On Selfishness

There’s a great quote from Ally McBeal, the long-defunct David E. Kelley FOX dramedy, that I can embarrassingly recite by memory to this day.

 “Ally, what makes your problems so much bigger than everybody else’s?”

“They’re mine.”

The words are almost snarled by Calista Flockhart. She’s the eponymous protagonist, the character that catapulted her into all-too-brief 1990s fame then and the wrinkled arms of Harrison Ford later. I love that line. I love how simple it is, how direct it is, how true it is. I love how much the exchange captures the essence of humanity, of emotion and feeling. She expresses an utterly selfish thought. But it isn’t, not really.

I pride myself on having a decent sense of perspective. I know how fortunate I have been and am in life. Fundamentally, I have never had to worry about my safety, nor my room and board. My possibilities were virtually limitless from birth: hell, my parents moved halfway around the world to give me and my sister a greater opportunity to succeed than they ever had. My education was always supported by my family, my government, or myself – with an assist from Sallie Mae, and I still have the freedom to do what I want with my life.

So despite the obscene levels of emo introspection on this website, I am an incredibly laid-back person in real life. I rarely get mad or emotional about things. I’m fine if someone is 15 minutes late. I get over it when a restaurant is closed, a concert is sold out, or a queue is massive. I can let it go if the service is shitty, and I will chip in more than my share for group bills. It’s not that I’m a pushover – I almost assaulted a guy yesterday for cutting in line and then somehow getting mad at ME for calling him out on it – it’s just that there are more important things in the world. 99% of the time, it’s not worth it.* And I know it.

*Even the line-cutter.

As I’ve gotten older however, I’ve tried to reconcile that sense of perspective with an acceptance, even embrace, of my own selfishness. I’ve become more okay with my emotions and thoughts. I’ve come to understand that having them doesn’t that I have forgotten about the winning lottery ticket I was granted. I’ve come to accept that I can validate my feelings – positive and negative – without a sense of guilt for making mountains out of molehills, for wallowing over things that ultimately aren’t that important in the long run. Because in the moment, and to me at least, those things ARE important. And that’s enough.

We all exist as ourselves, and experience life only as ourselves, and – not being Mother Teresa – for ourselves. It’s obvious, but it isn’t. I know too many people who repress their selfishness, oftentimes to their detriment, because of a sense of duty or guilt or fear or whatever the case might be. My mom works harder than she needs to with both her kids long finished with their graduate degrees. My friend is so stressed from work and familial obligations after moving back to her hometown that she’s lost her hair. My colleague feels completely beholden to our former adviser to the point of taking a career path she doesn’t agree with.

There are plenty of narcissists in the world, but there are also too many people who aren’t selfish enough. This can be a fine line, naturally, one intertwined with the notion of first world problems. But I’d like to think I have a strong enough sense of perspective to where it serves as a foundation now, a foundation against which I can live my life and be a little selfish without worrying about becoming a self-involved jackass. Thing is, there is no glory to silent martyrdom, not in this world. No one notices, no one cares. And so I try to stand up for myself, validate myself, make myself happy in ways small and large. Because who else will?

I still find many positives to being as zen as possible. But I’ve come to recognize that being zen does not mean that I should be repressing my feelings altogether. Being zen isn’t the same as seething inside, holding it in my heart, and denying myself from experiencing everything that I am experiencing in the moment. On the contrary, that I can feel to the degree that I can – whether positive or negative emotions – says something about what it is to be alive, to be human. And part of that is being selfish. I’m not sure why I write about the things I do sometimes. But this blog, this life, these problems? They’re mine.

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