212. Egocentric Altruists

I recently came to terms with a certain level of my own egocentrism, and it’s made it much easier for me to deal with other people’s. As students of child development, we’re taught about an “egocentric stage” all people go through. It’s supposed to taper off when the child is a toddler, but we all know adults who don’t seem to have ever tapered off. I’ve been annoyed by such adults, and I’ve been accused of being one of them.
As a person with special needs, I’ve learned how to accept help from people. Some people offer more help than others, and while I’m touched by their altruism, I’m careful not to let people do as much as they think they want to. I know about burn-out. I know about that moment when you say to yourself, “I’ve been too nice.” And so I let one friend cook me dinner, another drive me to the neurologist, another clean my apartment, and so on. When my dinner-cooking friend offers to drive me somewhere, I’m cautious. Not cynical, just cautious. And when I feel like doing something that happens to be helpful, I don’t hold back; I’ve paid my dues by accepting help.
I trust my friends on one level, but I try to keep my support network balanced. And egocentrism looks different to me now. I don’t fault people for being egocentric. I simply try to find ways their interests coincide with mine. For example, one good friend has two young children. I know from experience that it’s harder to shop with young children. They often complain, beg, and behave in ways that make it hard to concentrate on shopping. So she drops the children off at my apartment. She gets to shop childlessly and gets to leave her children with someone she trusts. I, meanwhile, get two young friends to hang out with for a while, and get my grocery shopping done without leaving my apartment. We both win.
I see this as a model for many attempts to balance egocentism and altruism. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get children (and adults) to be less egocentric – to think about others. Maybe some of that time would be better spent figuring out how to harness that egocentrism – to arrange situations in which people have to help each other in order to meet their selfish needs. We can believe, against all evidence, that people are unselfish, but that belief can lead to severe disillusionment.
Instead, I’ve decided that egocentrism, though it may look different in different people and at different times, is not just a stage. Your forty-one-year old brother and your friend’s child are both egocentric. So are you, and so am I. It’s just a matter of how we deal with that egocentrism

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