I’ve contemplated this conundrum to great lengths, never truly satisfied with a response. I’m not sure if the following comes from societal standards, wisdom from our elders, or merely common knowledge, but it seems to be at its utmost importance now, during this pandemic, that you should take care of yourself first, before trying to help others. While I do think that fears of the pandemic and the spread of COVID-19 did bolster the emphasis on self-care, I also think that self-care perhaps holds a different generational significance. Particularly for those of us who come from a different country, or perhaps also individuals who were raised with strong, homegrown values, the importance of family togetherness, honor, and respect towards your elders was likely instilled in your mind from childhood. As we’ve grown up, we’ve learned to tend to our family and gotten a stronger sense of where our priorities stand. However, caught up in our increasingly, faster, always on-the-go lives, we forgot to leave some room for ourselves.
We forgot to prioritize ourselves.
I struggle to delineate this rather thin, obscure line, between what constitutes a selfless act or a selfish act. While we aren’t necessarily meant to think of the context of selflessness or selfishness within a theory of absolutism, I often find myself doing that. It would be nice, even heartwarming, if I could feel this way while I am being selfless; things are not always so black and white, and similarly, I am not always purely selfless or purely selfish. However, more often than not, I think of the acts I do for myself as selfish, regardless of what the context or conditions surrounding my actions might be. This can and does sometimes lead to feelings of guilt. Should I be devoting my attention elsewhere? Why is it that I can separate self-care and selfishness while observing the actions of others, but not necessarily my own? These questions continued to plague me into adulthood.
One common example of taking care of yourself before assisting others, has been depicted on airline safety cards perhaps since the advent of commercial aviation. The safety card displays an adult placing and securing her own oxygen mask before turning to the child next to her to put on his mask.
That must not be his mother.
I made this conclusion when I first saw this safety card as a 4-year-old child. I noticed how calm the woman was, how helpless the child looked, and how nonchalantly the woman glanced over only after putting on her mask to check the status of the child and his whereabouts. She must not love him, I thought as I put the card away, partially disgusted and partially perplexed.
By now, my mother whom I have always known to be generous and selfless in almost every aspect of her life, started taking out the safety cards to show me the pictures. “No!!!!” I shouted, frantically kicking the card back into the seat before us. Looking back, I’m not sure if that was an act of self-preservation or whether I wanted to protect my mom from the same emotional distress I encountered just moments earlier.
In absolutism, the woman is considered selfish because she put her own mask on first. She did not look to the child next to her until after her own safety was secured. While as a child, I found this to be a selfish act, others would probably label this as a practical act or an act of survival. You first need to survive before you can accomplish anything else. Still, something didn’t sit right with me.
Throughout the flight I opened this safety card numerous times, returning to the same question and finding others. Was the woman in the picture selfish for putting her own mask on first? Or was she selfish but justified in her actions since it was to protect her own life? Is it okay to do a selfish act first, knowing that afterwards, you have the potential to help others?
I’ve thought about the countless religious martyrs– Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Joan of Arc, and many others who came before us. They sacrificed everything down to their own lives in pursuit of selflessness, religion, and the love of their people. For those whose lives ended in a public display, they showed us ultimate sacrifice and selflessness.
Does that mean selfishness and selflessness exist on a spectrum? What is the level of selflessness we should rise to in order to be considered selfless and who judges this? Are some acts just inherently selfless or selfish regardless of the surrounding circumstances? Are we meant to be merely self-critics of our own acts? The biggest question perhaps is that if someone commits a selfless act that never had a single witness, is it still a selfless act and is the person still considered selfless? If no one other than you know that you have contributed to a charity anonymously, would others still think to call you selfless? Must they witness the original act themselves, or is it enough for them to hear a retelling from you in order to consider you a selfless being?
In the ever-churning wheels of my brain, perhaps this requires more abstract thought than I once believed. This teaches me to slow down, and consider all the possibilities and meanings of each word. In addition, every person has a different background and had a different upbringing. Perhaps an act or mannerism that one person was taught was selfish, was what another person required to survive.
When you think of someone who is selfish, consider why they are selfish. Is that person merely that way with you or all the time, across different contexts? What about someone who is selfless? Are they always selfless or only sometimes? Where is the line between selfish and selfless? Could it also have something to do with outsider knowledge? Hypothetically, your coworker never picks up anyone else’s shifts and always leaves immediately after work while others have time to hang out and grab drinks, in order to better acquaint themselves with one another. However, this one coworker has never done so and has never done anything more than the bare minimum. You might see her as a very selfish, egocentric individual. What if one day you found out that she had three small kids to pick up from daycare and a disabled husband whom she took care of from the moment she got home to the time she left for work again? This insider knowledge of your coworker’s life can completely change your perception of her. Would you consider her a selfless and devoted mother and spouse or selfish, but in a good way? Could she be both? Is selfish a word that carries an inherently bad or negative connotation, and is selfless a word that carries an inherently good or positive connotation?
My never-ending search for answers to all these questions came to an end, not too long ago, when I found the answer I was perhaps subconsciously seeking.
I was driving in my car, listening to an audio book titled, The Code of the Extraordinary Mind, by Vishen Lakhiani. What he said resonated with me so well, that I only wish that I came across his book sooner in life. Lakhiani urges and supports people to live the lifestyle they wish to live. He continues, “certain people will tell you that you’re being unfaithful to your traditions or cultural norms or that you’re being selfish. Here’s what [he] want[s] you to know. Some say, the heart is the most selfish organ in the human body because it keeps all the good blood for itself– the most oxygenated blood, and distributes the rest to every other organ. So in a sense, maybe the heart is selfish. But if the heart didn’t keep the good blood for itself, the heart would die. And if the heart died, it would take every other organ with it– the liver, the kidneys, the brain. The heart, in a way, has to be selfish for its own preservation, so don’t let people tell you that you are selfish and wrong to follow your own heart. [He] urge[s] you. [He] give[s] you permission to break the rules– to think outside the norms of traditional society.”
They say that you must first take care of yourself before taking care of others. Growing up, I watched my generous mother commit numerous selfless acts for others, whether they were simply down on their luck or underprivileged. As far as I saw and knew, my mother has always helped everyone she could, even in the smallest of ways, whether it was helping an old woman cross the street or offering to drive a neighbor’s child to school. While I knew my mother was kind, as a child, I also believed all mothers were like this– generous, helpful, caring, loving, and devoted parents. Thus, when I saw the airplane safety card for the first time, I didn’t believe that could be the boy’s mother. In my heart, I thought that my mother would for sure seek to help me and my sister first before helping herself. But I also knew we were also perfectly capable of following those instructions ourselves and putting our masks on simultaneously. So, my mind is finally at ease.