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.