I seem to have a bit of a recurring theme of defending qualities mostly thought of as undesirable. Today’s topic, selfishness, is definitely not a favoured quality but I think it has its good points and gets a very bad press.
The first time I should have thought about this was at senior school. There was an assembly at which the headmaster was holding forth on the importance of our upcoming exams and said to us all “Be selfish in your studies“. I was wrong-footed by this utterance and I do not think I was alone in that. I doubt that there are many cases where children are told to be selfish and assemblies at catholic schools in particular do not typically include themes like that. At the time I completely missed his point; it was too alien a concept for me that there could be an up-side to selfishness. In my life up to that point “selfish” had always come with “don’t be” attached – how could there be anything positive about it?
I wasn’t able to understand the message at the time but it has stayed with me for 15 years or so until I was ready to see what the headmaster was getting at; sometimes you need to put yourself first. That’s the only time I can remember anyone ever giving me that message as a child, or certainly the first time someone in authority did so. Perhaps it seems strange to you that it was such an incomprehensible idea to me but it has taken me all my life so far to understand that and I’m still exploring the concept, hence this post.
The idea of selfishness potentially being a force for good is a new one for me but I think it’s one I’ve had stewing for a while. The thought-stew was stirred recently when I watched an episode of House, (season 4) in which Amber and Wilson buy a mattress. She lets him chose. When he interprets that as meaning he should get the one she wants, Amber tells him off. In his past relationships he always did what the woman wanted, always putting her first, and gradually came to resent the women because of it. Amber tells him to look after himself and she’ll look after herself so they can have a relationship without resentment. While I would never be as independent, or indeed as selfish, as Amber (not for nothing is she nicknamed Cut-throat Bitch) I found it really refreshing to see it stated that selflessness is not the be-all-and-end-all of relationships and can in fact have a damaging effect. I want to be in a relationship where we are considerate of each other but not to the point that it damages us or our relationship.
One of the negative points of selflessness is that you spend your time imagining that you’re pleasing the other person, at times to the point that you drive them up the wall by not listening to what they’re saying.
If you spend all your time trying to avoid being selfish and as a consequence never put yourself first, you are not likely to be a very happy person. By not fulfilling your needs you are making yourself a less pleasant person to be around because if you aren’t doing well yourself you cannot be a very good friend. So, ultimately, putting others first all the time will have the same result as if you just disregarded their feelings in the first place! Therefore, to distill my argument to the simplest expression: