Divine Selfishness

I recently had several thought-provoking conversations with students in residential college 4. In some cases, it started out as a mere hello. In other cases, I was inquiring how a student was doing after recovering from an illness. Both of these cases somehow miraculously evolved into an engaging conversation about the pursuit of one’s life. One important commonality that arose from these conversations was my students describing to me vividly a goal that they were struggling in pain to pursue, not knowing that this goal that they were pursuing was actually not meant for themselves.  

These conversations triggered some memories of a 43 years-old. I remembered when I was much younger, I had exactly the same thoughts about my life’s pursuit. I would imagine that my life problems can only be solved by accomplishing something out there. E.g. I am not getting the respect and recognition I deserve, all I need to do to get them is to get promoted.

I always thought once I have achieved that something, I would be happy and fulfilled. And so I often began a long period of hard work iterating between seeking and driving until my goal was achieved. Then a new goal would be molded and pursued. And a vicious cycle was completed.

Luckily for me, I came to realize in late thirties that whatever that I set out to do, I would  later discover that ‘something’ was never what I actually wanted. For example, I desired to move up the corporate ladder largely because I were longing for the recognition of others of my ability. How silly.

Working my heart and soul out only because I long for something external. Knowing well that anything external is beyond my ability to control. I am destined to be disappointed. Yet, time and again, in my younger days, I would dive right back into this meaningless pursuit after each disappointment. How stupid.

A game that I had played with my wife came into my mind as I were writing this blog entry. I recalled this game started with a story and it went like this:

Imagine that you have invented a time machine that allows you to return to the past, 5 years from now. Unfortunately, the machine is only able to let you meet ‘the you in the past’ within the time period to say two words to ‘the you in the past’ before you must return.

Given all the knowledge and experiences that you have went through these 5 years, what would you say to ‘the you in the past’?

Take a moment to play along with me in this game. Think about what you will say to ‘the you in the past’ before continuing this blog post. Post in the comment section just for fun and sharing.


At different stage of our growth, we will say very different things to ‘the we in the past’. However, I can almost guess that most of us would tell ‘the we in the past’ to do something so that we can gain something now in the future. Something that is external. Something that is beyond our control now and given the hindsight, we thought we can change the outcome by doing something in the past. I know that in my younger days, I would say this to ‘the me in the past’.  On hindsight now, despite all the privileged intelligence, I will eventually be disappointed if my focus of pursuit remains as external.

For those who are curious about my answer. I told my wife that I will tell ‘the me in the past’ to

Look within

I know with certainty that for as long as I keep my search within, I am in control. Whether it is happiness, love, or peace, if it is inculcated within, it is eternal. It also emphasizes on the importance of taking care of ourselves first before we can take care of others. This is best summarized by a quote from my teacher, the Buddha.


If you want to be able to love others, you must first learn to love yourself.

If you want to be selfless in serving others, you must first learn to be selfish in serving yourself.

Until you find the happiness, joy and peace within you, you will never find the happiness, joy and peace externally.

I call this act that I advocate we all should do more often: divine selfishness.

Jenson Goh


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