a much deeper level of happiness is possible. Understanding it means focusing our minds on the needs of others. Furthermore, that it involves wanting to serve some useful function for our community.
Is self-insight not possible in the next life?
According to Swedenborg’s vision, in the next life, we would acknowledge our true character only when this light of truth sometimes shines. Then the light would be clear enough to show up the ugliness of our surroundings. An ugliness we had not noticed previously. It would mirror the ugly state of heart and mind we had formed for ourselves. Not a welcome sight.
Some inner conflict would immediately arise within us if self-insight were to enter our minds. We would be obliged to recognise the improper nature of our selfish behaviour. For example, if we preferred a life of idle self-serving action, we would certainly suffer distress and want to hide away from the light. All we would want is to return to our normal state where we wouldn’t have to honestly face ourselves for what we are. Being selfish people we would prefer to continue in the delusions of self-justification.
So, we would turn away from the light which would have illuminated our understanding and the suffering stops. The light is always there but we would prefer the darkness.