Saturday, October 23, 2010

How Selfish

When the flight attendants do the bit about putting on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you, it has always been clear why they would need to tell me that so directly.  It's natural for me to put aside my own wants or needs for other people.  So if a situation demands that I take care of myself first, it seems like the exception.  I'm realizing how much more that could represent the norm, how satisfying it can be to focus my attention on my own personal vision.

In the past, I've written about my fear that, underneath it all, I'm a selfish person.  This fear has been with me for awhile, but over the last couple of years, I have focused more purposefully on ridding myself of it.  The problem has been that so much of what I am truly passionate about was taking a backseat to other noble endeavors, and to concentrate more fully on my own dreams and personal vision seemed selfish.  It's hard to get rid of a belief when one is regularly creating new evidence for it.  At the same time, I frequently allow my own goals to be less important than the goals of others, probably because I don't want to appear selfish to myself or anybody else.   

Not being selfish has been the underlying cause of many issues for me.  Most of the situations that I found dissatisfying as an adult have resulted from me working to improve the processes or culture of a place when my ideas were not universally valued.  Instead of focusing my efforts on what mattered most to me, I sublimated what I saw as selfish goals for the sake of a greater good.  I turned my creative abilities and strategic skill toward external organizations rather than using them for my own selfish endeavors, and in so doing, I created a no-win situation for myself.

Now, I believe that there is a difference between being selfish and being self-absorbed.  I believe that one can be both selfish and compassionate.  In fact, I believe that one must be selfish in order to see a personal vision through to fruition.  Creating a life with deep personal meaning often requires guarding time against distractions and choosing relationships that are supportive over those that are toxic.  One may call it self-awareness to soften the blow, but it has certainly felt like selfishness to me.  The truth is, there has never been anything wrong with being selfish, aside from my own personal judgment against myself.

The big lie was not that I am a selfish person.  The big lie is that it is wrong to be selfish.  If I focus on the things I most want in my life, I'll still be creating something that has a broader impact, but it won't be at the expense of my own satisfaction.  Giving myself permission to be selfish without imposing anything on anyone else is one of the most freeing things I have ever done.  I am still interested in being of service to other people, and I know that I will be.  But it makes sense to secure my own oxygen mask and breathe for myself before I help the people around me.

1 comment:

  1. I think you are misusing the word "selfish". Merriam-Webster explains selfish as "concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others"

    What you are describing is self-interest, not selfishness. If no one cared about their own interests, the world would be separated into those people that served and those that were served, neither group venturing into the other's territory.

    I don't think I have articulated this as well as I could have, but in summary:

    selfish = bad
    self-interest = good.