Archive for the ‘self-care’ Tag

Is Selfishness Evil?   9 comments

The Giving Tree (for those who don’t know) is a children’s book that tells the simple love story of a boy and his tree.  As the boy grows, he loses interest in the tree except as it can benefit him, so the loving tree slowly gives itself away a little at a time to the boy–apples to sell, branches for a house, until finally…

Many see in Shel Silverstein’s book an example of unlimited, sacrificial love.  I see a brilliant example of co-dependence.  Is it a virtue to harm myself in order to help others?

A year or two ago I read a quote from Ayn Rand’s book “The Virtue of Selfishness,” and was intrigued by her siding with selfishness against altruism as our ethical necessity, our moral calling.  (She did not distinguish between selfishness and self-care, which is a complex contrast to untangle.)  Here is an example of her perspective, which rings true to a lot of my own life experience:

Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit [i.e. selfishness] is evil….  Observe what this beneficiary-criterion of morality does to a man’s life.  The first thing he learns is that morality is his enemy: he has nothing to gain from it,  he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect.  He may hope that others might occasionally sacrifice themselves for his benefit, as he grudgingly sacrifices himself for theirs, but he knows that the relationship will bring mutual resentment, not pleasure—and that, morally, their pursuit of values will be like an exchange of unwanted, unchosen Christmas presents, which neither is morally permitted to buy for himself….  If you wonder about the reasons behind the ugly mixture of cynicism and guilt in which most men spend their lives, these are the reasons: cynicism, because they neither practice nor accept the altruist morality—guilt, because they dare not reject it.

I had that guilt of never doing enough for others, but instead of cynicism I practiced and accepted the altruistic morality of denying my own needs (because the needs of others always trumped mine).  This conviction that my own needs did not matter left me with a sense of worthlessness.  Is selfishness evil?  Is it always virtuous to give?  I’d like to explore in a few blogs some of Ayn Rand’s views.

Posted September 11, 2012 by janathangrace in Reading, thoughts, Uncategorized

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Finding Grace By Doing Less   4 comments

I have been fighting with fear for a month now, and a sense of being overwhelmed.  It partly comes from my anxiety of having to survive this summer on my lawn-mowing income (along with my inability to pick up sufficient regular clients) and partly from forgetting (as a result) my 2012 commitment to rest.  It has made me think afresh of the Biblical command, not to keep the Sabbath, but to remember to keep the Sabbath.  Apparently I’m not alone in having fear and busyness crowd out the vital place of rest for my soul.   I notice that, remarkably, I accomplish less, not more, when I neglect the rest my soul needs… the fear and drivenness drain away my energy.  This has not always been the case.

Most of my life I lived by overriding my own needs.  I thought I was meeting my soul’s needs by spending hours in prayer, meditation and Bible study, going to church, self-examination and the like.  But in fact these were just more activities to which I drove myself.  They were not “means of grace,” but means of accomplishment, of spiritual advancement.  In those days I measured success by how much I changed the world for the better, not realizing that I was denying with my life the very gospel I preached.  It is hard for the fruits of grace to spring from the drivenness of legalism.  I was getting more tasks done (being successful) because of my unceasing labor, but grace would have had so much more space to work had I learned to do much less while acting from a spirit of unconditional love (in both receiving it and sharing it).

My conception of success has changed so drastically since those days.  The ghost of ‘failures past’ still haunts me at times.  I have not been able to fully shake off those old definitions (mostly because the whole world seems to speak that language), but I realize now that my soul’s health and thereby the health of the hearts around me is my new measure of success.  It has little to do with numbers of tasks completed or people fixed.  I would rather accomplish one thing a day graciously than a dozen without grace, and because of my unhealthy proclivities, the more I try to fit into the day, the more likely I will shortchange grace.  As I grow in grace, I believe I will be able to do more good, but for now I must live within my limits and refuse the shame that shouts at me for doing too little, learning to trust more in God’s grace.

Posted June 10, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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The Strange Turn   3 comments

I can’t do another thing!

The Lenten season is past, but not my Lenten blessing.  I committed to fasting from haste and hurry, and this became a remarkable source of peace for me, as I eased back on my sense of should.  I started this process over the last decade as I gradually realized that most of the duties to which I felt driven were not from God, and that I could choose grace over obligation.  As I ignored these duties, I felt the sting of shame and clung to grace rather than works as a remedy.

