I lowered the forkful of duck confit as my lunch mate accused me. I pushed away my favorite dish, at my favorite restaurant as I asked her to repeat what she had said, fervently hoping that I had misheard her the first time.
“You are so selfish, just taking care of your own interests,” Jennifer restated.
Well, that was clear. I hadn’t misheard. But I still couldn’t believe it.
We were having this lunch to “clear the air”. Jennifer had been sending me seething looks for months, and since she was head of the Vestry at our little church in Cupertino, this wasn’t helping my spiritual and communal life. The tension had sprung up between us because I gave the church some “extra” monies. You see, I am committed to tithing 10% of my income. And that particular year, I had unexpected revenue arrive at the very end of the year. And so, without much forethought, I had written an additional check with a notation in the memo column, “labyrinth”. Jennifer was upset because instead of giving to the general fund, or to the upcoming physical site redesign committee (to which I had already donated a sizable chunk of monies), I had financially earmarked these new funds to be spent a specific way. As Chairperson of both the Vestry and the Site Redesign committees, she felt I had done wrong by her.
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE
What is it that makes someone selfish, as “lacking consideration or concern for others”? Why do we perceive others as selfish? How do we gauge what is “lack of consideration or concern for others”? These are questions that need to be answered if we’re to understand how to be the change agents we want to be. Because we need to know how to live authentically true to our ideas, even when challenged by our community.
I called my husband after lunch, arguing why Jennifer was wrong and sharing “my” arguments. What I didn’t share with him was how when I was sitting in front of her, my heart was stinging with the hurt that, in some ways, she was deeply right. Why advocate for a different point of view, instead of leaving it up to the person in charge? Why try and create change when it is clearly not wanted? Why not just defer to the larger group’s perspective of churched people who distrust anything that isn’t “of the church”?
Isn’t all of this, by definition, selfish?
I was recently recounting this experience to a colleague and friend. And she was incredulous at how much I was able to take Jennifer’s perspective… “how can giving even more money, be selfish?!” And I started to share other things Jennifer had said. How Jennifer had brought up those times I didn’t go help a church family pack-up and move, or to participate in certain committees she thought could use me. I didn’t bring up the fact that the same family who needed help moving were the ones my family had taken backcountry backpacking and supported in far more meaningful ways, privately. I didn’t argue but certainly knew that ongoing committee work wasn’t a good use of my own particular gifts, nor did I count off the many times I had facilitated certain long-term planning meetings, without joining an ongoing committee. I was able to make the argument from Jennifer’s perspective as if it were my own.
And my friend was astonished.
She reminded me of related conversations we’ve had when talking about her situations. How we had talked of how women are socialized to take care of others vs. advance their own interests, and I had challenged her when she couldn’t prioritizing one’s own vocational goals because she didn’t want to be seen as selfish. It’s not, I had argued; It’s simply honoring your own work, the thing you (and only you) are called to do. This same (executive) friend had been having a hard time carving off non-meeting time on her calendar to plan and think about what was needed next. I had said, she was choosing her people’s near-term needs to avoid being “selfish” but of course, it wasn’t selfish to think; it was strategic work she *needed* to do for her team.
What is “selfish” is just a matter of perspective. A matter of whose interests are served.
TO ABANDON ONESELF
So, why does someone call another personal selfish? What is going on in those scenarios?
It is quite possible that someone is being a narcissistic self-absorbed person who only prioritizes their own needs. But the facts, in this case, didn’t follow that pattern. The labyrinth, in fact, was about advocating for people currently invisible; the underserved and underseen people who might want to use it for a mindfulness walk but don’t necessarily want to accept the body and blood of Christ.
Instead, this person didn’t value another’s ideas. The idea wasn’t even considered worthy of consideration. So the label, “selfish”, was being used to police the idea; Policing is to tell other people what they can and can’t do, invalidating others priorities and ideas as inconsequential.
But what in the world explains why I accepted her opinion as if it were my own? Why couldn’t I hold onto my own point of view? Why did I seem to abandon my own idea as valid?
