The call of Self: neither selfish nor self-sacrificing

Posted Dec 21, 2011

What to do? Buddha in contemplation

Hmm.... is it better to give than to receive?

to share or not to share

to share or not to share

"This above all; to thine own self be true," says the Bard. Be true to your Self, but don't be selfish. Where's the line? The very thin, almost invisible, utterably inexplicable line between being true to oneself and being selfish? Between self-care and selfishness?

What's a kid to do when she has a toy, "Here honey I got this just for you!" but she has to share it, even if she doesn't want to. "Don't be selfish, honey, share your toy nicely."

What's an adult to do on that same razor's edge between taking care of himself, "No, thanks, I really don't want to go out tonight" and being supportive of someone else, "Whatever you want is ok with me!"

For better or worse, we walk this line every day, and there is no right answer, no formula that will define how to make the choice, in any moment, on whether to lean one way (self-care) or the other (self-sacrifice). There is one thing we can know for certain. If we lean too far either way, we're in trouble.

Too much self-care does make us selfish. Child or adult, we live in community. We are interdependent and we need to be able to share... and give... and let go of our preferences (sometimes). "The great way is easy" say the Buddhists "for those with no preferences."
Too much self-sacrifice turns us into a martyr, a victim, an invisible person with no Self to show to the world. The Buddhists (this time from the mouth of the Buddha) have a saying for this one too. "Be a lamp unto yourself. Be your own confidence. Hold to the truth within yourself, as to the only truth."
Hmm.... No preferences, but light your own way. Ok, perhaps resolving this minor paradox will be (as the Buddhists also say) a finger pointing to the moon. Hold to the truth within yourself.

There may well be an inner compass, in both children and adults that points us towards the truth within ourselves. When asked to share or change or give or see the other's point of view, there is a moment of reflection required: a valuing process, a weighing of preferences, if you will. We might give our toy to the kid next to us out of conditioning, fear, the desire to please, or hopelessness. We might hold onto it for dear life to prove our autonomy, fight for justice or to stake our claim to rebellion. We might (and even children do) take a breath and tune in to what is most important to us in the moment. There are no right answers. But there are thoughtful and feelingful ways to walk that line.

There are a few guideposts to help us be true to ourselves; to be in tune with our deepest Self; to be Self....ish. For if I am anchored in my deepest truth, my center, my Soul, if you will, I will have access to my "no" and to my "yes" and I will be better able to balance between selfishness and martyrdom.

There are some guideposts in this balancing act:
1. Prioritize your values! When you know what's important and what's not, all of this will be much easier.
2. Think "me" and "we"! Hold them both as equally valuable and if you start to let one take up too much of you, then rebalance.
3. Look out for the old messages! "You should be this, that or the other thing" messages (past and present) leave you responding in a compliant or rebellious way. Neither is very deep.
4. Look inside. Listen to that still small voice. Look for that light that can guide you. Trust your deepest knowing, the call of your Self, that is not selfish nor self-sacrificing.

When we hear the call and know it to be our truth, we can answer. And the answer may be to give or to receive, for in spite of what they say, one is not better than the other. We need both, like the in breath and the outbreath, both in equal measure.