In certain areas of my life, I am a master procrastinator. My first book took far longer than it should have to be finished. The follow-up (details of which are coming soon) is taking far longer than it should to write, even though I’m at a point in my life in which I have more than enough free time to work on it. Over the past month my once-regular exercise routine has almost fallen off my radar entirely (with drinking sessions and beach visits filling its place in my schedule).
Other areas of my life are much different. Through seven years of university, I never — not once — missed a deadline for my professors. In three years as a teaching assistant, I was never late to a lecture or tardy handing back essays. I’m always on time when meeting friends. I make it a point to respond to emails from my readers within a day of receiving them (whenever possible). I am a master of regular lawn maintenance at my parents’ house. Why is this?
I’ve come to the conclusion that I, like many people, am often compelled to procrastinate in my most selfish endeavors; or, the tasks and duties that have the greatest potential to produce real and tangible dividends in terms of my personal wealth, health, and happiness.
I often prioritize the needs, wants, and priorities of others above my own. Thankfully, I’m slowly coming out of this, and at the same time realizing that to be selfless sometimes one has to act selfish. I used to believe that by prioritizing the needs of others over my own I was contributing to their health and happiness. Now I realize that in doing so I was cheating them out of health and happiness.
It’s often in the best interests of those we care about for us to be selfish. Our friends and family are best served when we are able to fully manifest our best self, and contribute to their lives from a place of personal fulfillment, happiness, and freedom. We are only able to aspire to our best self when we put in the necessary work on ourselves; or, in other words, act selfish.
Buddhists contend that the self is illusory, and ask the question “Who is the thinker behind the thoughts?” (Spoiler: there isn’t one.) Many Westerners believe that “I think; therefore I am,” but Buddhists argue that there are only thoughts — no consistent entity which we might call a “thinker,” or an “I,” or a definite “self.” I’ve generally tended to agree with them.
Lately I’ve begun to understand this concept in a new way. We live in a world of duality, and mutually-essential relationships. As the late English philosopher Alan Watts was fond of saying, “There can be no up without down. No right without left. No black without white. Similarly, there can be no me without you. I only know what I am because of what you are…” Or rather, there is no self without other; our “selves” are entirely dependent on the “selves” of others, leading to the inevitable conclusion that we are all one; interconnected; interdependent. There are no individual “selves” on this Earth. There is only one universal Self.
If we make a genuine effort to grow into our best selves in order to bring more light, love, and happiness to ourselves and those around us, our “selfishness” serves our community and the wider world. Being “selfish” in order to put in the necessary work on ourselves is not being selfish at all, but is in fact necessary to achieve our community’s maximum collective potential for health, growth, and happiness.
This is getting a little (ok, more than a little) new-agey, but I hope you get the point.
The people we care about — whether they are lovers, friends, family, co-workers, etc. — ultimately want, even need us to be selfish. If our selfishness is manifested as a commitment and dedication to personal development, improvement, and constant evolution, everyone in our lives is going to be much happier as a result. The lives of those we care about will be enriched by our presence only if we enrich our own life first.
So don’t feel guilty about taking whatever time, space, and energy you need to get serious about self-improvement. Don’t put off your personal development any longer. Confront your deficiencies as you might a broken arm. You wouldn’t ignore a broken arm, and assume it would magically repair itself — you would assess the situation, perhaps consult a friend or family member to get some perspective on its severity, go to the hospital, and consciously initiate the process of healing. Do the same with whatever is holding you back from growing into the man you want to be.
The people who love you want you to be selfish. They want you to grow so that they can be better served.
Don’t cheat them out of your best self for any longer.
Note: a version of this article was originally posted at RetroactiveJealousy.com.