Selfish is Better

Mother Theresa spent five decades ministering to the poor of Calcutta. For her life of selfless service you would think she would have felt fulfilled, but you would be wrong. In letters she wrote and asked to be burned after her death (but were not), she admitted to her advisors and priests that she felt empty, lost and even tortured. Those were her words. Her advisors said that just showed her closeness to Jesus—that she suffered as he did. That’s one interpretation, but here’s another: She wasn’t filling her own needs, and so she didn’t feel fulfilled.

We’ve been conditioned to hold up the selfless life, the life of sacrificing one’s own needs to help others, as admirable. But what are we really doing when we do this? We are denying ourselves the compassion and love we think it is so admirable to give others.

We’re supposed to be living selfish (in the meaning of self-care) lives; lives of compassionate self-care, not lives of willful self-neglect. If we truly take care of our own needs out of self-love and self-respect, we will have learned compassion for ourselves, which naturally awakens compassion for others, since we will have understood the connection of all things.

So when Mother Theresa admitted that she felt empty and that she continued each day through self-will, she was actually ignoring self-compassion and its fulfilling, connecting aspect. She was left feeling empty, because she was empty.

Like the oxygen mask in the airplane—the  one you’re told to put on first before you help someone else—it’s  your job to take care of yourself first, because how much are you helping, really, if you’re passed out from lack of oxygen?



8 thoughts on “Selfish is Better

  1. I love this post! It’s incredibly important for women and girls to learn that it’s ok to take care of yourself. Frankly, a big part of how society keeps women in the lesser role is by programming them that their wishes should be subservient or else they’re bad people. This stuff is true for men also, but for women it is downright critical.

  2. A good reminder, Deb. We were raised to believe it’s better to give than to receive. But if we all insist on giving and refuse to receive, who will be there for us to give to? At this point in my life I find I must remember that if I don’t take care of myself first, I won’t be able to take care of anyone else.

  3. Interesting, Debra; Thomas Merton covered this same subject, in “No Man is an Island” , which I’m quoting:

    “All men seek peace first of all with themselves. That is necessary, because we do not naturally find rest even in our own being. We have to learn to commune with ourselves before we can communicate with other men and with God. A man who is not at peace with himself necessarily projects his interior fighting into the society of those he lives with, and spreads a contagion of conflict all around him. Even when he tries to do good to others his efforts are hopeless, since he does not know how to do good to himself. In moments of wildest idealism he may take it into his head to make other people happy: and in doing so he will overwhelm them with his own unhappiness. He seeks to find himself somehow in the work of making others happy. Therefore he throws himself into the work. As a result he gets out of the work all that he put into it: his own confusion, his own disintegration, his own unhappiness.”

    Still, it’s a surprise someone who, life-long, provided mercy to those who’d experienced little, would have also been as needy – I’m thinking she was exhausted and a little overwhelmed at the moment she made those comments, near the end of her life, but on reflection she might have retracted somewhat.

  4. Thank you Paul, for the Thomas Merton quote–so interesting and wise. The book that quotes Mother Theresa’s letters is called “Mother Theresa: Come Be My Light”.

  5. Agree! Hard to feed others by starving yourself. And to quote a friend: “if it isn’t fun, it isn’t sustainable”. Just spent a good part of 16 years working with youth in Orange, MA ignoring both these aphorisms and paying a steep price in health, wealth, friendship, family, and sanity. