Zak of All Trades: Learning to thrive in a self-centered world

In last week's column, I wrote about the phenomenon unfolding in my life where self-awareness has been leading to the realization that I'm self-centered — or even selfish.

And that realization really is phenomenal — for me at least — because it's taken me 30-plus years on God's green Earth to come to it and to fully embrace it.

I went on to say that we're not all that different from the animals — we wake up in the morning and start thinking about what we need to do to survive, and we go about our business throughout the day working to survive.

We go to work to pay the bills; we take care of our bodies by showering, exercising or seeing a doctor; we build relationships and friendships that will help us survive — because much like many of the other animals, we need each other to get by and can't do it alone.

I suggested in that column that getting by took a level of self-evaluation and self-awareness.

First, I had to realize and accept the fact that I thought about myself a lot — and I mean a lot. And then, I had to come to terms with the fact — and this one may be even more difficult — that other people don't think about me as much as I'd like to think they think about me (How's that for a mouthful?).

So, I wrote that piece, and I'm glad I did. I got some positive feedback from a few folks; we even read the column in my Sunday School class and used it as a part of a discussion about self-awareness, our place in life and loving others.

But on Sunday — probably sparked by that classroom discussion — just a few days after I wrote it, I was already thinking that there was something missing — or at least something more — to the whole idea. So, I figured I'd go with it.

Nature is full of those animals that are doing what they have to in order to survive, but there is a very similar word that — if they could speak to us — most animals would say they prefer to be described as: thriving.

Now, for a whitetail deer, thriving means having lots of food at its disposal, having a sanctuary where no predators can sneak in and ransack you when you're vulnerable... sounds a lot like survival on steroids, right?

Well, it kind of is. But we're much more relational, I think, than our animal friends. So, if you want a message on how to thrive financially or in the material world, you'll have to find another writer. That's not my gig.

I think that thrival (that's a made-up word similar to survival that I think we should all start using) is more about thinking about our interactions with those around us.

I made the point last week that, while many of us know what it's like to be a little bit hungry or a little bit cold, most of us don't know what it's like to literally be starving or freezing to death.

Survival for us is more about getting by relationally — about dealing with the people who we are surrounded by, both by choice and by force.

And, based on my thinking from last week and my continued discussions on the topic, I came up with another list — I told you that I love lists! — for how we I can thrive in a world that's self-centered (with, of course, the understanding that the self-centeredness begins within my very own self).

1. Fully embrace the fact that I'm self-centered.

I know... I know. It sounds redundant, and maybe it is. But I truly believe that some things are worth repeating and that this is the core to learning both survival and thrival.

If I refuse to accept the fact that I am self-centered — and looking out for Number 1 on most occasions — I'll never be able to build those ever-important relationships I talked about needing in order to thrive.

People won't mind that I make most of my decisions based on what's best for my own survival, but they will mind if I go about my business in a way that isn't self-aware and comes across as selfish.

So, my first step to thriving is really just the two steps to surviving combined.

2. I need to think about myself less.

The first step to thriving relationally in this world is to realize that I'm self-centered, but then I have to start using that realization to turn the way I live on its head in order to thrive.

I can only think about myself less if it's an intentional effort. I don't even notice, on most occasions, that I'm centering on myself in my thoughts and actions.

And so, to thrive relationally, I need to be intentional about stepping
outside of my self-centered shell and thinking less about myself.

3. I need to think about others more.

Now, there's not much explanation behind the second point there, but that is because I need to quickly move to this third-and-final step once I stop thinking about myself so much.

The truth is, if I'm left to my own devices and not intentional about moving on to thinking more about others as soon as I stop thinking about myself so much, some other self-centered thought will quickly find its way into my mind, and I'll be left to thinking about myself again — barely surviving, let alone thriving.

And, perhaps, the scariest part is that I might not even realize I'm doing it.

I'm so good at thinking about myself that it's become a subconscious action — I just go about doing it without even realizing I'm doing it.

But thinking about others more is a conscious act and effort. I have to be intentional about thinking about others and what's best for them.

Combining these three steps, I believe, will lead to thrival.

The first step is realizing I'm self-centered, and the second two help me to use my self-centeredness to better my relationships with people.

Again, I'm not saying that being self-centered — to an extent — is a bad thing. It is only through my self-centeredness that I have come to realize the things that a human being needs to survive.

But because we are such relational creatures — and even if you're the type who doesn't consider yourself a "people person" you still interact with tens, maybe even hundreds, each day — we need healthy interaction to thrive. And that means turning the self-centered thinking pattern into a connection between others.

Because I have been hungry, I know that others need to eat.

Because I have been cold when I forgot to put on enough layers, I know that others can be cold.

Because I have experienced hurt and sulked in it, I know that others can experience hurt.

Relational thrival is centered on empathy — identifying with or understanding an other's situation.

And the more I go out of my way to make sure that I'm thinking about others and trying to empathize with them, the healthier I'll be.

Oh, and the other beautiful thing?

Thrival in relationships makes for a better team, which — in the natural world and in our own — often leads to a better chance for survival.

Zak Lantz is the editor of The Spirit, and he's been thinking a lot about thinking less about himself.