The other night I was out with an old friend and the topic of selfishness came up. We both had a few drinks and were probably less than coherent or measured. By the time we were through I'm sure we had wandered in circles around the topic without actually landing on it.
While our conversation revolved around specific issues involving people and occasions that I'll keep out of here, at one point he said, "I think that you are pretty out for yourself Amy but at least I know where you're coming from. You're honest about it."
At first I didn't think that this bothered me but as I've played the conversation over and over in my head, I realize that it does. And not because I essentially disagree with what he said, rather because of the implications he failed to consider when he said it. With very few exceptions, I believe that people are looking out for themselves and I don't think this is a bad thing. Yes, there are the Donald Trumps of the world who arguably aren't giving a lot back, but the average person who is making decisions with their own happiness and fulfillment at heart is often also doing a lot of good. I've yet to meet a martyr I like. But maybe I haven't been spending time in the right circles...
In the history of the Western world throughout most of recorded time, women in particular have not been allowed to look out for themselves, or their best interests. First they were the property of their fathers and then their husbands - their value little more (and in some cases probably less) than that of a farm animal. Throughout the 1900's this started to shift, but very slowly and slightly. It is still hard for women to get access to reliable contraceptives in certain parts of North America, never mind their ability to make safe decisions to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Our ability to be selfish about our own bodies is always up for question and debate.
My point is that I think as women we are still often made to feel guilty for choosing things that are right for us. For not putting others first at all times, which biologically we are probably at least partially conditioned to do from an evolutionary perspective as the primary, long-term caregivers of babies and children, we are still in some ways punished. The conversation my friend and I had was not about women or patriarchy or anything but the few examples that were brought up were examples of women being 'selfish', mainly due to thinking about their own happiness over that of a long term partner or husband.
It is true that I have made decisions in my life (like moving to the UK, ending relationships where I wasn't happy, choosing to travel) that were probably mostly if not completely for me. But aren't these the kinds of decisions that men have been allowed to make for centuries? Aren't these the fruits of making your way in the world? Isn't this what we've been talking about and fighting about for decades? Being self-directed does not mean not caring about the feelings of others, it just means that when considering which way to go, individuals need to at least consider what is best for them alongside the needs and desires of everyone else. I genuinely believe that people give more good to the world when they are happy and fulfilled then when they are feeling miserable and stuck.
And yet this old friend I was talking to, who in most things is very illuminated - a solid and good human being - still wants me to feel guilty for being 'out for myself' alongside other equally 'selfish' women who have dared to make their own (sometimes very unpopular) decisions.
Maybe he needs to get honest with himself. If he did, I wonder whether he would find that most of his decisions are sacrificial or are simply and innately the best thing for him?
(Image via Cupcake)