But my Lenten exercise did something very unexpected for me.  Since I committed to the spiritual exercise of slowing down (and therefore accomplishing less), I was struck by the conclusion that God wanted me to rest.  It was not only that I could choose to ignore the pressure of obligation, that God would be patient with me in doing less, but that God wanted me to do less, he willed for me to offload these unnecessary burdens.  Grace demanded that I stop forcing my soul and start listening to it and choosing for its needs.  God was not impatiently waiting for me to “hurry up and get with it,” but he was calling me to be as patient with myself as he was with me.  For some time my mind has been convinced theologically that God is more patient with my rate of growth than I am, but after focusing 40 days on rest as a direction from God rather than a concession to my weakness, my emotions were also convinced.  God has designed growth as a life principle to go at a slow pace, and if I try to push harder and faster, I will make things worse instead of better, like too much water and fertilizer on my squash.  I have always been an overzealous fellow.

No doubt many folks go too easy, and would help themselves by picking up the pace, not on the trail of duty, but of grace, stirred by the anticipation and joy and wonder of being transformed, of discovering how rich and full life can be.  Grace removes the drive of obligation not to make us spiritually comotose, but to set us free to find and embrace the richness of grace, its inspiration and glory and power and freedom and joy.  I still have a long way to go, but I am laying one more foundation stone of grace in making this my Year of Rest.

Posted April 10, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal

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She Done Me Wrong   5 comments

When I last shared about Kimberly and me, I left an important point untouched.  Are there not certain responsibilities that are moral in nature?  Is my wife not required to be monogamous?  Is it ever right for me to hit her?  For the relationship to work (any relationship), do we not need some moral standards on which we can insist, a moral code of conduct?

Let me begin by saying that I believe all intentional acts are moral.  Everything we do and how we do it is affected by our faith, love, humility, and the like.  Even things we do with no apparent moral content are choices to do this and not something “better.”   So perhaps the question is rather: are some moral choices “beyond the pale,” so significant that the relationship cannot simply absorb the behavior and continue on more or less as it was but must be addressed and worked through.  To reorient the question in this way, however, moves it from a legal question of right and wrong and rather asks what will hurt or benefit our relationship.  Relationship becomes central, and law becomes its servant (as Jesus said).  Instead of saying, “You must stop this because it is against the law,” or even, “You must stop this because it hurts me,” we simply say, “When you do this it hurts me,” because if we force or manipulate them to change, it will undermine the genuineness of our connection.  For important relationships, this step is just the beginning of an ongoing discussion and a doorway into deeper mutual and self understanding, acceptance, and trust.  That is not to suggest I have no recourse if I am  being hurt, but if relationship is primary, the solution does not lie in controlling the other person.

I am ultimately not accountable for their choices, but for my own.  I am responsible to see that my own needs are met in a healthy way, whether my friend supports me or not.  My needs determine where I draw the boundary line in our relationship, and my friend’s needs determine where he draws the line.  If he cannot respect my boundaries, then I will  take measures to protect my boundaries because I must respect myself and my needs whether he does or not.  This is not a judgment of my friend’s inadequacies or of my inadequacies (as though he doesn’t care enough or I am too needy).  We may both be doing the best we can, but not have the capacity to make the relationship work.

This was the huge distinction between my (former) perspective and Kimberly’s.  I thought the only legitimate basis for boundaries was the law.  If you lie to me, you are wrong; you must stop it, end of story.  If you cheat me, you are wrong and must stop it.  If you hurt me,  you must stop it.  I would use my relationship to blackmail their compliance, communicating with my behavior, “If you want to feel good with me again, you must change.”  With this approach, determining who was at fault was fundamental to resolving relational conflict. 

Basing such boundaries on my own personal needs was just selfishness.  But when Kimberly did, I could very clearly see she was not selfish.  She cared very much for my needs, whether she could accomodate them or not, and this confused me.  Every selfish person I know subtly or blatantly shows disregard for my needs.  Kimberly was saying in essence, “I do not have the emotional resources to care for all my own needs and all yours as well.  If any of your needs go unmet, it is very unfortunate, and we will try to find the resources of support you need, but I can only give from what I have.  You cannot ask me to go into debt in order to pay off your debt.  I cannot ultimately take responsibility for your unmet needs.”

