Words: Selfless (And Selfish)

Flamingos. Because there were no free images that worked for the subject, but the flamingos were pretty.

I was procrastinating on Facebook reading a very important article recently, about a woman whose son was donating a kidney to his father. I went to comment, wishing her luck and praising the son for his selfless act. Before I hit send, that word struck me: selfless. The word struck me, and it made me a little nauseous too.

I quickly reworded the comment – the son in question is absolutely doing something beautiful and giving for his father, and I don’t want to come off as though I don’t approve of organ donation. I do, wholly and without reservation, and whatever’s still got some miles left in it after I’m gone is certainly up for grabs. That’s not the point. The point is the language used to describe the act.

As an opposite for the word selfish, selfless is probably a perfectly adequate word. Maybe I’m just a little oversensitive to the word selfless. I grew up Catholic, if bad at it. I was surrounded by hagiographies, examples of people who essentially worked themselves to death in lives of service to the religious community. These were people who were held up as positive examples, and they doubtless did a lot of good for the world.

They also, you know, worked themselves to death. But hey, details, right?

The word selfless is generally used to mean “without thought of one’s own needs or desires.”  If we break down the word, though, it literally means “without self.”  I don’t know. That’s… creepy. I’m all for being part of a community and sacrificing for the greater good to a certain extent (more later). When a person is praised for being “without self,” I have to pause.

One of the first criticisms I heard of LGBTQ+ people – also one of the most absurd, but whatever – is that we’re “selfish.”  Somehow, our attraction to our own sex, to more than one sex, our gender identity, or even the way our bodies expressed our chromosomes was somehow detrimental to society at large. We were supposed to be selfless and swallow it down, push it aside, and conform so we could…

I’m not really sure how this was supposed to work, actually. It’s like the underwear gnomes from South Park.

Step 1: Self-repression.

Step 2: ?????

Step 3: Profit? ??? ????

Yeah, I’m still not following the logic. I think it has something to do with giving people grandchildren, or something like that. Which, I mean it’s a creepy kind of logic in its own right. “Society needs you to completely obliterate yourself so you can go and make babies, because that’s a healthy example to set for children.”

Yeah, no.

Women who don’t want children, regardless of orientation, are usually called “selfish” too. I’ve never seen anyone call a man who didn’t want kids selfish – it may happen, but being a cis woman it’s not something I’ve encountered. As a woman who didn’t want kids, it’s something I heard all the time. I was closeted, but I was pretty firm on the “no kids” thing.

My reasons for not wanting them did not matter, to anyone who weighed in on the subject. It was “selfish” for me to not want them or to refuse to have them. Medical issues were irrelevant, personal issues were irrelevant, questioning my marriage was irrelevant (!) – no, it was very simply selfish for me to not want children. My husband, on the other hand, was not considered selfish for not wanting children.

Funny how that works.

And then, when I did cave and agree to have a child, the old “selfish” accusation came into play again. I was “selfish” for having a scheduled C-section, despite the fact that my medical team strongly encouraged it. Medical science doesn’t matter, you’re just selfish!  Then you’re selfish if you don’t breast feed, selfish if you don’t shell out for lactation consultants to force your kid to breast feed even if they won’t nurse, selfish if you stay home with the baby and selfish if you work outside the home…

Huh. Sounds like “selfish” is a word that gets thrown around a lot to control folks, women in particular.

So, getting back to selfless. We see it a lot when people perform incredible acts of heroism. I saw another article yesterday while I wasn’t doing my work was avidly researching a novel I haven’t plotted yet. A random passer by rescued thirteen people from a boating accident on a river before drowning in an attempt to rescue a fourth. That fits the definition of selfless, I think. He literally destroyed himself, saving others.

He left behind a four-year-old and a five-month-old infant, along with an unemployed wife, in a country without a good social safety net.

Am I suggesting that we should not act to help others, and only work for our own interests? That sounds… terrible. I’m having visions of an awful man, standing in a gleaming white building in a city carved out of a swamp in the Potomac, talking about how he’s waited his whole life to take health care away from poor people and retirement care away from everyone.

Am I suggesting that maybe the complete negation of the self is dangerous, and not something we should be holding up as the ideal for our daily lives? Hell yes.

Look, there’s nothing inherently selfish about being who you are. There’s nothing selfish about existing, for crying out loud. There’s nothing selfish about a lifestyle that doesn’t lead to children, either. Given that we’re looking at an overpopulated planet, I’d say the people putting so much pressure on people to reproduce biologically are the selfish ones.

It’s okay to be ourselves. It’s okay to acknowledge that we have needs, goals, and desires. And while yes, it’s good to be a hero, maybe it’s okay to also not demand people set themselves on fire to keep other people warm, too.

I like brave. I like giving. I like generous, or heroic. Selfless is a word whose overtones are starting to leave me a little cold.



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