This is the second part of our conversation on selfishness and, selfish selflessness, boredom, the Liberated Woman, and Kim Kardashian. Read part 1 here.
Fiona: Selfish is a word/concept that I—I’m realizing now—have actively avoided thinking about. Kinda like how I avoid looking at certain parts of my body too closely in the mirror. I gloss over the backs of my thighs because—I think—I know what’s there and I don’t like it. I think I’m happier not looking. But in not looking, not engaging, I’m actually giving this thing attention and power. The idea of it—whatever “it” is—stalks like a Jungian “Shadow.” This thing I don’t want to be but deep down think I am… I enlarge it in avoidance. Looking—and naming, defining—controls. I’m so glad I’m participating in this talk.
Selfish: I’m afraid I am. My fear of being selfish might have to do with my sun sign: Virgos are dutiful, perfectionists, concerned with appearances… I can be. I’m afraid that’s bad—probably because I’ve been told that it is. Where? In school? From family? I’m not sure… Does anybody not think of selfishness as a put-down? Have y’all reclaimed it? Or maybe you didn’t need to: maybe it was exalted in your experience.
Durga: It’s interesting to me how you say you’ve actively avoided being selfish, Fiona. Because just last year you texted me this: “You need to get way more selfish.” And funnily, that’s when I was able to accept how much you really loved me. (But then again, I guess it is one thing to encourage selfishness in those you love, and struggle to practice it for yourself.) The moment you gave me permission, or rather, encouraged me to seek out what’s mine, to grab life with more rigor and make decisions based on my needs, I knew you really cared. I have since tried to remember your words, and really pocket the “way more,” because I tend to only afford myself Myself in the tiniest increments possible. In crumbs.
Fiona: I didn’t say I avoided being selfish, I said I avoided thinking about “selfishness” regarding to myself, because I think and feared I am selfish! I remember texting you that and I still believing it. While at the mountain cabin this winter (I took a 2 month leave from the poison of New York; literally, I got poisoned), I wrote out a list of self-helpy goals for my “Spring/Summer 2015,” and at the top of that was: “Practice matching my energy, words, and behavior.” Which is to say, practice what you preach, what you want—for you, to emit, for others. It’s totally like old Fifi to preach what she most wants to hear, like telling you to get selfish, while rarely telling such kindnesses to herself. My latest form of selfishness, if we can call it that, is admitting that I want to exist in public, to others—that maybe I have something to offer. People help me so much. Why not me too! This I especially relate to art making and friendships, that’s love and intimacy—fearing I had nothing to contribute. I’m so bored with self-doubt. Durga, your reaction to my text was—is this selfish?— so helpful to me. I held on to that—that I could help.
Are we going to talk about Kim Kardashian? Or does this say it all.
Victoria: I have similar issues in my relationships, especially when it comes to family. But I question any position that treats the self as something concealed by the marks of the “feminine,” hidden underneath the veil of “womanhood,” or repressed by the desire to give care. That to me seems very masculine. The idea of the self as something that can be attained is tied up in the idea of the self as something that can be lost. But the self isn’t something that has to be “earned,” and it’s not some kind of prodigal son situation where what was lost is now found and therefore more valuable or real. This isn’t yourself. This is yourself on market logic.
Ana: To respond to Fiona’s question and speak further to what you wrote Victoria—I suspect selfishness has been, to a certain extent (and maybe we can point to Kim K as exhibit A here?), reclaimed as a positive quality of the “Liberated Woman.” The Liberated Woman puts herself first, abandoning the feminine markers of caregiving. She rejects “feeling obligated” to others; she forgoes all obligation except to her own will. I am someone who derives so much pleasure from giving; my first conflict is too question: is this capacity for selflessness something I need to unlearn? Would I “benefit” from being less accommodating, less attuned and preoccupied with making others comfortable? Should I be a more “difficult” woman? (Am I too easy?). But I hate these questions, to be honest.
Victoria: Ana, isn’t this Liberated Woman embodying liberal ideology in a nutshell? To forgo all obligation except to one’s own will? Manifest destiny, western ethos, dream big, follow your heart. I want to ask, what’s the relationship between selfishness and individualism? The kind of selfishness you seem to be referencing is what originally overcame authoritarian systems. People hate feeling obligated towards an individual the way people once hated feeling obligated to the church. But in the context of feminism, selfishness-as-individualism is very problematic. The struggle against patriarchy can’t be compared to the conflict between individual liberty and traditional authority because both are patriarchal.
What’s the difference between being self-qualified, self-actualized, self-sufficient, self-fulfilled, self-taught, self-serviced, self-made, self-governed, self-organized, self-assured or self-realized and being selfish? Maybe it’s just having a dick.
Men generally tend to be excused for pursuing self-actualization even when it means neglecting others because male individuality is fought for and admired. But female social roles are so embedded within biological gender that female self-actualization tends to be incompatible with transcendence. Women who pursue self-attainment beyond more or less given gendered social roles, and even within them, risk being called “selfish,” “vain,” “manipulative,” etc. Our pursuit of self isn’t just “bad” but a failure of becoming—we’re self “ish. “ Not even fully realized—self“ish,” as in, a selfish woman isn’t fully her ”self” at all.
