On ‘selfishness’

The feminist part of my brain fights with the Christian part of my brain on the topic of selfishness, to some extent. A post over on Sara Speaking got me trying to conceptualize a lot of it. Obviously, she’s right that the term selfish gets thrown around in highly gendered ways. Christian servitude in the linked article is, as per usual, assigned disproportionately to women. In general, secular culture, women are called selfish for choosing (sometimes with limited option) to work outside the home, to have abortions, even to go so far as to just (*gasp*) not bother to have children*.

But we also have a culture heavily steeped in pop psychology, which has been getting more and more self-driven. “I need to be selfish sometimes” is now a stock phrase, and advertisers encouraging overindulgence are picking up on it, with “You deserve it” and “Pamper yourself” messages. That kind of advertising often explicitly passes as faux-feminism, feeding right back into the loop that we feminists are just at the extreme end of the selfish bitch continuum.

As I said in the comments on Sara’s post, I hesitate to participate in the reclamation of the word ‘selfish’, because I think it’s still useful as a negative term. I think God calls us to aim for constant thought of others before self, and to question whether our actions are in service to self or to his will on Earth. All of us, whether male or female, in equal proportion, though in general I try to think of it only in terms of how it applies to me as an individual. My spiritual health improves in direct relation to how much I can stop worrying about my own needs, even when I’m suffering or feeling in need. I’m reading Philip Yancey’s book Where is God When It Hurts?, and one of the themes is that pain can often be eased, both in the immediate and in the cosmic scheme, by thinking of how whatever we’re feeling can be used to lessen the pain of others, to drive us to action against the brokenness of this groaning planet. This puts me at immediate odds with feminist principles in terms of in terms of how I deal with my personal life.

We need to be able to point out selfishness, as distinct from basic self-care, from coping, from refusal to be a doormat, from living. We’ve completely lost sight of the term. Staying childless because that’s what’s best for a woman as an individual, that’s the lifestyle in which she’s best able to contribute to the world? Not selfish. Telling young women they’re being selfish for not having children when damned if it has anything do do with you except that it makes you feel better about your own choices? Pretty freaking selfish.

But attempts to reclaim the word ‘selfish’ seem to me to be feeding into the dominant culture’s materially-driven paradigm, and we’ve never struck a balance that gives women permission conceptually just to not be social doormats. So we need a new word for what we are ‘allowed’ to be that is not ‘doormat’, but that is also not ‘selfish’. I’m toying with ‘self-full’, as distinct from ‘self-less’, because I think that what women are being told to do (both in Christian and secular circles) is not acknowledge that they have autonomous selves, hence the pithy ‘Feminism: the radical notion that women are people’. I’m still not happy with it for my own spiritual self-challenging, but I’m content to let other people work on being self-full rather than either self-less or selfish.

Someone linked a bunch of reading in that post at Sara Speaking, much of which probably says everything I’m saying here, and more, only better and with fewer words, but I haven’t had a chance to read any of it just yet.

*A middle-aged male relative of mine referred to two sisters as having been ‘selfish’ for exactly that latter decision, since their mother is such a nurturer and would have loved grandchildren. I’m still reeling from the ‘wtf?’ on that one.


3 thoughts on “On ‘selfishness’

  1. BetaCandy says:

    This is very nicely said. We do need a common vocabulary for… I dunno, self-concerned? It was actually in church that I heard a modern day parable about a woman who took care of everyone else, spiritually and in all other ways, but neglected herself. When she died, God judged her for her self-neglect. (A bit harsh, perhaps, but it’s just a parable, not a documentary, hehe.)

    Buddhists I’ve known tell me they believe it’s just as wrong to neglect/abuse yourself as it is to neglect/abuse others. Makes sense, really.

    I struggle with this a lot because I believe I should take care of myself first (I’m no one else’s responsibility, after all), and then I’ll actually have more to give to others. Unfortunately, I’m painfully empathetic, so when people want something from me, it’s like an assault on my nerves right there. Doing what they want is the only way to feel okay again. But there’s always something else they want, and it’s never my turn.

    I know there’s a way past all that, I just haven’t found it yet.

  2. purtek says:

    I like the way you point out that taking care of oneself is largely unselfish in order to avoid becoming someone else’s responsibility.

    There’s something that needs to be said here about the difference between giving in order to help someone out of love, which (with the loaves and the fishes) takes less effort and grows into something mutually beneficial, and giving in order to appease a demand/want/assault on nerves, which, as you say, just becomes cyclical. I’ve been called selfish for refusing to give in to the desires and expectations that others place on me, when often, in those cases, giving what they ask for doesn’t actually help them at all, and I’ve exhausted myself to no good end. That’s certainly not the Christian call to effective service to God, nor is it lined up with the Buddhist concept of ‘skillful means’.

    I think there are lots of ways past it; what frustrates me is that, as usual, those paths don’t have labels. 🙂

  3. […] 23, 2008 · No Comments A few months ago, I wrote a bit about selfishness and included an anecdote about a relative who said it was “selfish” for two women we […]

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