Adulthood is a constant struggle between being selfish and selfless. Every decision you make, every vote you cast, every linchpin in your life comes down to a question of whether your actions will help or harm. We are constantly juggling whose needs matter more to us. Does canceling plans because I’m feeling overwhelmed matter more than the friend who needs support? Do my political beliefs mean more than the basic rights of anothers? Every day we make choice both as individuals and as a society of who we are and what matters most to us: ourself or others.
This past year, we’ve unequivocally seen self-interest, ego and selfishness run amok, from our entertainment to our politics. We watched it at the Oscars as “La La Land,” a movie about two people who are incapable of loving one another more than their own egos and ambitions swept the nominations. It was evident in all four episodes of the “Gilmore girls” revival, an ode to a creator’s out of control ego and revenge for nine year old wrongs. It was “Sherlock’s” fanboy fantasy of a finale, and every unnecessary rape or death of a female, LGBT, or minority character to forward a white male character’s arc. Even our stories told us that kindness, compassion, and goodness don’t sell.
We saw it when 50 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump because their money or beliefs meant more to them than the rights of the rest of Americans. Or the other 50 percent of white women who voted for Hillary Clinton because we wanted female representation despite her troubling history with race, Wall Street, and even other women. Our Facebook feeds are screaming matches over who has a right to their political beliefs and how facts that don’t make us feel good are fake. Even our politicians are choosing their policy over electability factors rather than the good of the nation.
Somewhere along the road, we chose to look at the world and see all it hasn’t done for us, all we don’t have enough of, and decided that the only thing we can do is look out for ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we’re liberal or conservative, intersectional or politically incorrect, we’ve drawn a line in the sand stating that what matters to us personally means more than what matters to others.
Selflessness has become passé. We are a nation of ids and egos, of I statements, and hyphenated selves. We tell ourselves that it’s not our job to make others happy. That we need to banish the difficult people from our lives. Where we encounter cognitive dissonance we baffle at its existence and reject it, choosing to embrace the reality of the world that upsets us the least. We disregard people who disagree with us because it interferes or makes us question things we believe or want. In choosing our own selves and our own cognitive comforts, we make an active decision to disregard those same feelings of someone else.
As children we are free of these decisions. We are encouraged to selfishly pursue that which will propel us toward our potential. Our parents are there to fulfill our basic needs and our jobs are to selfishly acquire and horde all the knowledge, experiences, and relationships to turn us into functioning adults. We are expected to leave behind those who cared for us and the friends who shaped us, and make our own way. We’re not supposed to pause and consider other’s feelings or how our decisions will affect them. Our sole purpose is to take what we need to become who we are supposed to be.
But there’s a reason why we’re raised to be that way. Because if we were more selfless, if we put others first what would become of us? We would be deliberating choosing to weaken and hold ourselves back. It would makes us into Anne Elliots and Eleanor Daschwoods sacrificing our own happiness to help our loved ones achieve their own. We’d be deliberately seeking our own unhappiness. Selflessness is a life of sacrifice, duty, and always deciding that you and your needs don’t matter. We become the step ladders others use to get ahead. It is the surest way to be left behind and forgotten, all used up with nothing left to give.
And so adulthood becomes a constant juxtaposition of how we do or don’t give of ourselves. When we choose to work late to get ahead and forsake time with our loved ones. Our need to retreat and lick our emotional wounds so we help those we hurt when we’re stronger. It’s in giving back and standing up for what’s right without letting it overtake our lives and our psyches. Every day we must fight to know when to sacrifice and be selfless and when to be selfish and prioritize ourselves.
We’ve seen what happens when we let that dichotomy become unbalanced, when we slip too far into individualized self-interest as a society. We’re living now with those ramifications, and we cannot all be martyred saviors or selfish narcissists. We must find a way to become a society where it is within our self-interest to help others and where getting ahead doesn’t mean leaving behind or stepping on those below us. Where anyone’s hand out can be a hand up and where self-care includes caring about more than just ourselves. It requires us to understand that what makes us feel better shouldn’t be the things that makes others feel worse. And that making our mark upon the world doesn’t require us to destroy someone else’s first. There is a time to be selfish and a time to be selfless, and it is time that we finally learn how to be both.