Thursday, November 12, 2009

What is selfish?

Other than the obvious, eating all the chocolate cake leftovers without asking if I wanted some (knowing I would, and therefore you'd have less), what is selfish?

I recently had cause to think about this question after interviewing a woman who described her intense commitment to training as "self-serving." Katie does ironman races, and has done the Marathon des Sables (6 days of endurance running with the Sahara desert thrown in). Her first ironman was a "rebound relationship" (my words) after a bad break-up, so in a sense it was, as she puts it, "all about" her. But does that make it selfish?


Two months before Katie graduated from high school, her mother died of cancer. Her mother had been ill for some years already, overshadowing most of Katie's teen years (as if those years aren't difficult enough for most of us). She remembers on one occasion, driving with her parents to look at a burial plot for her mother. That doesn't leave a lot of room for being "adolescent." For years after her mother's death, Katie charged ahead carrying out the plan her mother had laid out for her before she died. She rushed off to summer semester at Penn State only months after her mother died. When she would come home at holidays, she envied her younger sister and brother their free spirited playing in the yard. She had missed out on that. For Katie, her commitment to sports is a source of joy, it is play, it is a way to get back what she feels she lost in her adolescence. Is that selfish? No. You probably also thought that the question was easier to answer this time around. Now I have all the facts about Katie, so in her case it's not selfish. Oh? You have all the facts about other people to judge them? More understanding, less judging, as Katie said to me.

For her, sports is about putting herself in positions where she is learning new things about herself, her skills, and what she's capable of. That's not selfish, whatever your history and background. In fact, I'd go further still. It's a pretty good way to live, in fact. Not the only way, but one way.

Heidi is a social worker in the criminal justice system. In other words, her job is all about giving, a lot, all the time, every day. We talked about selfishness. As she says, taking care of herself is non-negotiable. She no good to anyone, if she hasn't been good to herself. How could she even begin to help others be happy and whole, if she isn't. For her, getting out for her run or exercise of some kind is like sleep, without it she's useless to other people. "You need to know yourself and your own needs," she says. "That's not selfish, it's self-awareness."

So what is selfishness? In one of those coincidences, which seem a shade too coincidental to be so, I was reviewing a manuscript this week (one of the hats I wear is freelance editor) for a book that I would describe as "why, what, how"--why are we here? and now that we're here, what's the best way to live? and how do we know? One of the chapters I read was titled, "On Selfishness." As the author pointed out, we have turned "selfish" into a derogatory word, as if to take care of ourselves, even to put ourselves first, is a bad thing. But if you really think about it, that can't be right. The airlines have always had it right. Put on your own oxygen mask first. As the authors say (her name, by the way, is Catherine Collautt, you haven't heard of her...yet), when we are empty, we have nothing to give. When we are full ourselves, we will find that we have a deep well of love, energy, and time to give to others, those close to us, and even strangers. That's Heidi's point. Pursuing things for our "self" is not selfish, unless in doing so we hurt someone else (i.e. I want to blow my cigarette smoke in your face).

What fills you up? It might be sports, or books, or movies, or naps, or cooking, or gardening, or, or, or...Filled up. Fulfilled. Only then are we in a position to give, to help others be fulfilled; and what better "why" is there for being here?