Letting Go of Selfishness (With Help from the Rolling Stones)

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These guys know a bit about addiction, so it couldn’t hurt to heed their wisdom. (Everett Collection/Shutterstock)
These guys know a bit about addiction, so it couldn’t hurt to heed their wisdom. (Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

There is a famous Rolling Stones song from 1969 entitled “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Regardless of your age, you’ve likely heard the song at one point or another. The basic point is evident in the premise, which is that we often yearn for certain things that are unattainable to us. But as the chorus reassures us, this does not mean that we can’t get what we need. Unfortunately, selfishness does not always go away the moment we hear a catchy tune. It takes a bit more work than that.

This is especially true of addicts and alcoholics, whose disease is essentially built around selfishness. We are compelled to drink and abuse drugs regardless of the consequences our actions may have on those around us. We want what we want, both how and when we want it. These three aspects of selfishness are, to some extent, present in the aforementioned Stones classic. We’ll discuss them in detail below, as well as how to release ourselves from the chains of selfishness that bind us to our addict behaviors.

What We Want

It’s not unusual to want great things, but there are some things we just can’t have. (Iuliia Gatcko/Shutterstock)
It’s not unusual to want great things, but there are some things we just can’t have. (Iuliia Gatcko/Shutterstock)

The elements of selfishness are present in the song from the outset. At least, they might be. It largely depends upon your interpretation of the first verse.

I saw her today at the reception

A glass of wine in her hand

I knew she was gonna meet her connection

At her feet was a footloose man

While the lyrics do not provide much actual information regarding the woman with the wine and the footloose man before her, there is one interpretation which suggests that Mick Jagger is at an ex-lover’s wedding reception and watching her with her groom. He wants to be with her, but launches into the chorus as he lets go of his selfishness and accepts that she is happy with another man.

Of course, there is another interpretation based on a slightly altered version of the first verse, appearing toward the end of the song:

I saw her today at the reception

In her glass was a bleeding man

She was practiced at the art of deception

Well I could tell by her blood-stained hands

An interpretation of this verse suggests that Jagger was the footloose man at the beginning of the song, but that he has learned the alluring woman at the beginning is not all he believed her to be. While he may have wanted a union with her at first, he has since learned that one cannot rely on appearances. Looks can be deceiving, as can our perceptions of people when we are full of wine and spirits yet lacking inhibitions.

Both of these interpretations may be valuable to the addict or alcoholic who is attempting to overcome their selfishness. In the first interpretation, the narrator of the song learns to overcome his selfishness by accepting that what he wants may not be good for another person about whom he cares quite deeply. In the second interpretation, he overcomes his selfishness by learning that fulfilling his primal desires is not as important as learning the life lessons that he so desperately needs.

These are both lessons that we need to learn as addicts and alcoholics. Our selfishness has often kept us from thinking of what was best for others, and it has similarly kept us from thinking of what was best for ourselves. What we want may go against the needs of those about whom we care the most, just as it may keep us from acquiring the knowledge and skills we require in order to lead sober lives of serenity and contentment. If letting go of our selfishness can help us to improve our lives, as well as those of the ones we love, then there is no excuse to continue with our selfish behavior.

Of course, this lesson is often lost on us while we are still in active addiction. Even in recovery, we may return to selfishness quite frequently. Upon doing so, we will discover that what we want is not the only issue of our focus. There are times we do get what we want, yet we are unhappy with the results. This is because, in addition to wanting more than is owed to us, we often have a tendency to want things a specific way.

How We Want It

This cat wanted food, yet seems to be under the impression that its owner has done something wrong. Cats are the pure embodiment of selfishness. (Liukov/Shutterstock)
This cat wanted food, yet seems to be under the impression that its owner has done something wrong. Cats are the pure embodiment of selfishness. (Liukov/Shutterstock)

Again, we may return to the Rolling Stones for a classic example of someone wanting their way above all else.

I went down to the Chelsea drugstore

To get your prescription filled

I was standing in line with Mr. Jimmy

And man, did he look pretty ill

We decided that we would have a soda

My favorite flavor, cherry red

I sung my song to Mr. Jimmy

Yeah, and he said one word to me, and that was “dead”

These lyrics may sound confusing to some, but the explanation supposedly lies in the backstory of the song. A man named Jimmy Hutmaker claimed to be the one who inspired the song, after he ran into Mick Jagger at a drugstore in Excelsior, Minnesota. Hutmaker—whose nickname about town was Mister Jimmy—complained about receiving a regular Coca-Cola when he had ordered a Cherry Coke. It was after making this complaint that Jimmy, who was known for mumbling to himself, responded to his own complaint with the words “You can’t always get what you want.”

Many do not believe this story, claiming that Hutmaker was simply making it up to exploit some similarities between himself and the “Mr. Jimmy” mentioned in the song. That said, there are still some things that could be learned from this story. Many of us tend to overreact to the minor negative stimuli, taking all too seriously the notion that any failure to deliver what we want, how we want it, is a personal affront to us.

