In order to understand selflessness, we must first understand what it means to be selfish. A dictionary definition of the word selfish is: "Seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others" (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., s.v. "selfish"). In other words, a person that is selfish is also self-centered, greedy, unkind, and insensitive; the same person may also be lustful and unpleasant. Some results of selfishness are dishonesty (lying, cheating, stealing, etc.), envy, jealousy, poor family relationships, unwillingness to serve others, immorality, crime, and war.
The opposite of selfishness is selflessness. Selfless people think of other people before they think of themselves. A selfless person has characteristics opposite to those of a selfish person. For example, a selfless person is generous and kind to others while a selfish person is greedy and unkind. The results of selflessness are the exact opposite of those caused by selfishness. Selflessness leads to love, service, and peace while selfishness leads to bad relationships, crime, and war. A wise teacher wanted to teach this lesson to his students and used an activity to do so as illustrated in the following story.
"One Monday morning when Rob and Janet arrived at school, they noticed that their teacher, Mr. May, had an interesting smile on his face. `I wonder what Mr. May is going to do today,' Janet whispered to Rob. The other students in the class also seemed curious about what was behind Mr. May's intriguing smile.
"It seemed to take forever for class to begin. When the bell signaled the start of class, Mr. May said, `Today I am going to give each of you three gifts. You may do whatever you wish with the gifts. But the object of receiving these gifts is to get more of them by the end of the week.'
"With that short explanation, Mr. May gave each student three small pieces of paper. Rob quickly looked at each one. On one piece of paper was the word "Smile." A second piece of paper read "Sincere compliment." The third simply read "Help."
"A student raised her hand and asked, `What are we supposed to do with these?'
"Mr. May smiled again. `You can figure it out,' he said.
"Determined to get more gifts, Rob stuffed the pieces of paper into his pocket so no one would be able to take them from him. Then he spent the rest of the week trying to get gifts from other people. He poked fun at one of the students in the class and then looked around to see how many people had smiled at him. When he got a good grade on a spelling test, he showed his grade to several people, hoping that someone would give him a sincere compliment. And he reminded Tom of a favor he had done for him once, saying, `We'll be even if you will help me with my book report.' By the end of the week, all Rob had was three crumpled pieces of paper in his pocket and a sick feeling in his stomach.
"Janet didn't really think about Mr. May's assignment. She just went about her week as she always did. She greeted everyone with a smile. When she noticed that Emily had done especially well on a math quiz, she congratulated her. Later that week she noticed that Loren was having a hard time with his science project. She helped him with the problem that was frustrating him. By the end of the week, Janet was happier than she had been before, even thou she had forgotten about Mr. May's challenge to get more gifts.
"Rob was confused. He had tried hard to get more gifts, but he had failed. Meanwhile, he noticed that even though Janet had not done anything different, everyone smiled at her. People were always giving her sincere compliments. And when she needed help with something, someone always seemed to notice and offer assistance" (Preparing for Exaltation, pp. 209-10).
Rob approached his assignment selfishly while Janet spent her week unselfishly thinking of other people. Rob tried all week long to add to his number of "gifts," but he seemed to have less at the end of the week than at the beginning. Janet spent her week giving away smiles, sincere compliments, and help; in the process of making other people happy, Janet received "gifts" from them and was happier at the end of the week. Janet never "lost" anything; she didn't lose her smile by smiling at other people but gained smiles from them. She didn't lose anything by giving sincere compliments and help to others, and she gained those same "gifts" in return. When we give of ourselves, we often find that we don't lose anything at all but receive gifts of love, friendship, and greater happiness.
President Spencer W. Kimball was very selfless and spent his life helping others and serving the Lord. He gave this counsel to the rising generation: "To do the special things given to this generation, you will need to guard against selfishness. One of the tendencies most individuals have which simply must be overcome is the tendency to be selfish. All that you can do now while you are young and are more pliant [easily influenced] to become less selfish and more selfless will be an important and lasting contribution to the quality of your life in the years, indeed in the eternity, to come. You will be a much better wife or a much better husband, a better mother or a better father, if you can curb the tendency to be selfish" ("President Kimball Speaks Out on Planning Your Life," New Era, Sept. 1981, 51).
We have all heard the adage that we "can't teach old dogs to do tricks." The same is true of humans to a point: young people learn new things easier than older people do. It is easier to make changes when we are young and more "pliant" than when we are older and more established in our habits.
One of the teachings of the Savior, even Jesus Christ, is known as the Golden Rule: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets" (Matthew 7:12). If we follow this counsel, we will show more courtesy and kindness to other people; we will give more sincere compliments to others; we will avoid sarcasm and thoughts of resentment, envy, or jealousy; we will put ourselves in the position of others; we will be more genuinely interested in other people. In short, we will show more love for others.
The Savior taught us to be unselfish, and He practiced what He preached. He gave numerous examples of selflessness, but there were two examples while He hung on the cross. Referring to the Roman soldiers who had nailed Him to the cross, He said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). When Christ saw His mother weeping at the foot of the cross, He said to her, "Woman, behold thy son!" referring to John the Beloved. Then He said to John, "Behold thy mother." Even while hanging in pain on the cross, He was more concerned about His mother than himself!
Jesus Christ gave us the perfect example of selflessness. We can follow the example of our Savior by becoming less selfish and more selfless. We can become happier by following the example of Janet when she "gave away" her smiles, sincere compliments, and assistance and "received" more of them in return.