Fiona: I’ve been thinking a lot about selfish and selfless political-ness. Who engages in what and why, and are there “shoulds” we should apply? There’s a member of my family who is “selfless” in an activist-ish sense—helping strangers socialist church-going kinda way. But this person can be very very selfish to those nearest to her. She hurts people who love her, we clean up her messes. It’s a public/private life divide. I gather a common behavior. There’s martyr complex folded in. The selfless-ness is selfish—it bolsters her idea and image of herself. It enrages me. Are you really helping if you can’t help yourself?
Victoria: EXACTLY FIONA. We’re taught to think that the world owes us something in return for our suffering because the world was built on sacrifice. Which is just a prettier word for exploitation. If selfishness is a refusal it should be the refusal to suffer for “the greater good,” the refusal to sacrifice the self for other, the refusal of the the commerce model of life that replaces the Pavlovian bell with a whip and trains us to think every little pleasure should be deserved before it’s given. If we can’t refuse to work we can at least refuse to pay. Even if this refusal is just the recognition that it’s only by first serving ourselves that we can learn to serve others.
All my shittiest lovers never learned to love themselves. They’re the same kind of people who try to put an oxygen mask on a child before reaching for their own as the plane goes down. The kind of people for whom loving means tallying up the bill. But if we find ourselves neglecting ourselves to serve others, then chances are we’re neglecting others too.
Fariha: I really, really like this point you bought of selfishness and political correctness, Fiona! That’s something I struggle with a lot, like Durga, my parents always honed in this idea of thinking of the less fortunate no matter what I did. I think that’s where thinking about others before me became my experience of thinking about myself. Like, factoring in me and what I needed, was always in relation to somebody else’s needs. Like you, Fiona, I’ve also always been so terrified of being selfish because I felt that as a woman I couldn’t be; that I needed to think more globally. Like I had to be the living embodiment of the “Teach a woman to fish” fable. I come from a family of hardcore Marxists and so that’s always,always been my world view—which is another part of the struggle, sometimes. At times I’ve wanted to rebel and be what I think is traditionally selfish—the Capitalist who wastes money on things she doesn’t need, to satiate some ephemeral desire—but that has also has made me so sad when I’ve tried to instill it, which is why I’m trying to figure out what the balance is. Is being selfish just attuning yourself to your own unique needs? Also, how to be selfish when it’s not necessarily culturally supported for you to do so? Which is when being selfish is radical, or revolutionary.
Durga: Reading everyone’s responses, thinking about them and sitting with me, has filled me with a lot of panic to be honest. I think I don’t subscribe to this newfound model of selfishness, at all. This promotional sense of self, this need to break down the word selfish or march forth with a sense that the world owes us. I owe a lot of people: most importantly my family and my parents. I live for them to an extent. I’m no martyr, of course, I just don’t value selfishness. It’s not my ballast. It doesn’t interest me. I find the topic sometimes boring actually. Not this thread, per say, but the need to define it seems more linked with steadying oneself on a platform than actually doing any work. Than actually creating more room for women who might not feel entitled, or who don’t yet understand how to occupy their own voices or rather, use them in the ways they hope to. I actually worry that selfishness, especially as writers, sometimes brings out the mediocrity in one’s voice. That writing with someone in mind, with a few people in mind, is the best way to write with precision and power. To connect.
Charlotte: I know this is wildly basic but I feel like we’re all implying it without saying it so I’m going to be the dodo making it explicit: the minimum requirements to be called “selfish” as a woman are hugely different from the requirements to be deemed selfish for a man, and of course that fragments even further when race is taken into account. I might be projecting, but when Durga says selfishness as a topic can bore her, I immediately thought of the idea of “empowerment.” I think selfishness (particularly as promoted by white upper/middle class feminism) has become trite and staid if not outright destructive. You know, “you deserve it!” as a refrain, positioned as being more political or revolutionary than it often is (for that group of women, anyway.)
Which is not to say that we don’t deserve whatever “it” is in question, but that coming at “it” from that angle flattens the picture and stops further reflection. Intellectually, we might agree that pleasure and relief are human rights, but that doesn’t give anyone carte blanche to get that pleasure or relief in whatever ways available to them. So having said all that, I agree; selfishness is boring. I’m not interested in talking with friends about what do “for myself”—moreover, I don’t know that I ever even think that way. (“This is for me!”) That’s probably a type of privilege in its own right, to *not* have to think that way, to not have to carve out a space in your own mind where you consciously choose yourself as a worthy being, and I don’t want to take away the potency of that realization (being worthy; being deserving) from women for whom it’s important and powerful. But it’s not part of my mental/emotional fabric.
Victoria: Durga—As far as words go, it’s like orienting yourself to landmark when you emerge from the subway and you’re kind of confused and trying to figure out due north. It’s about our orientation towards words. We can’t speak to one another under any circumstances unless we’re aware of one another’s orientation towards language. Otherwise, we’re each having our own “personal” conversation with our own “personal” viewpoint—which, amongst women specifically, I have felt pressured to do. But language tends towards entropy, so I’m going to keep drilling us on words—not the meaning of the word itself, but how we mean it.
Ana Cecilia Alvarez writes and reads about art, women, and sex.
Victoria Campbell is a writer and artist specializing in the areas of identity negotiation, relationship management, and black magic political economy. She teaches Sex-Ed with Ana Cecilia.
Durga Chew-Bose writes and reads and lives in Brooklyn.
Fiona Duncan is.
Jazmine Hughes is an associate editor at New York Times Magazine.
Josephine Livingstone is a writer and academic in New York.
Fariha Roísín is a writer living on Earth.
Illustration by Josephine Livingstone.