Liam, my four-year-old grandson, is curious about the planets, overturns rocks to pick up any bugs that don’t move fast and chooses to release his highly prized lightening bug from the jar – “because he is lonely.”
Each afternoon on the playground when his name is called for pick up, Liam runs to his two best friends, Isaiah and Anna Noelle, to give each one a hug goodbye.
The child is curious, affectionate, loving and kind.
Liam is also selfish. Supremely so.
He is intent and purposefully fights like hell to get what he wants, when he wants it and how he wants it.
How glorious to watch an individual strive to arrange the world to meet his expectations and revel in happiness when it all goes his way!
After a five-day visit last week what’s obvious is that my drive and skills to live the life I want pale in comparison to Liam’s passion. This is a big surprise because I don’t shy away from identifying and acting on my needs and wants. (You can look forward to details on this.)
Liam will lose his lust and urges for putting himself first in the next few years. Teachers, parents, the system, culture – all will tell him bad things about selfishness. The stigma of putting himself front and center in his life will inhibit his zest for fighting for what he wants.
That’s happened to millions of people who now tell me they look forward to life after retirement so they can “do what they want when they want” or “finally live the life they want.”
Well what do you know? A last ditch effort to get a life we want. Like bookends on a life, selfishness emerges.
But after all the years living without putting ourselves first, perhaps we can use Liam for inspiration and even skill building.
Ready to learn from someone who just hopped out of toddlerhood?
Here we go.
No Mucking Around When You Know What You Want
In suspended disbelief of his mastery, I watch Liam zoom in on a singular goal – to get his world and the people in it to meet his wishes and wants.
This is mission control and immediate gratification united. He wants what he wants straight away.
No cerebral analyzing; no discussion; no logical context needed. Just get or give him what he desires.
And Liam desires a lot of things. (If life has worn down many of your aspirations and cravings, you’ll want to revive those in order to be successful at selfish.)
Now Liam is not big-headed, arrogant, egotistical or narcissistic. He lacks experience for those. He’s unadorned in any sophistication of his wants and selfish ways. This is simple selfish – uncomplicated with consequences that don’t harm anyone.
Liam is clear on his wishes, wants and needs and communicates them firmly. Most of us could learn a thing or two from him on this count.
Everything to make his life better is viewed as a requirement – a prerequisite for happiness, an obligation from the universe.
To achieve his goals, Liam employs repetition, pleas, ultimatums, sweetness, and guilt. He uses his body for emphasis – earnest faces, mean faces, hands on hips, arms waving over his head. He raises his voice on occasion.
Liam’s self-centeredness sounds like this:
“No! No, GG! I have to be first.” A regular rule for his pleasure as you goes down the stairs, up the stairs, get dressed, proceed to the car, or walk on a trail.
“Mom, can I watch something?” Said first thing in the morning after cuddle time then repeated 10-15 times after he’s picked up from school. He adds sweet and mean faces and enhances his petition with, “Mom, Pleeeeze….”
“Can I have a snack?” Same method as above.
“But GG I WANT it!” Said loudly as he jerks his hand away from mine at the zoo. Eyes brim with tears and a mad face forms. What he wants is a Bubble Gun Blaster. He’s had 3. They break. Then tells me I should go home and he’ll never visit me in Pensacola again … if he doesn’t get that Bubble Gun. (He didn’t. But he almost did.)
“No, I don’t want to.” Take a bath, get dressed, eat cauliflower, come inside.)
“No, not that book. I want THIS book.” A command for bedtime reading that I’m usually too tired to argue with and he knows it.
Many times Liam is successful, but not always.
What happens when Liam figures out he is losing the fight?
Comebacks pluck at your heart strings.
“GG, you’re making me sad.”
“GG, you are frustrating me.”
“Mom, this hurts my feelings.”
At a very young age, Liam looks after himself, tells the world what he wants and works to make it happen. He is his own person. He has found his voice.
Does this sound so bad?
Oh, I see. It’s a hoot. He’s a child so naturally he’s a bit selfish. Sort of cute, you say.
But you are a grownup. You are not a selfish person.
And this sounds good?
If someone says, “You’re selfish,” a tiny barb pierces your being somewhere close to your soul. Selfishness mars one’s reputation and we’re taught to avoid it along with shameless bragging. (I do hate bragging.)
Selfishness has a bad rap and perhaps there is cause for caution because when people put themselves first, other people get hurt.
Criminal acts such as assault, theft, fraud, and emotional manipulation stem from selfishness – very bad selfishness.
Relationships, no matter how much love is professed, don’t thrive on selfishness. Friendships are lost, marriages go down, families dissolve and parent-child relationships are severed.
Yet, twisted as it may sound, concern with your own interests, needs and wishes while ignoring those of others can one of the best choices to make.
Just think if you start right now to embellish your life with aspirations of late-in-life desire and just take care of you. Oh wee, one can only imagine!
In reality, selfishness is a not a driver for many.
What I know is when we feel we are not living the fullness of our lives it’s often because we’re putting too many people ahead of us. While they may have lobbied for this prime spot, we allowed it. Often, we voluntarily put them there!
If you are navigating your own journey, your desires are the mile markers. You’ll fight for some, if not all of them.
But if you are navigating someone else’s version of your own journey, talk about your self-interests can seem foolish.
For certain, other people often want us to life our lives differently. Individuals we love – in the name of selflessness – can coerce us into putting aside the very things we want for ourselves.
But let’s not blame it all on the influence of other people. Your bank account, your job, and/or present miserable circumstances can inhibit the fullness of your journey. If you pursue dreams and desires, lots of things get in your way.
