The Self-Centeredness of Unselfishness

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Our romantic 30th anniversary trip to Italy began the same week Dan Brown published his latest book, Inferno (Italian for Hell). I think it was prophetic.


Carla and I have very different ideas of vacation. She likes cultural sites. I like scuba diving. She likes exploring museums. I like exploring shipwrecks. We are very different.

Our differences make it difficult to find a good place for anniversary getaways. We went nowhere for our 15th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries, except out for dinner. In the past we’ve had several family scuba vacations, so I agreed to a trip to Italy for our 30th.

On our first day in Italy we toured the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. On the second day we visited the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and the Pantheon. After two days, I had walked 33,134 steps through museums and cultural sites, and I had seen approximately 4,741 masterpieces.

My flat feet ached. My fat brain overflowed. I was irritated and I didn’t hide it. I kept thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of this!” Maybe I sulked. I was tiresome enough that Carla was thinking, “I can’t take another twelve days of him!

The countless masterpieces were driving me nuts, and my sulkiness (I’m ashamed to admit) was driving Carla nuts.

Our first two days in Rome were hell.       

What do you do with disappointment?

Carla is a Planner (with a capital “P”); she scores a very high “J” on the Myers-Briggs personality test. I score “J” as well but not quite as high. Carla wanted our vacation to accomplish as much as possible; I wanted our vacation to relax as much as possible.

Perhaps you have also experienced this kind of impasse with your spouse. At the very least, it kills romance. We each had high expectations for a fun two weeks together, but our unique personalities and differing desires created a storm, but not of passion.

It may seem simple, but working through fiery problems while in the fire is incredibly difficult. Carla was deeply hurt by my bad temper and I was terribly frustrated by her “If It’s Tuesday It Must Be Belgium” approach to our vacation.

Who first extolled, Vive la difference, anyway?

The self-centeredness of unselfishness

Carla and I were experiencing fiery pain in our relationship. What was going on? I think we were experiencing the self-centeredness of unselfishness.

In our planning, Carla “unselfishly” let the city-itinerary (Florence vs. Assisi vs. Pompeii …) be fluid, and I “unselfishly” let Carla choose what we would do once we arrived in the next city. We both “unselfishly” gave up something so the other could have what they wanted, but—let’s be honest—we felt pretty good about our own unselfishness.

We were self-consciously (and a little self-righteously) unselfish.

And both of us were a little irritated that the other person didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of our own unselfishness. Couldn’t she (or he) see how good we were? We felt ill-used and unappreciated for our deep self-denial.

Unselfishness can reveal self-centeredness. It focuses on me; me giving up something in order to be unselfish. Real love (charity) focuses on the other person, helping them find joy. C. S. Lewis once said, “If people knew how much ill-feeling Unselfishness occasions, it would not be so often recommended from the pulpit” (Screwtape Letters).

It’s easy to love someone when they’re fantastic

Before the wedding, every future spouse seems wonderful. We say we’d climb the highest mountain and swim the deepest ocean. But when their imperfections appear, we climb no more mountains. We don’t even want to rise and do the dishes.

We marry—in part—because of how good the other person will make us feel. We look forward to a life filled with their love for us.

Jesus had no such delusions. He didn’t love us because we were lovely. We became lovely only as he loved us. Before proposing to us, Jesus knew us to the bottom. Anything ugly was laid naked. Yet he did more than climb the highest mountain; he swam the depths of the fires of hell to woo us, to marry us, and to make us lovely.

If God loved us because we were amazing, … frankly, so what! But if he loves us even as we disappoint, that’s real love. Sometimes I wonder if too many Christians want to start a relationship with God by feeling they are amazing: “I’m a good person,” or “I’m worthy of God’s love.” But that offers no security. Someday we’ll fail at something.

Don’t we get it? God’s love was proven when he loved us before we were so fantastic. We can’t disappoint him; he knew everything about us from the start. And loves us still.

So what happened to our vacation?

I would like to tell you that in those moments of anniversary hell, I thought about Christ’s great spousal love for me and it changed me. But I didn’t. I thought more of my sore feet.

After two days, however, Carla and I talked. We shared our disappointments and frustrations. Somehow, in hearing each other’s pain, something shifted in both of us. Somehow we both began to want a great vacation for the other person. There was a miracle in Rome!

The next twelve days were delightful. I think it was simply God’s grace.


P.S. When Carla and I got to Rome, I found I had forgotten to bring my camera. So I asked dozens of people where to buy one, and no one could help. I wondered if there was a single camera store in all of Rome. It turns out “Camera” is Italian for Hotel Room … just what a romantic couple on their anniversary should be looking for.

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What do YOU think?

8 thoughts on “The Self-Centeredness of Unselfishness

  1. Sam, I am always encouraged by teh writing on your blog. Today, I needed to hear this truth and this wisdom


  2. Sam, I can somewhat relate. My wife and I tried to enjoy a vacation to Hawaii on our 31at anniversary that was planned a year in advance. What we didn’t plan was having a knee reconstruction surgery to replace a failed knee replacement. 3 years prior. The surgery was 3 weeks prior to our trip. Taking along a loaned electric knee scooter helped tremendously getting around. Not being able to swim for her and giving.up all my favorite snorkel spots due to limited mobility on her part were huge compromises. We traveled with good friends who demonstrated wonderful compassion and grace for our predicament.

    It was not what we planned for our vacation,however we were grateful for what learned about what is really important. A relationship that endures in all situations.