When I was seventeen I asked my grandfather to help me figure out my university major. Theatre, history, politics, basket weaving? He told me the question was irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what you study, it only matters how it will be used. How will you give back what you learn to the world?
Huh? Said the impatient, arrogant teenager. What does this have to do with basket weaving or anthropology?
My grandfather used to drive me crazy with cryptic, wise old man sayings. He’d sit around the dim sum table, drinking chrysanthemum tea, pretending like he really didn’t know anything, yet speak with tremendous certainty. The contradiction was infuriating. But eventually I figured out what he meant that day. When he said give back, he didn’t mean donate ten dollars to every charity that asked. He was thinking more philosophically. That whatever you took away from life had to be given back somehow. And although my granddad is now gone, this idea has stayed with me. That every thing in life, in some way, works best on the basis of a win-win exchange.
If there are givers and takers in the world, I confess I am a taker. Ask my husband. Ask my old boss who used to remind me at my uglier moments that I could be generous. In writing this post, I sat down and went through a list of my nearest and dearest friends- you know, the people that don’t have to put up with you- and I realized I get so much joy and comfort and encouragement from them (in fact, it’s thanks to them that I’m even able to know the word generous), that I find it difficult to imagine what it is I offer in return that would be fair in the exchange.
By the same token, those people in my life who leave me feeling worse off, or indifferent tend not to stay on facebook page for very long. I admit I do a bit of culling each year. It’s not always a reflection on them; sometimes there is just too much static or distance to broker any kind of real relationship. And the thing about me is, I’m kind of a bulldog when it comes to keeping in touch. I don’t like to lose people who mean a lot to me. But it takes work. It takes investment. And that investment of time and energy and mindspace generally comes with the hope of some kind of return. And by return, I don’t mean it in the material sense. Let’s call it a return in one’s sense of self, one’s well being. A good belly laugh. A renewed faith in humankind. A moment.
Sounds selfish, right? But then I’m a taker. I’m a little selfish. In fact, I’m generally a big proponent of selfish. You know, the kind of selfish you need in order to take care of yourself, the kind you need in order to prioritize, in order to be able to give. Oprah says you need it to stop those who would take advantage of you. The kind that comes from knowing yourself and believing in the value of yourself and what you’re worth.
Of course, there are other kinds of selfish out there. The selfish whose situation is always that of the underdog, who is always a victim and up against it, who consistently self preserves at the expense (or even ruin) of others. Or conversely, the kind of selfish myopia that leads to guilt and regret regardless of how selfish or selfless the decision. I’m no expert, but I’d wager that these breeds of selfishness are buttressed by a good dose of insecurity or arrogance.
For good selfishness to exist, it needs a few support beams (like running with a good sports bra). Self awareness: recognition that whatever you may believe is valid but may not always be the be all and end all truth. And social awareness: the ability to empathize with others, the ability to situate yourself vis a vis someone else and respect that accordingly.
But recently I’ve found myself in a bit of prisoner’s dilemma on this selfish paradigm of mine, and I could use some advice from those of you more generous than myself. I have this friend, and well, she’s talented and intelligent, and driven. I think she might even know it. How else can I explain the extent to which she toots her own horn? Now, I have no problem with a woman tooting her own horn. But here is what bothers me: she’s great at what I call the ‘Ask’. I need this. Help me with that. So I can achieve my itsy bitsy dream. And I do, I do because I can be generous and I believe and support her. But the thing is, there’s no end. She is an endless empty well that needs filling with all my love and support. There is little graciousness, just some self promotion (See! Look how great I am!) and the next ‘ask’. Now you’ve given me this, give me that! Support me! Feel good because I’m getting my dream. I’m giving you an opportunity here. Give to me and you will receive.
Except that in all honesty, I ain’t had much yet. Aside from a few quickly typed words of thank you. Certainly, she’s not liking my sweated over facebook page, or sending me cute little cards in the post that say ‘keep on girl!’ in support of my aspirations. It’s as if her voice is calling so loudly for her dream, I can scarcely hear myself think. I’m being bulldozed by her desires.
So whose being selfish here? Me, for wanting more, or her for her preoccupation with her ambitions, to the exclusion of all others? And how do I stand true to my grandfather and find my win- win situation?
To be fair, I don’t think it’s intentional what she’s doing. Really, I don’t. And yes, I’m well aware that I risk sounding like the mean girl. In fact I was afraid to post this because, well, let’s be honest Mother Sugar Babes, what I’m telling you is kind of ugly. But I’m not someone who begrudges her dream. I want her to have it. I do. I just don’t understand how I have to be drained in the giving.
Maybe it’s supposed to be enough for me, a brief altruist sensation vicariously living her dream? If it is, I guess I’m too selfish for just that. And maybe the attainment of her dream is giving back to someone, somewhere. It just isn’t me.
So what to do? Dig deep and be zen and continue to give? Pull back? (but isn’t that a little petty of me to withdraw my cheerleading squad because there’s no quid pro quo? Talk about selfish!). If it were me, I’d want to know, however hard a thing it might be to hear, and if this were a best friend, I would say something, challenging as that might be. But she’s not. We’re just friends enough that erasing her from my facebook page seems a little severe.
I have no answer. And I know, it’s really my problem, not hers. Sure, I might wish she’d be a little less narcissist and realize how other people might be knocked about by her insistent elbows. I wish she’d show a little more consideration, a little more awareness and generosity for all the generosity she’s received in turn. But I guess she’s a taker too. A taker without a grandpa who told her very wisely to always consider in the taking, what it is you will give back in return.