Selfish is one thing my mother never was. Beyond belief, she was not selfish! I never saw her put herself first, never heard her say, “This is what I want” or “What about me?” Everything revolved first around our father, and then around us, the kids, from where we lived to how each hour of the day was spent.
God, she was hard to live up to! When I first got married, at twenty-two, I didn’t even realize that my stomach ulcer was caused, in part, by trying to balance my emotional, rebellious nature with the image of total selflessness I had grown up with. Any selfish act, which included the merely self-oriented, caused waves of guilt to ripple through me like a brackish tide. The reason I even married in the first place was to please virtually everyone but myself.
My mother, though, married a man she was devoted to in every sense, whose name she would wear for the rest of her life. When I was a child, women weren’t keeping their maiden names after marriage, but, even so, I was struck by how insistent she always was that she be known as “Mrs. William So-And-So” rather than “Nettie So-And-So.” She remained “Mrs. William . . .” even more insistently after my father died.
After he was gone and the kids grown, she could have bought some things for herself, traveled, done something “selfish” with an entirely clear conscience. But she didn’t, she wouldn’t, she couldn’t. I tried to urge her into some little extravagance, a purchase beyond the same little discreet dresses, beyond the basics, something frivolous or luxurious just for herself. She just couldn’t do it.
Then one day some years ago, someone in her apartment building found her wandering tearfully in the halls, having totally forgotten where she lived or what her name was. My brother called; I came to find her incoherent, cheerful, unable to distinguish the telephone from a plate of food. She was comfortably ensconced in my brother’s house while we tried to figure out what to do. She had to be hand-fed, bathed, dressed, taken to the bathroom. Eventually she went to a local “Healthcare Center,” which was, thank God, a well-staffed, attractive facility, nestled into the Minnesota maples.
As soon as she moved there, she stopped walking. Doctors could find no organic reason for this: she just stopped. I always found it strange that her basic personality remained intact, while the rest of her soared into the ozone. She remained cheerful, smiling, everyone’s favorite as she had been before, not depressed or ill, but to all intents and purposes, totally disassociated from reality.
Many years later, at a very ripe old age, she is still there, being fed, bathed, dressed, wheeled, and attended to totally. Now and then I can’t help but wonder: is this how far she had to go in order to be selfish?
Renais Jeanne Hill
Joshua Tree, California
When I was a kid, selfishness was one of the things my mother wanted to be sure her kids didn’t catch. She told us with great animation the cautionary tale of her Pittsburgh cousin, known in our family as Grandmother Nelson. Grandmother Nelson — a bustling sort of woman, full-bodied but short, with red hair — raised eleven sons and one daughter in a palatial home in the Shadyside area of Pittsburgh.
I remember staying overnight at her house once with my mother. I remember sleeping on purple satin sheets, seeing a pair of cheerfully warbling yellow canaries in the solarium, and being driven to the conservatory on Sunday afternoon by a very handsome, young chauffeur to see a fall flower show. I remember standing in her upstairs hall, which was carpeted with a plush rose wool. It was a long hall, with twelve doors, and bells at each end. Grandmother Nelson had run her family like a military academy, with bells to mark the changing from one activity to the next. I remember looking for the spot where her son Sam must have cowered in tears years before.
My mother had told us the story about Sam. Someone had given him a large box of chocolates for his birthday — the kind of box where each piece is in an individual, brown, pleated wrapper, with a chart of the chocolates on the cover, so that you can tell in advance which one has a mint cream inside, or butter brittle, or almond paste, or a Brazil nut.
Sam refused to share his chocolates. With eleven others to share with, who could blame him? But his mother, Grandmother Nelson, was horrified by his selfishness. She marched him upstairs to the hall, where she stood over him, and forced him to eat the entire box of chocolates on the spot. I pictured him, sitting hunched over the wretched box, cowering in tears while he ate the sticky, sweet stuff, turning green, and, within half an hour, having to run to the bathroom where he vomited it all up.
Poor Sam — for him, selfishness must have always tasted like too much chocolate. For me, selfishness is the taste of too much salt and butter.
In my family there were only two kids, my brother and I. The great ethical debate of my childhood concerned the pan of popcorn that we shared on many an evening, in front of the old, brown cabinet-radio, while we listened to “Mystery Theater” and “The Shadow.”
