Who Comes First?

I seem to be rather focused on the subject of selfishness lately . . . or more precisely on what appears to be its opposite: the desire to please or serve others. I often joke about having a Pisces predisposition for a savior or a martyr complex, but I suspect that Pisces has no monopoly on the compulsion to put others first.

Growing up as a preacher’s son, I had service to others imprinted on me from within and without, so it is hard to say if it was a notion that was natured or nurtured. I only know that it took and that it has had its hooks in me for as long as I can remember.

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” most people might offer. And my reply would be, yes, I do, because that has often been how it’s felt—like a burden, not a blessing . . . like an obligation, not a privilege . . . like a cross to bear, not a passion.

And so to the Shower Team I took the somewhat heavy-hearted question: What about selflessness versus selfishness? Who comes first?

Judging by the sheer number of participants this has to be one of the most popular games that you play as you inhabit your lives. You learn the value of pleasing others so early on that it doesn’t feel learned. You learn that rewards follow your “good” behavior and punishment follows your “bad” behavior. You learn that Mother’s smile or Father’s pat on the back is a worthy goal. You learn that your value is constantly measured in terms of the value that you add to another . . . and another . . . and another.

Pretty much every rule book that’s ever been written or any religion that’s been dreamed up and spread around or any established order of any sort has affirmed and reaffirmed the importance of this notion that your existence matters only to the extent that it
matters to someone else. Consequently you learn to believe that your worth must be reflected back to you from some external source. You must see that you matter by seeing how you matter to someone else. You must see it in their eyes or you must hear it in their voice or you must feel it in the way that they respond to you. And if that all fails, you must see to it that you obediently please the God who will surely get you if you don’t do the “right thing” and put your own desires at the bottom of your To Do list.

There is an enormous and powerful system and tradition of thought built up around this idea that your life can only have meaning or value if it is judged meaningful or valuable by those observing you. And so you all set out to prove yourselves. You work as hard as you can—most of you anyway—to meet this criteria. And whether you meet it or not, in your eyes or others’, you use it as your standard and more important—as your reward or punishment. If others are pleased, then you are a success. If others are displeased, then you have failed.

You rarely stop to question the logic in this way of being, much less to question your real motives. If you did, you would likely see that, first of all, it makes no sense whatsoever because it is an impossible task. You are doomed to fail because there is no way no how that you could ever possibly please all the ones who would need to be pleased in order for you to truly justify your existence in this manner. There is and always will be someone else out there waiting for you to prove yourself. Even if you manage to get your parents and your mate and your close friends lined up behind you, there are the neighbors and the boss and coworkers and the church and whichever political party has the right idea and then there is this cause and that organization and these poor sick and
downtrodden and that underprivileged nation . . . And so then you tell yourself, “Well okay I’ll never get around to pleasing all of them so I’ll just devote myself to pleasing or saving or feeding or clothing or taking care of in one way or another one poor soul at a time, because if I don’t do that, what possible purpose will my little life serve?”

And then even in devoting yourself to that cause which you believe must be noble, you miss the point of what you’re really up to. You completely miss the reality of why you ultimately do all these good deeds and why you so diligently go about trying to make everyone else happy: It makes you feel good.

It is the utterly selfish underbelly of the altruistic, caring, compassionate, self-sacrificing creature that you are. You do for others because it makes you feel good to do so. There is no such thing as an unselfish act and it doesn’t matter how loudly the world applauds and comments upon and rewards your acts of service . . . the fact remains that you did them because on some level and in some way it felt good to do them. Even if you didn’t want to do them and did them anyway, you felt better than you would have had you not done them at all.

The point of all this is not that it is wrong or bad to care about others or to want their health and happiness. Nor is it wrong or bad for you to devote yourself to activities that benefit others. What trips you up over and over is the way that you use the notion of service or of pleasing others as a smokescreen or a way of denying yourself a truth that would truly serve you if you let it—that how you feel about you is what really matters. You could fill up every hour of every day of your current existence with good deeds. You could labor to bring smiles and nods of approval to every man, woman, and child you meet—and if you have not understood that it was all for you, then you missed the point—and you have deprived yourself of the real joy available to you by recognizing that it is not the loving service that you manufacture for others that determines your ultimate worth, but the love that you allow yourself to receive and feel for yourself and others.

Even the prophets you use to reinforce your often mistaken ideas about service and compassion and pleasing others, spoke a truth in varying ways that you often overlook: that loving yourself is where any worthy loving starts. If you are truly loving yourself first, then you must also be pleasing yourself first—and in some way recognizing that you will never please enough others to truly prove yourself worthy. Pleasing yourself is the only way to get that job
done.

So you can continue to run yourself ragged in your efforts to make as many others as possible happy and well. You can live for the thunderous applause of those who will, of course, commend you for putting them—and them—and them—and them—ahead of yourself. But don’t kid yourself about the real reason you’re going about it this way. We would also encourage you not to kid yourself about it being the only or best way of bringing your life into joyful fulfillment. The fact is that the only one you ever really, truly are trying to please is you, no matter how loudly you may protest that to yourself.

For the record, We thinks thou doth protest too much. If trying to please as many others as you possibly can truly, genuinely, deeply, deliciously pleases you, then We say knock yourself out. Otherwise . . . you’re just knocking yourself out— doing all the work for some of the glory but far too little of the fun.


Nothing like a little paraphrased Shakespeare to lighten a heavy topic. Somehow the drama—and comedy—of all this makes it an even more fitting denouement. I know that putting me first is a process that still goes so against the grain of what I typically tell myself about what I’m doing and why . . . I have a feeling it’s going to take some practice.

But for now, I/We doth feel comfortably free of protest, and I/We art for the moment, selfishly complete.

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About Dan

Published novelist, poety, essayist, photographer and college educator. Visit me at www.firstadream.com.

Posted on April 23, 2007, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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