Those of you who know me know I love words. I love to write. I love to play with words (the sounds, the meanings, the options). My love of words is not just based on play, but on the power of words: the power of words to instruct, to share, to create community, to heal. I cannot acknowledge that power without also recognizing the shadow side of that power, the power of words as weapons, the power of words to limit us, to harm us, to wound us.
The words that have wounded me the most in the past are the ones I chose for myself.
More often than not those words were also supplied by fellow humans, but it was my decision to consume them, to make them part of my own self-talk that did the most damage. One of the words I ate was selfish. It was tossed at me by someone who, in retrospect, didn’t really know me at all. But it must have been offered at just the right time because WOW it landed. I took the hit. I ate the word and made it part of my internal dialogue, the place where I could categorize my flaws. Selfish. I am selfish.
Believing that I was selfish was incredibly powerful. It explained why I wanted things, AND why I shouldn’t want them. It explained why thinking of myself happened and why it shouldn’t. And as I got older and had kids, my selfish diagnosis explained why I should put all of everyone’s needs before my own all of the time. It explained the perils of bad parenting. It explained the difficulty of raising twins. It even explained the pain of watching parents age while taking care of small children. I was just selfish. If I had not been selfish, all of that would have come easily, right? I ate it. I ate that word. I grabbed that linguistic sword and used it to cut an ever perilous path towards selflessness.
Selflessness, the hallmark of people like Mother Theresa and other icons of generosity. If only I could cultivate selflessness. If only I could not want or think of myself or need anything. THERE. There’s the answer. I should just not need anything, ever. I should shrink my desires until they are practically nothing, until I am practically nothing (have you seen a picture of Ghandi?). I should shrink. And so I did. I said all of the yeses and I did all of the things. I paved the way for an amazing childhood for my children and filled the gaps for my poor overworked husband. I did all of so many of the things in an effort to prove that I could defeat my selfish core.
And then came a day when the urge to have something of my own, which may well have first demonstrated itself as the simple desire to pee in private – without child or dog in the room, became to great to suppress. The desire to have something, ANYTHING, actually be about me overrode my ability to shrink. It felt like a total failure in one moment and like a glimpse of freedom in the next. And that moment allowed me to really question this whole setup – this selfishness nonsense.
This selfish story was based on some pretty important assumptions. It relied on the belief that it is not possible to take care of yourself AND take care of other people. This selfishness story was grounded in a fundamental flaw being the most important thing about me rather than the idea that there are plenty of important things about me, who I am in this world, that may actually need to see the light of day. The selfishness story is based on the idea that my needs didn’t have anything to do with goodness and light and the unfolding of a stunningly miraculous human as I actually satisfy those needs and imagine wants that take me to new places. The selfishness story is a load of bull.
So I’ve developed a new word, a new goal: Self FULL ness. Unlike selfishness, selfFULLness rests on the idea that taking care of my needs is actually important. SelfFULLness acknowledges that I am unlike anyone else on this planet and that I deserve to be here, be well, be peaceful, and nourished, and growing. SelfFULLness looks not for a glass that is half empty or half full but a cup that is actually overflowing.
I didn’t just think of this as an idea. I’ve done it. I’ve arranged my life so that there is actually the possibility of me feeling MORE instead of LESS. I’ve set things up so that I can actually allow myself to want WHILE I acknowledge and appreciate the abundance with which I am surrounded everywhere I go. I’ve rewired my brain to notice my pleasure, my joy, and to follow those. And now my cup fills up and overflows. It overflows in all of the necessary care-taking ways (so good news you need not come save the children), but you know what? It overflows with joy and affection in ways it hasn’t for years. It overflows with warmth and openness that selfish me couldn’t dream of. It overflows with good things for all of us. My cup overflows all of the time and I fully intend to keep on pouring what I need in there.
I have laid down my sword of selfishness. I heard it clank as it landed with all of the other swords I’ve dropped over the last few years. Selfishness as a word, and as an idea, and as a soul meal, it really doesn’t work for me. SelfFULLness is a feast we can all enjoy.