I was brought up in a community that encouraged us to be selfless. We were taught to give ourselves to the greater good of others, this valuable lesson was exemplified by the giving of material things such as food, clothes, money, rooms to strangers, beds to visitors and so forth. But as I grew up I realised that this lesson in selflessness was undefined and that its practical application was limited, as different situations arose.
I have seen and experienced undefined selflessness depleting one beyond the loss of material things. So with this piece, I attempt to answer the following:
What is selflessness? How does it work? And what is it’s intended purpose?
This is my understanding.
Selflessness begins with self. It starts with self-love, self-appreciation, self-recognition, self-appraisal, self-awareness and self-forgiveness.
When we fail to recognise, elevate and appreciate ourselves-to-ourselves then we end up doing one of these two things; the first one being, we either start treating others with the same disrespect we have for ourselves. Disrespect sounds a bit harsh but it’s true. Failing to recognise yourself as valuable, important and worth your time and attention is disrespecting yourself. That’s why some people would rather be with everybody all the time but themselves. This is simply because they do not like what they see when the mirror of silent introspection looks at them.
Which leads me to my second expression. People who fail to love themselves properly tend to give to others the love they would like to receive from themselves, hoping that when other people reciprocate all will be well. But that is unfortunately not the case, no one can give you what you owe to yourself. They will give you what they are supposed to give you. But if you don’t know the difference you will always feel like they are not giving you enough.
I am not a doctor, but I know that you know that I know that not loving yourself in unhealthy. Well done if you read the previous sentence once and got it right. 🙂
This is how I understand selflessness should work. In the order of all the important things in your life, you should be priority number one. Simply because if you are not alright, then nothing that depends on you will be alright. Period.
It is not selfish to place a demand on yourself to start paying attention to yourself. Listen, I am a married career-man with a three-year-old girl, with other roles from extended family, friends and the community demanding more from me, but I still have the audacity to place a demand on myself to be by myself and to do the things that make me feel young, human and alive.
In the times when I am by myself, I love myself, I undress my soul from expectations that come with the titles, roles and responsibilities. I acknowledge my duty but I am not what I do, and my humanity is not formed by or framed around my responsibilities and external expectations. I am an ambivert, so a huge part of me is introverted and it relishes being alone. I don’t compromise my time for solitude for nobody because that’s my centre, my core and my place of refilling.
Prioritising myself has enabled me to tell people when I cannot do something for them, especially when their needs presented the risk of undermining the value I place on myself as a soul or threatened my emotional and psychological well-being. Saying “No” to others and myself, placed a limit on my undefined selflessness and subsequently unleashed my emotional honesty.
This is one of the lessons I want my daughter to see emulated; that she matters – first to herself before anybody else. That she does not have to lose her being all in the name of preserving an empty unrewarding throne of being a selfless woman. She does not have to follow the current narrative – that is Black women are givers at the expense of their worth. To me, that is very important for the vibrant woman of colour she will become. It is the same environment I have created around my wife, she does not have to lose herself – dreams, ambition, potential, goals – all in the name of being a selfless wife and mother. Many of our parents live through us partly because of undefined selflessness but we don’t have to do the same to our children.
But I digress. To get back to what I was saying.
Guess what happened when I started prioritising myself? People started to respect the fact that I place value on myself. How did they know? Your self-awareness and self-assuredness show without you even saying, “Ndiyazi mna ukuba ndingubani,” (I know who I am). It shows when you’ve started investing in you first. Your worldview matures.
What is selflessness though? Selflessness is a tool – a hand – by which God first gives you the opportunity to use to sow the seeds in your life to the needs of other people and creatures on this earth. Secondly, selflessness is the gateway for God to give to your needs through other people. It costs to be there for others and it costs others to be there for you. But the cost does not have to be at the expense of valuable things such as self-worth and self-appreciation.
What selfishness? When you are the only item on your priority list. I mean like all the planets and people orbit around your fears, courage, ideas, gifts, titles, beliefs, experiences, achievements, possessions etc. Then, my Ninja, you are…
Let me end with a disclaimer: To my friends in Christ. Right before I am accused of re-arranging and fiddling with the two greatest commandments that form the very existence of our faith – Matthew 22:37 -39. I am simply presenting my opinion, that it is impossible to love the Lord with all your heart, mind and soul if all these aspects of your being are dedicated to pleasing only your neighbour in the name of selfless service. You and I know a lot of publicly ebullient and charitable people but privately miserable at the same time. Ever wonder what causes that? Anyway, the point is your heart, mind and soul don’t exist outside of you. You are these things. Therefore taking care of them first is prioritising your wellness.
Let me know your thoughts.