I’d run out of space if I listed all the ways I put myself first. But, here are some:
· I love to travel out of the country often and for long periods of time. I go. My husband is lonely.
· I say no to things I don’t want to do and no to spending time with people I don’t particularly enjoy.
· I cook only when I feel like it.
· I won’t join your organization even if it makes the world a better place because I won’t sacrifice my time.
· My happiness is often the driving factor in a decision.
· My daughter asks me to stay one more day. I leave as planned.
· My husband has tickets to 10 of our local baseball team’s games. I will go to two.
· I see no need to learn how to load a dishwasher properly. Recent feedback indicates I’d be a better family member if I’d improve my attitude and learn to do this.
· My rule is if I see it first, I have the first option to buy it. No exceptions. Ask my friend, Dee Dee, who did end up with a gorgeous blouse by a Mexican designer she wanted after I saw it first and bought it knowing she wanted it. I only gave it up because a woman sold me the cape off her back (literally) and I liked it better. Diva like, but it’s the rule.
I strive to live my life in ways that value my time on earth; I aspire to create ways to make myself happy; I try to take care of me in honest simple ways. No one can possible live my best life but me. I see this as my responsibility. I want to love my life, simple as that.
Selfishness is smooth, seamless and rewarding for me.
It can be for you too.
Why be selfish? For me, I overflow with love of my life and without any expectations I am therefore joyous, generous, loving, caring and kind. Many individuals benefit from my taking care of me first.
But aren’t other people disappointed in my choices at times? Well sure. But no one is injured, ill-treated or wronged.
If simple selfish might have a chance with you, remember that you can’t be good at selfish if you don’t know what you want.
What makes you beyond happy?
What do you want your work to be?
Who do you want spend time with?
What do you want to have happen in your life?
Those are important questions and chances are you’ve answered them at different times in your life.
Think of the last time you fought for something you wanted. You squared off against the gods, the forces, finances, the system, your family and loved ones to make it happen.
If you can’t remember a time or your fighting spirit seems missing in action, then maybe your life is getting complacent or you’re not aiming high enough.
At midlife we often look for the life we want to live inside of our own lives. We end up asking, “Where did it go?”
No matter your your age there’s a tiny voice that will lead you to your current heart’s desire.
Liam wants a cookie, a chance to watch a Disney movie and to be first. What do you want?
Might good come out of your selfishness?
Who might benefit from your selfishness?
No to Compromise
I don’t expect this post to resonate with everyone.
Take this person for instance. Last week our conversation about life turned to talking about relationships, specifically marriage. At 46, he summed up his experience, awareness and philosophy with this platitude:
“Well, you know, Barbara. Life is all about compromise.”
I had a plane to catch and might not have wanted to pursue this anyway. But my first inclination was to shout, Compromise is all about your life maybe. But not mine.
Instead, I headed to ticketing.
Compromise can be worthy notion at times. But compromise can mean accepting standards that are lower than desirable. Look where that got Volkswagen. Do you want to lower your standards for a best life?
Compromise as a guiding principle, especially for the last third of one’s life, is downright dangerous.
Let’s put compromise where it belongs. In Liam’s world, this would be after a fight followed by a hard negotiation. Then, we compromise. He doesn’t get the cookie, he gets carrots. He doesn’t get the movie; instead he gets a thirty-minute episode on educational TV.
No matter, he did his best. He tried.
The ultimate reward he tucks away deep inside is a stronger sense of self and the satisfaction of giving effort to living life the way he wants it to be.
The Paths of Should and Must. (Must is Harder.)
In her beautiful book, The Cross Roads of Should and Must, Elle Luna describes two paths in life: Should and Must. She reminds us of our power.
We arrive at this cross roads over and over again. And every day. We get to choose.
Should is how other people want us to live our lives. Must is different.
Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s that which calls to us most deeply. It’s our convictions, our passions, our deepest held urges and desires – unavoidable, undeniable, and inexplicable.
Unlike Should, Must doesn’t accept compromised.
Must is being selfish. Simple selfish.
It’s hard work to get the must have things in life. No one wants to be flat out selfish 100% all the time. You have to prioritize the importance and value of needs and wants, think through any and all negative consequences, then prepare to stand up for yourself.
The fight can be internal – with your self – and just as difficult as a full throttle campaign on multiple fronts with things and people.
We’ve all given in and given up during our lifetime. If nothing else in this post is rousing your selfishness – and the inherent goodness it may provide– these questions may jog your memory for a time you reluctantly acquiesced.
What didn’t you fight for that you wish you had?
When did you compromise and wish you hadn’t?
As I write this I realize I may not have any takers on becoming selfish – or more selfish.
But there’s a puzzle ahead for anyone who aspires to future life as a time to “do what they want when they want” or “finally live the life they want.”
You must embrace your simple selfish self just enough to make that happen.
On the other hand, one way to reduce selfishness is to reduce desire.
Choose that but know the risk is high you will not have lived the life you wanted.
That risk is not one I will take.
Take care with your living and Godspeed.
P.S. Yesterday, Liam’s teachers celebrated a cooling off in the Nashville weather with surprise playground time just as his weekly tutor showed up. After telling her how much he liked her and had a good time when they were together counting “numbers and bugs,” he politely explained what he needed.
“I don’t want to tutor with you today. I want to go play.” She smiled, took his hand and led him to the playground.
If this content leads to a bit of fresh thinking, new perspective or resonates with you, please “Like” this post. Thank you in advance.
All Photos by B. Pagano.