Of course, this was not one straightforward, simple talk we had.  We both agonized over the emotional turmoil that sprang from our conflicting needs.  Let me give an example that plagued us for years… in the next post.


Stop Doing That!   Leave a comment

At last we come to this.  Kimberly and I have needs that conflict–satisfying her need exacerbates mine and vice versa.  I could fill a book with examples, literally.  Promptness is a high value of mine and we are going to be late, so I am driving fast, but safety is a high value for Kimberly.  Whose need gets trumped?   She needs to talk and I need to think.  She needs a clean car and I need a functional one.  She needs us to be more tactful with folks and I need us to be more straightforward.  She needs to spend more money and I need to spend less (in certain categories).  She may need more together time and I may need more alone time.  She’s freezing and I’m burning up.

I was raised to 1) evaluate if this is a true need or just a want 2) if it is just a want (and almost everything was), then sacrifice your desires for the other person 3) if this is not adequately reciprocated and I feel resentment for the “unfairness,” then I hint with my eyes, tone of voice, sighs, coolness, a “joke,” etc. 4) if this does not fix the injustice, then we “talk” about it (which means I tell you in so many words that you are wrong, you apologize and change).  This was my understanding of fairness and compromise–in my family we manipulated each other to get the other to meet our needs–and it generally worked, at least for us younger siblings.  We made demands of one another, taking responsibility for each others needs instead of taking responsibility for our own.  In this environment, personal boundaries were significantly infringed, but the incursions were roughly equivalent, so it was workable.  Of course, this only functions in a context where the expectations are set, determined by an authority (our parents).  Someone has to settle what is fair if fairness is to be the default standard for behavior.  Pushing or choosing for one’s own wants and needs was generally seen as selfish.

I quickly discovered this approach did not work with Kimberly.   My system was reciprocation and her system was freely giving with no expectations.  She insisted that my expectations did not determine her obligation.  If I had a need, it did not mean she had to meet it, because she also had needs and she did not insist that I meet them.  She explained the value of healthy boundaries in relationship.  She would listen and empathize with my need if I cared to talk about it; she would offer suggestions for how my needs could be met; but if I then pushed her with an “ought,” it would stifle her free love, it would not only wound her, but hurt our relationship, setting it on legalistic grounds rather than on grace.  I have needs, my needs are legitimate, she loves me and cares about my needs, but caring about my needs is quite different from caring for my needs.  I cannot demand that she neglect herself to serve me (even if I neglected my needs to serve her).  My resentment towards her “unfairness” suggested that I was not giving out of love and grace (which expects no reciprocity), but out of a fair-trade agreement.

She told me to only give to her (or compromise) freely, and if my gift had strings attached, I was not ready to give.  In that case, she would look out for her own needs.  If I say, “I don’t care where we eat,” “You choose where to dine,” “I’ll go where you want,” and this eventually leads to, “Why don’t we ever eat where I want to go?” then I am being dishonest with her and with myself.  We should tell one another plainly what we want, and then look for some solution that provides for both our needs (or at least does not block either of us from meeting our own needs).  I have learned to trust Kimberly to give me what she can in a healthy way, and whatever is still lacking I take responsibility for instead of placing on her.  She trusts me in the same way. 

This set things on a very different footing for me.  I always assumed my expectations were justified, were self-evident and obvious.  If so, then she should change to meet them.  Why did Kimberly disagree?  I began questioning whether my expectations were self-evident.   I always assumed I “needed” to be on time… the what was given and I only had to resolve the how, how can I get her on my schedule.  But suppose punctuality is not a necessity or even of high value.  Instead of asking what should be done, I started asking why do I feel this way.  Why did I have such a high level of anxiety about lateness?   I thought I did this out of care for the other person’s time, but in fact I was operating from a fear of what others would think of me.  My value depended on others seeing me as dependable, and punctuality was a big part of that evaluation.  I tried to control others’ views of me (and thereby my true worth) by being prompt.  My feelings cried out that I needed to be on time, but my true need was rather to feel worthy, and I could only satisfy this need by grounding it in something more firm than others’ opinions.  I had to learn to be okay with being sometimes tardy, it is human, and part of finding this path into freedom was allowing myself to actually be late.  Kimberly’s need for me to drive slower was an invitation to reconsider my own true need.