We would sit on opposite sides of the blackened, cast-iron pan, filled to the brim with hot, just-popped corn, salted and drizzled with oleo. (Mother said butter was too expensive.) A small war would go on between my brother and me, just under the surface of politeness.
If I took large handfuls at a time and ate hurriedly, I could easily wolf down two-thirds of the popcorn. I was the biggest and the oldest, so, of course, I did deserve more. But it left a bloated feeling in my stomach, and the taste of too much oleo and salt in my mouth.
The buttery popcorn was mostly on top, so it was important to eat fastest at the very beginning. By the time we got down to the bottom of the pan, who cared, really? All that remained were the hard, unpopped pieces, and the half-popped pieces, and the burnt pieces, and an excess of salt sometimes encrusted in pools of solidified oleo. But if I was particularly hungry, I would gobble up even these, and run my finger through the sandpapery scum of salt and oleo, licking this wickedness off with my tongue. The problem was that I never really enjoyed the popcorn when I ate it this way.
The other way to eat it was to take just one or two pieces at a time. Then I could savor crushing the crisp, white clouds of dry corn between my molars, letting the wet sweetness of the oleo roll over my tongue, chased along by the tang of salt and a pleasant roaring in my cheekbones. The saliva would swell out from the back of my tongue and amplify the pleasure. But I would be starving by the end of the pan because my brother, seeing his opportunity, would stow away the great bulk of the popcorn.
The taste of too much salt and butter lingers through the years.
St. Paul, Minnesota
I had a lover when I was young. We hid one summer from parents and the draft, and made love every day on my narrow bed in the little room where I lived. We drank cheap red wine, and one time we took so much Nembutal that we lost a week.
I had had other sexual partners, of course, but with him, for the first time, sex didn’t make me feel alone and cut off from my body. I was alive in every inch of my body when I was with him. He was so sweet, his touch so gentle, and everything about him — his words, his eyes, the way his hands moved over my face — was loving and accepting.
He was a country boy, practical, down to earth, simple — in the best possible understanding of that word — and he hoped that someday we might marry, get a farm, raise happy, blond children. But I took too much speed; I grew hateful and suspicious, and one day I got on the Greyhound bus and went away.
Four years later, I was living with a man who sometimes beat me up. It’s odd to look back and see how you can move from one point to another, each step having its own integrity and its own reasonableness, but where you end up can be unthinkable, totally bizarre, out of this world. And so I found myself with Tom; I was twenty-one years old and afraid to open my mouth because — pow! — another landmine might explode.
I forgot who I was. I lost contact with everyone who ever cared for me, everyone who knew me, and even to myself I gradually became weak, stupid, and contemptible.
Then one summer day, I ran away. Without planning it, I went north to find my old lover. We stayed together one week, drinking beer at the little tavern next to his house, swimming naked in the pond in the morning, staying up all night to talk and to make love. The hold the other man had on me, once insurmountable, grew faint and disappeared. I became myself again.
Can you imagine what it was like to live in an environment of criticism and contempt? So many women live out their lives that way. You become closed up, cold, flat, and everything in the world loses its color.
Now, twelve years later, I can remember that week so clearly: details and colors jumped out; each day was vivid. I began to live in my body again. The sun shining on my cheeks, hair falling on my back, the soft pressure of skin against skin, the warm grass smells of the countryside, the green of the rolling hills — it was delicious. It was exhilarating, and in the middle of making the bed one morning, I stopped to do a dance.
I had been in solitary confinement. I had been locked in a black box — sensory deprivation! — and now I was free. The world sparkled. I imagined living out my life with him and waking up each day to a room full of brilliant colors and a body vibrating with pleasurable sensations. To live a lifetime like this — it would be like living a thousand lifetimes all at once.
Everything seemed possible for us, or, at least, for me. But somewhere I knew that the answer for me then wasn’t another lover, wasn’t him; even though he had saved my life, I had to find my own way. I never told him where I had come from and he didn’t know where I was going when I left, but I promised I would be back in a week.
I will always remember him standing there with his dog, the summer sun shining on his face, his friendly smile, an uncertain wave. Even as I called out, “I will see you next week!” — and wanted desperately for it to be true — I knew I would never see him again.
My definition of love is this: trying to fulfill another person’s needs while being true to yourself at the same time. Sometimes I need to be selfish to be true to myself.
