Ayn Rand has a book titled The Virtue of Selfishness. It’s a book I own, but I have never taken the time to read it. That isn’t because I don’t want to, it’s just because it’s never been a priority. Still, the title has always stuck with me. When I first heard it, my instinct was to cringe a little bit. After all, how can there be virtue in selfishness? However, the longer I live, the more I realize that maybe I had things a little askew. I understand now why she titled the book the way she did, even if I’ve never read it. I’ve learned from my own experience that there really is virtue in selfishness.
What is Selfishness?
Before I discovered the idea that there is virtue in selfishness, I had to reprogram my mind to think of selfishness in a different way. Growing up, selfishness occurred as a way of being where I chose things only for myself, never taking into account anybody or anything else. That is, in fact, the definition of selfish. To be selfish is to think only of oneself. So having that context around the word did fit. However, while trying to maintain a way of being that wasn’t selfish, I often tossed myself aside out of my concern for other people. In those cases, some selfishness would have been ideal.
The selfishness that comes up when I talk about the virtue of selfishness is a little different. It’s not about putting oneself before others in a hurtful way. It’s not about living a life where you don’t see or care about others. It’s also not about putting yourself last in any way or making yourself second best in your life. When I speak about the virtue of selfishness, I truly mean the virtue of Selfishness; Self being the key word here. What I’ve learned is that to some degree you have to put yourself first because if you don’t, eventually you won’t have the capacity to love or care for others. When you are last in your life, you lose the desire to put others first. At that point you truly do become selfish because the world becomes all about you. Virtue comes when one recognizes one’s Self, and respect and honors that Self as well as others.
Over time, as I operated inside my original context of selfishness, I began to recognize the holes I was leaving in my life because I wasn’t thinking of myself. I started to see that I didn’t have a lot of boundaries in the requests people made of me, in how I would jump to help or take over where somebody was struggling, even if it meant I fell apart because of it. This may have worked out okay, except for the fact that I began to build resentments toward people, family, religion, and God. I began blaming everybody and everything for my misery rather than just putting some boundaries in place that I lived within. I wasn’t responsible for my life or my time, and the result was that I gave it away to everybody else.
I discovered the virtue in Selfishness when I hit rock bottom. I had severe postpartum depression and had been struggling with it for months. A friend of mine went on bedrest, and I was the best option to take her in. So I did. I, who could barely pass as a functioning adult, took on the care of another adult and her child. About a week into that, I snapped. Everything I’d been holding onto spilled out. I screamed at some people, cried at others. I couldn’t stop crying for hours. When I woke up the next day, I started crying again. I literally could not control it. I apologized to my friend, sobbing the entire time, and sent her to somebody else. Then I packed up my kids and left. I returned home five days later only because it was a holiday and I felt my kids deserved to be with their dad. The day I fell apart marked the day I began to be Selfish.
When I hit the bottom, when I got to a point where I could do nothing but be Selfish, I started to see what I had done to myself and others. Others is the key point here. In being selfless, I’d given so much of myself, my time, and everything else, that I could no longer be with people. I couldn’t feel or experience love. I resented my kids. I resented my husband. I resented my family. I didn’t want to be near or around people. I craved alone time. In fact, being alone became my saving grace because that’s where I started my soul searching, meditating, praying, and finding God somewhere in my soul again. I’d lost him when I’d lost everything else.
I realized that the only way I was going to survive the life I had created was to be Selfish. I could no longer put myself last in my life. I had to come first otherwise I could never care for anybody else. So I did. I put myself first. I spent the mornings sitting on the porch with the sun on my face while my kids watched Mickey Mouse Tree House. Then I would make breakfast after thirty minutes and we would start the day. I stopped stressing over a clean house and folded laundry and started stressing over the time I was giving myself. If those other things got done, great! But it wouldn’t be at the expense of my peace. I spent a lot of time at night watching movies that inspired or uplifted me. Or just entertained me. I cried when I watched Kung Fu Panda 2 because he found his center in that movie, and I was trying to find mine as well. I resonated with the Panda. Not kidding.
This became my journey for months. Slowly, I found myself again. Slowly, I found life again. It was a long road and usually a hard road, and it started because I became Selfish. What’s interesting is once I put myself first, once I realized that I had to be first in my life, I started finding the things I was looking for. I have relationships now that are worth something. I experience love like I never thought was possible. This isn’t just romantic love, it’s a love for people, for mankind. I find that I want to serve. I want to make an impact on people. I want more than anything for people to find value in something I am offering them. In becoming Selfish I became Selfless. It’s a conundrum, but that was my experience.
There is virtue in Selfishness because if you can’t value and love yourself, how can you value and love others? Like she says in the book The Help.