This was not a smooth, quick, or comfortable transition, and I still tend to drive with narrower safety margins than makes her comfortable.  I am a work in progress (as is she), and what matters to her most is not slower driving, but acceptance and support of her feelings (instead of poking fun at her caution or otherwise suggesting there is something wrong with her view).  Amazingly, once I was able to segregate my real needs from my false needs, I realized that my greatest need was what Kimberly was so great at giving–empathy and acceptance of my feelings rather than  help avoiding my feelings by “fixing” the situation.  If simple compromise works because neither of us feels very strongly about the matter, then we simply adjust for one another because we care.  But if either of us feels an ongoing discomfort with this solution, we bring it up for discussion, not to figure out a better solution (and so avoid the true issue), but to uncover the real unmet need that is agitating our feelings. 

BTW, Kimberly is a punctual person, she just is not driven to it as I am.

Posted September 26, 2011 by janathangrace in thoughts

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What Do I Really Need?   Leave a comment


By suggesting an alternative to wants-versus-needs thinking, which seems to pit rationality against emotions, I am not suggesting that no difference exists between needs.  Surely some needs are more important than others.  I want to challenge the notion that there is some simple objective way of determining my needs, and that, being objective, it’s evaluation requires no input from emotions.  (As a side note, we seem to have this odd notion that our emotions were badly damaged in the Fall, but that our intellect came through nearly unscathed, so that we can trust the latter more than the former).   There are things I clearly need, some for my body (food, water, shelter) and some for my soul (love, interaction, forgiveness).  Those things I need for my soul should never be forfeited for the sake of another, because I am foremost responsible for my own soul, and I never do well by another when I forfeit myself.  God is responsible for their needs.

I don’t mean that we never forgo some food for the soul as a benefit to another… just like skipping a meal, such choices are good for us if they are in the context of a steady, nutritional diet.  The key I think is my own health, for which I am responsible.  One can be spiritually glutinous or spiritually anorexic… in the first, the intake regularly exceeds the output and in the second the output regularly exceeds the intake.  Both are bad for the soul.  The first is characteristic of those we would call “selfish,” but is also characteristic of those who are starving (or feel as though they are starving).  The selfish individual has the emotional resources to do more for others, but chooses not to, while the starving has no such resources.  None of us knows another’s heart well enough to make this determination about them.

I Know What I Need!

My effort to bring false and true needs into the discussion fits here.  I believe the problem with those who are “selfish,” is not usually that they imbibe too much or more than their share, but that they fill up on Twinkies and Pringles, and since this does not meet their true need and they remain hungry, they continue to stuff more in to fill that gnawing hunger.  No one turns to alcohol to satisfy a need for alcohol.  They do it to reduce the pain from true needs that are languishing.  It is easy to make folks feel better by satisfying their false needs (it makes the giver feel better as well, so we are inclined to do it without thinking), and sometimes it is the best approach for many reasons, but I think it is good for us to realize we are not providing a remedy for their genuine needs.  Their unsatiated need will remain, stimulating their desire for another bag of popcorn.


Another Piece?

I could give a hundred examples in my own life of misunderstanding my needs and trying to satisfy my hunger with plastic pizzas and wooden fruit–the hungrier you are the harder you chew.  It has a profoundly disrupting spiritual effect in one’s life.  I have had a desparate need for acceptance all my life.  I felt unworthy as I was and thought I could not be loved unless I “got my act together.”  I could not trust any acceptance that came from someone who tried to overlook my faults, because such acceptance was undeserved.  My felt need was for holiness… greater and purer and more constant than I had so that I could be worthy, but no matter how much higher I climbed, my thirst for acceptance remained, driving me deeper into the desert.  My growth in “holiness” (as I undertsood it), instead of fulfilling me, was actually dragging me away from realizing and satisfying my real need, which was to discover and embrace God’s grace.  I’m glad my search was a cul-de-sac or I would still be climbing that mountain.