When people in your life think it’s “selfish” that you have an opinion different than their own, you face an incredibly tough decision: to accept their opinion and conform, or risk not belonging to the group. We are regularly invited to abandon ourself. For regular readers of my content, you’ll remember the story of how I lost my family. My family wanted me to have an arranged marriage. And while I was more than happy to do so (so my mother could be given a home and thus her financial future provided for), I had also asked my mother to ask if I could continue to get a higher education. I wanted my interests and my family’s interests to be equally served. My mother was incensed at the audacity of this request.
I was called, amongst many other things, selfish.
So why did I start to take on Jennifer’s point of view? Because I didn’t want to lose yet another “family”. I didn’t want to lose my church community at St. Jude’s like I had already lost my family of origin or my first marriage. It was one too many losses so I fought it by abandoning myself. But, in the end, Jennifer’s comments (and the new priest deferring to Jennifer in nearly all cases) meant I couldn’t stay. Because I can’t be in a place where what I value isn’t heard out. I couldn’t stay where people thought it was okay to have one person be bullied by another. I have no problem if my idea is considered and deemed unworthy because of other priorities, but it is not okay to be called selfish to have an opinion different than those in charge.
If one has to conform and contort and quiet oneself to belong, that’s not really belonging. Belonging through conforming is a lie, not a full or whole way to live into one’s onlyness.
Is Onlyness the Path to Loneliness, You Ask?
And now I see why I am sharing this story with you. We teach what we most need to learn.
Many of you write to me saying and asking, “Why is Onlyness so scary?” Or “Why is Onlyness is so hard to adopt, in real life?” Some of you even ask the specific question, is Onlyness selfish?
The answer to these three questions is the same.
It is the reason why Onlyness is so hard to adopt. Not only do you have to figure out what matters to you, even if no one else sees it as important; even if it’s just a sense, or a tug on your heart. But then you also have to deal with those people around you who don’t want you to have an interest other than their own. In some ways, it’s “easier” to please someone else — to abandon oneself– rather than to serve that which is your highest calling, you onlyness. One is standing in front of you, the other seemingly invisible.
Onlyness can feel “selfish”, at first.
- It can feel “wrong” to advocate for other people who aren’t visible, or at the table
- It can feel selfish to say what is true for you.
- It seems weird to want something others around you don’t.
But let me remind myself and you at the same time. That space you hold, your spot in the world where only you stand, is not valued by other people until you first value it yourself. They try and shake you from your spot by suggesting it’s selfish to even have a different point of view, to see change as needed, to want to expand who is served. Sometimes that power of place — onlyness — that is entirely yours can seem small because it isn’t where everyone else already is (at least, not yet). But, it’s important to remember… it is YOUR spot, and that in itself is why it matters. Until you can claim your spot in the world, you also cannot also see where you belong. You cannot find your place amongst the stars.
Until you claim and live into your onlyness, you can be surrounded by people but feel deeply lonely. Certainly, I did in my last few years at St. Jude’s; It was becoming a place that valued “nice” over “deep” or “real”. Onlyness is not the pathway to loneliness; it is exactly the opposite. BUT there is a moment there where it will feel like you are all alone. I don’t deny this because I have lived it. AND, yet I know that as I have figured out what it is that DID matter, I found my peeps, and then found myself so meaningfully in relationship with others that my whole world changed. So YES, it does mean being willing to give up people and places where you are today, but don’t actually belong. That interlude between leaving where you are and finding the new people to whom you do belong… can be scary.
At the time I had written the check, I didn’t think I was about to ruin my connection to my church community. I thought I was supporting, even expanding, the community by funding the labyrinth. But the experience ended up teaching me that I didn’t really belong there. And that has meant I could turn my heart and mind to where I do meaningfully belong. I can’t say I’ve found it, but I can tell I’m on the path….
DO NEXT ACT: Do you find it scary to live into your onlyness? It’s okay to name it; It’s okay to start on journey to find where you belong. And while it’s 100% normal to worry we’ll never find that place, that maybe it doesn’t exist, have faith it is there. You will find it when you walk away from people who don’t get you, and towards those who do.