On being “Useful”, and selfishness
“If you try to be very clever, if you try to be very useful, you will be used. If you try to be very practical, somewhere or other you will be harnessed, because the world cannot leave the practical man alone. Drop all these ideas. If you want to be a poem, an ecstasy, then forget about utility. Remain true to yourself.” -Lao Tzu
Boy did this one sink deep.
For a lot of my life, I put a lot of energy in being “useful” to people. I love listening and hearing people’s stories and their concerns and doing what I can to be compassionate and help them navigate (in fact, I built a business on it). I love it, it is a true calling of mine.
People find it really easy to open up to me, and share things that they haven’t ever told anyone. Part of the reason for that, it seems, is that I’m great at reflecting what people say back at them without judgment, and without including very much of myself in the conversation. Which makes me a good interviewer, and useful.
All of this comes with a cost, however. Because of this focus on being useful, It’s easy for me to deflect and repress my stuff and just concentrate on helping the other person. It turns out that you need to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others with theirs. Being useful distracts from me. Sure it feels good, but it’s also a way to avoid stuff as well. Being useful always puts the focus on the other person
Today, and for the past few weeks, I’m trying to more consciously choose to be selfish.
Boy, selfish is a very charged word in the world. Most people take it to mean “self-obsessed” or “uncaring about others”. It’s basically a nickname for narcissism. And it’s ‘bad’.
I’ve been aiming at selfless for a long time. If there’s anything the world of ‘enlightened’ folk wants us to be, it’s selfless and giving and charitable and humble and down-to-earth and grounded and modest. Of course there are great things about the concept of being “self-less” (meditation and dissolving a limited sense of who ‘I’ am are freeing practices, and yay for them). But without true compassion for myself first, it becomes a situation where others needs become way more important to me than my compassionate attention to me, and that is not good for anyone involved.
There is tremendous kindness in being able to focus on yourself first. I think that we just cannot be truly compassionate to others when we are not compassionate to ourselves first, or at least not willing to focus on ourselves to a point where we come at a situation from a sense of wholeness. Not perfection, mind you, but wholeness in all of our flawed glory.
I’m finding in my practice that when I can find moments to be kind to myself when I wouldn’t otherwise, that it fills me with an overwhelming sense of relief. Just pure ‘hey, maybe I don’t have to beat myself up for not acting in a way that I would expect of myself’.
And with that flood of relief comes a more open-heartedness to my own delicate and gloriously flawed humanity, and by extension a greater compassion for others and potential for real two-sided connection. Beyond that, if I let it happen, there is a tremendous sense of gratitude for the freedom I’ve given myself. And gratitude is life-changing.
So maybe there is a way to really get into listening to people and opening them up that doesn’t involve ignoring the “me” that needs kind attention. A way that can feel nurturing to me as well, rather than me on autopilot. Something that can fill us both up.
One moment at a time.
- 5 Self-Sabotaging Thoughts About Self-Compassion (blogs.psychcentral.com)
- Embracing Our Common Humanity With Self-Compassion (huffingtonpost.com)
- TEDx Talk on self-compassion (youtube.com)