Posted September 22, 2011 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Am I Selfish?   Leave a comment


All of us are concerned that when we give others enough freedom, they will take advantage of us.  They will think only of themselves, and we will get left with too few resources–whether money, time, attention, benefits, or what have you.  It is a realistic concern–watch any playground with children (… or adults), but our desire for boundaries against the incursions of others seems to smack against the command to love, to be unselfish.  We have often tried to sort through this tension by making a distinction between “need” and “want.”  What we need is legitimate to fight for, but what we want should often go unfulfilled for the sake of another.

I think our distinction between need and want slowly worked itself into a spectrum represented at one end by absolute necessity (what we need to survive) and at the other end by mild wishes.  We tend to assign “needs” an objective value (actual need) and “wants” a subjective value (just a feeling) and to downplay our desires.  No matter how intense your feelings, I will judge them as only a “want” if they do not pass the objective test for “needs.”  My attitude will be “get a grip!”

With this approach I determine how much to give or support someone by making an objective comparison between their need and my own need.  When someone asks for money, I immediately consider whether they “need” this or just “want” it.  I compare their level of need to my own, and if their need is greater, I feel obligated to help out.  If I don’t give, I feel under a great deal of pressure to justify my decision (they don’t deserve it, they are not my responsibility, it would be bad for them, etc.).  But this rarely works to fully relieve my conscience, so I feel guilty of selfishness.  I tend to assume the equation: their (genuine) need + my ability = my obligation.


Given this perspective, I must constantly evaluate whether my desire is a “need” or a “want.”  But I find that nearly impossible to determine except for the extremes (physical survival and slight desire).  When I take this route, I find myself using “objective” evaluation of my need to constantly critique my subjective feelings, my wants.  The more it is tied to my feelings, the more likely I am to be dismissive so that my self-care is constantly under attack.  The more conscientious I am, the more I tend to minimize my own desires, downgrading them from needs to wants, interpreting self-care as selfishness (a lack of adequate concern for others).  But shushing our feelings is a pretty sure way of losing touch with our true heart.  God gave us emotions for a reason, so it seems to me ignoring them is going to get us into trouble (I know it has done a great deal of damage to me personally).

I think the “objective” distinction between needs and wants as I presented it here can be a dangerous interpretation of selfishness.  Leaving aside superficial desires that cost me little to miss, I’d like to propose an alternative distinction: true wants/needs versus false ones.  The stronger my desire, the more likely it is to have its roots in an important need, and it is vital for myself and my relationships–for health and growth–to satisfy that need.  Regardless of how trivial my desire looks from an “objective” view, my emotions are cluing me in to an important need.

The major problem I find with this perspective is that I often misconstrue my true needs.  I mistake applause for love, success for worth. I mistake conformity for community, popularity for acceptance… and the list goes on.  My main problem is not selfishness that results in satisfying my desires, but confusion that results in “satisfying” my false desires and neglecting my true ones.  If I am hungry for applause, it is a genuine and important hunger that is calling out, but the true need is not approval, so no amount of praise will satisfy my hunger (as no amount of dry leaves will satisfy my empty belly).  I may think the solution is to “humble” myself and stop seeking applause (to basically deny that I have a need).  I tried that all my life and my genuine hunger remained.  What finally worked for me was identifying my true need (that was tricky) and finding a means to satisfy it with God’s help.

I would like to suggest that it is never a good moral decision to sacrifice my true needs/desires.  I am ultimately responsible for my own health and growth, to receive the grace of God for my needs.  God, not I, is responsible to provide the grace for everyone’s individual needs.  I may or may not be a channel of his grace to others, but it would be morally wrong for me to choose to forgo meeting my own true needs so as to meet another’s needs.  That is not selflessness, it is self abuse, and it confounds God’s role with mine.  I suggested earlier that physical survival was an obvious case of objective need, but is it truly?  I believe I can sacrifice my life for another without injuring myself, but I may never choose to sacrifice my soul.  I believe we are best alerted to our deepest objective needs by our emotions rather than our logic, and through reflection in the context of true community we discover their true nature.

Posted September 15, 2011 by janathangrace in thoughts

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