I was taught by the Catholic Church, and by my mother, that selfishness is a sin.
But I have come to realize that in order to be selfish, one must have a self. And one must first attain this self before one can give it up.
That is my main squabble with the church, and with my mother: their ignorance of a natural process of evolution.
Growing up as a female, I heard the message of selflessness loud and clear. Growing up as a Catholic female, I heard the message amplified to deafening proportions. I bought into it as the way to “goodness.” But repressing the self did not lead to goodness. It led, instead, to neurosis and a mild form of insanity.
What I wonder now, as I raise my children, is this: if I were to protect them only from imminent and apparent danger and otherwise allow them to experience fully this process of evolution, would they be “healthy” people? If I were to allow them selfishness without a disapproving look or a guilt trip, wouldn’t they be able to embrace its delicious glory and suffer its consequences?
The hitchhiker I didn’t pick up. The meal I wouldn’t offer to a hungry visitor. The dollar I didn’t give to the ragged guy who whispered, “Spare change?”
My friends don’t think I’m selfish, but what do they know? They’re friends. Easy enough to share with folks who love me, those I know will give me whatever I need. But the strangers knocking at my heart find it, often as not, closed.
I gave to World Vision a couple of times, and now my mailbox brings a plea from them at least once a week, with pictures of starving children, gaunt old men and women, withered crops. I promise myself that when I’m making just a little more money, I’ll send a donation. Then I drop the mail in the trash.
Oh, I have excuses enough: the world is so full of suffering; it’s really too much to take in, let alone do anything about; what good would my little dollar do when, tomorrow, this person will still be out of a job and on the streets; if I give, they’ll take advantage of me and ask for more.
“We’re all brothers and sisters on the planet,” I’ve said, more times than I can count. Why, then, do the needs of my brothers and sisters move me so little? How can I pass by so coldly?
It’s only afterward, stabbed by my conscience, that my heart cries.
If my conscience pricks me, it has good cause. I’ve walked the streets of this country as a mendicant sister, a pilgrim traveling town to town to spread the urgent message of Christ, I’ve begged my bread and coffee, my rice and beans — and it was given. I’ve thanked the God I saw shining in the faces of the givers.
Now, settled into a tiny apartment in midtown Atlanta, working to pay the rent while I type out the story of that seven-year pilgrimage, I find myself too often bypassing those who stand where I stood, explaining to myself that their cause is not so noble; their need, therefore, not so urgent.
I forget, in that moment of selfishness, the urgency of a hungry belly, feet that can’t walk another mile, the wish for somebody — please, dear God, somebody! — to stop and help.
“Be a little bit selfish,” my mother says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. You always give, give, give, and get nothing in return. And sometimes you’re disappointed. So take care of yourself first.”
I hang up the phone, think about it. I know what my needs are — or are they desires? I resolve to talk to my husband when he gets home. I talk. He talks. We argue. I cry. He goes for a long walk. Before he leaves, he accuses me of being selfish.
So there I am, wretched, more alone than ever, needier than ever, and feeling guilty as hell about my needs, my desires, my life.
But my attention nowadays is on the newcomers in my life who are the true experts on selfishness. To get his way, the seventeen-month-old will cry, kick, throw himself on the floor, run headlong into furniture. He’ll grab whatever interests him, no matter if someone else is using it; he’ll butt you out of his way. He also knows the importance of being cute. He will turn on the radio and dance, giggle, babble his best babbles, hug, kiss, do something stupendously precocious to amaze us all — anything to get attention.
But it goes back even further; this selfishness is part of the human psyche from conception on. There’s the one unborn, who is loved, who is wanted, who has made me sick to my stomach since July. I’ve knelt, paid homage to the toilet bowl several times a day for three months now. How’s the baby? The baby’s fine, and getting bigger; the baby’s milk supply looks more than adequate. How’s the baby’s mom? Mom looks like a belly with four toothpicks and a head.
So, mother, I’m thinking, don’t tell me to be selfish. I am selfish. So are you. So are the babies. So is your husband, and mine. We all do for ourselves, even when we’re doing for others, wanting nothing in return. Beyond our mere day-to-day actions, the world, the universal consciousness, is striving for more balance, and we are all working within it. Some do more grabbing, others more giving; the majority does a little of both.
Karen Stein Bard
Pomfret Center, Connecticut