The Cracker Barrel: The Art of Selfishness

A review of thoughts presented by David Seabury.

Photo illustration /

Many years ago a man named David Seabury published a book titled "The Art of Selfishness."

The book ran through several editions, reached the top of the New York Times list of bestsellers, and remained in print for 11 years afterward.

The thesis of Dr. Seabury’s book ran counter to the prevailing ideas of his time, and probably runs counter to some of ours. But his was no idle speculation.

As a therapist whose practice brought him into close contact with thousands of troubled people, his ideas were forged in the fires of tormented hearts, and hammered to shape on the anvil of the real world.

Seabury’s central contention is that sacrifice in the name of unselfishness invariably creates more harm than good.


Why? Because “sacrifice” implies the compromise or violation of the sacrificer, and blunts or softens the hard edges of reality for the sacrificee (and hence keeps him or her from learning how to cope with life).

Read more of 'The Cracker Barrel'

For many of us, having grown up with the notion that the highest form of caring is in fact self-sacrifice, Seabury’s words don’t sit well. Didn’t Jesus himself say that the greatest expression of love is to lay down your life that another might live?

Yes, he did, says Seabury. And yes, he was no doubt right.

But most situations aren’t like this. In most situations the objective is not to avoid death, but to magnify and enrich life. The goal is to live life, not to sacrifice it.

Seabury states his Basic Law of Being thus: Never compromise yourself.

No matter what the situation, or how pressing the problem, never give up your integrity. When you do, you make more sorrow than when you don’t, hurting everyone in the end.

As a corollary of this basic law, he adds what he calls the Magic Formula of Human Relations: No ego satisfactions.

Never exalt yourself and vent your emotions to inflate your mind or magnify your pride. To win at life you must obey life.


In mutual aid lies the key to happiness.

How does this translate to everyday life?

First, you cultivate a relentless honesty regarding who you are, what you feel, and what you truly value.

Craig Nagel color.jpg
Craig Nagel, Columnist

Having established, quite consciously, a clear sense of yourself, you take care never to compromise that self. You don’t squander it on others under the misguided belief that they can’t take care of themselves, that they can’t face truth or unpleasantness, that you must protect them and give them everything they ask.

But hand in hand with this commitment to yourself, you refuse to indulge your ego in the temptations of self-pity or jealousy or bitterness or self-righteousness.

You live as objectively as possible, looking troubles in the face and dealing with them as forthrightly and vigorously as you are able.

And you celebrate the wondrous gift of life as often and as vitally as you can, with laughter and curiosity and gladness. You think of life as an adventure, and you run to greet it, unafraid.

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at

Opinion by Craig Nagel
What To Read Next
Get Local


Must Reads