January 25, 2016 by Jean
In adulthood, I came to question this contrast. At some point, it occurred to me that another meaning of “selfless” was “having no self” or “lacking a sense of self,” which sounded more like a serious psychopathology than a virtue. I was in my mid-thirties when I had this thought and influenced, I think, by Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice (Harvard University Press, 1982), in which she argues that the most difficult moral lesson for women to learn is that in order to take care of others, you must take care of yourself. (You know, like the airline safety instruction to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.)
This lesson was reinforced during the decades to come, when I taught Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. One of the fundamental principles taught in the introductory courses was to always ask if categories presented as either/or dichotomies could actually be both/and. Instead of seeing my choices as either looking out for my own enjoyment and happiness or doing things for others, is it possible that I can both make myself happy and help others?
As I try to figure out how I want to use my time in retirement, this is one of the principles I have been applying. I gave up my first volunteer activity (at the local food bank) when I realized that I was more often assigned a task that made me feel inept and bad about myself than the job that I originally volunteered for and enjoyed (see Kissing Volunteer Frogs). When I realized that I could contribute to the success of the local Senior College by volunteering to teach, it was a win-win. I could strengthen the Senior College program and enrich the lives of the adult learners who took my class while thoroughly enjoying myself. Not only did I get to use my well-honed teaching skills; I also grew as a teacher and improved those skills. When I asked my recently widowed neighbor to join me for dinner once a week, was I doing something for her or doing something for myself? Both/and. She gets a once-a-week dinner she doesn’t have to prepare at the end of a busy day, I get insurance against social isolation, and we both get an enjoyable evening and a deepening friendship. I’ve just been accepted to the Master Gardener volunteer training, which will both improve my gardening skills and lead to volunteer activities that I enjoy. My recent decision to join the Maine Music Society chorale (more about this in a later post) is something I’m doing strictly for my own enjoyment, but the existence of the chorale also enriches the cultural life of the community.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should never do something just for ourselves (I love pampering myself) or sacrifice to do something for others. Most of us sometimes do things we don’t want to do to meet the needs of friends and family. But these acts also include a measure of taking care of ourselves because they nourish relationships that enrich our lives. I expect that I will get called on by some groups I am part of to take on administrative tasks, which I don’t particularly enjoy. My organizational skills and take-charge tendencies mean that I have “committee chair” written all over me. I will probably say yes to some of these requests, as a way of supporting programs and organizations that are important to me. But I like to think I will draw the line at saying yes to taking on tasks that I struggle to get done or that leave me feeling stressed out.
My sense of self depends on making some contribution to a larger group, community, or society; but I think there are many ways to do so while also enjoying myself. At this stage of my life, my ongoing commitments and activities need to meet that both/and criterion.