Remember that the running theme here is that we’ll often get what we need. We may not get our Cherry Coke. But we may still be able to acquire sustenance, possibly of the sort that provides decent nutrition. Mister Jimmy was still able to quench his thirst, simply not in the specific way he wanted. And while he may have specifically wanted a Cherry Coke, did he not order one because he was thirsty? He got what he needed and, on some level, what he wanted. They simply fudged one detail, and he couldn’t help but complain. He had the self-awareness to correct himself, but many of us do not when selfishness drives us to anger.

Just because we do not get what we want does not entitle us to act like children about the matter. But in our stubbornness and in our selfishness, we will find something to complain about whether we get what we want or not. Sometimes, the issue is that we are unhappy with some other aspect of our lives that we cannot control. As such, we attempt to gain control over other things. But this is not the road to happiness, and it quite frequently leads to nothing but more drinking. Especially when our selfishness has grown to the point at which we get what we want and how we want it, but we find ourselves impatient and demanding in regard to the time frame.

When We Want It

Christmas is long over, but this selfish kid won’t let you take down the decorations until he gets his Red Ryder BB Gun. (Alexander Raths/Shutterstock)
Christmas is long over, but this selfish kid won’t let you take down the decorations until he gets his Red Ryder BB Gun. (Alexander Raths/Shutterstock)

This can be one of the bigger aspects of selfishness to present itself in our daily lives. We may know full well that we are going to get what we want and how we want it. We may know that good things are coming to us in due time. The sticking point for many addicts and alcoholics, however, is that we do not always know how long this time will be. We would give anything for a crystal ball that would allow us to see into our futures. Without such mystical power, we are left wondering. Unable to take things one day at a time, we will give up hope and begin drinking and using drugs in the hopes that we can simply black out until our time has arrived. Unfortunately, doing so will sometimes have grave consequences, to the extent that getting what we want—or what we need, for that matter—becomes a sheer improbability.

The Rolling Stones did not necessarily encapsulate this notion in the song currently under discussion, but impatience does play a role in one particular verse:

And I went down to the demonstration

To get my fair share of abuse

Singing, “We’re going to vent our frustration

If we don’t, we’re going to blow a 50-amp fuse”

There’s not too much here that really requires anything in the way of lyrical analysis. The entire song was essentially a love letter to the end of the 1960s, focusing on such issues as love, drugs, and politics. This would be the political verse, and it mirrors the frustration of Sixties flower children who wanted change and didn’t want to wait for it. The 1960s were a time in which many people were more than willing to speak their minds, sometimes quite belligerently. And in many cases, it worked. People all across the nation—across the world, even—voiced their frustrations with the state of society and were able to enact great change as a result.

The problem is that addicts and alcoholics don’t really do that. We have the belligerent part down in many cases, but we don’t always articulate the source of our frustrations too well. We have trouble opening up to people in our emotional support network, and we bottle our feelings up until they explode in a most unhealthy fashion.

We must strive for a level of mindfulness that will enable us to see when we are following this unhealthy course of behavior. It is important for us to recognize our unhealthy thought patterns before they get the best of us. More importantly, we must talk to others about how we are feeling. It is perfectly natural to be unhappy with the way things are today, and to want a brighter future for ourselves tomorrow. Millions of non-addicts across the world are dealing with this struggle every day. But if we try to go it alone, we will likely relapse at some point. We have to get our thoughts out there before they eat us alive. And when we do, we will often find a sense of peace within ourselves that makes patience a little easier.

Patience is a virtue. It’s one that requires a little work, but you can get there if you try. And in the interest of getting what you need, this inner peace will serve you well. For if you can learn to be happy without the things you want, then you will be beside yourself with unbridled ecstasy when those things finally start coming to you. Simply don’t have too many expectations that they will, or you may set yourself up for disappointment. Show a little gratitude, and be thankful for what you have today.

In Conclusion

Now that the Rolling Stones have helped us learn a bit about our own selfishness, let’s take a moment to honor them by listening to one of their classic hits. (360b/Shutterstock)
Now that the Rolling Stones have helped us learn a bit about our own selfishness, let’s take a moment to honor them by listening to one of their classic hits. (360b/Shutterstock)

You already know the words, but let’s just remind you real quick.

You can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometimes

You just might find

You get what you need

The simplicity of these lyrics only serves to underscore the depth of a much greater message. A message that we must learn the value of acceptance. If we set too many great expectations for ourselves, then our minds will become a bleak house of emotion until we wind up Scrooged. And yes, we’ve temporarily given up Stones references in favor of Dickens. Based on his writing, the man knew a little something about unhappy people dealing with selfishness.

Rather than wrap up with a lengthy conclusion, we’d like to leave you with the song that has become the basis of our exploration into the main facets of selfishness. We hope that you will enjoy it as you attempt to learn how to overcome such character defects as selfishness, control issues, and impatience. Continue working on these personal flaws, and we assure you—you’ll get what you need.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7S94ohyErSw]

Banner image: catwalker/Shutterstock

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