"I have traveled this country extensively and have met many people. Rarely have I met people with the overweening sense of self the moralists say we have, people who put themselves first as if they possessed the divine right of kings.
Instead, I have met too many people who suffer from an empty self. They have a bottomless pit where their identity should be—an inner void they try to fill with competitive success, consumerism, sexism, racism, or anything that might give them the illusion of being better than others. We embrace attitudes and practices such as these not because we regard ourselves as superior but because we have no sense of self at all. Putting others down becomes a path to identity, a path we would not need to walk if we knew who we were.
The moralists seem to believe that we are in a vicious circle where rising individualism and the self-centeredness inherent in it cause the decline of community—and the decline of community, in turn, gives rise to more individualism and self-centeredness. The reality is quite different, I think: as community is torn apart by various political and economic forces, more and more people suffer from the empty self syndrome.
A strong community helps people develop a sense of true self, for only in community can the self exercise and fulfill its nature: giving and taking, listening and speaking, being, and doing. But when the community unravels and we lose touch with one another, the self atrophies and we lose touch with ourselves as well. Lacking opportunities to be ourselves in a web of relationships, our sense of self disappears, leading to behaviors that further fragment our relationships and spread the epidemic of inner emptiness.
As I view our society through the lens of my journey with depression—an extreme form of the empty self syndrome, an experience of self-annihilation just short of death—I am convinced that the moralists have got it wrong: it is never "selfish" to name, claim, and nurture true self.
There are selfish acts, to be sure. But those acts arise from an empty self, as we try to fill our emptiness in ways that harm us and bring grief to those who care about us. When we are rooted in true self, we can act in ways that are life-giving for us and all whose lives we touch. Whatever we do to care for the true self is, in the long run, a gift to the world.
— Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life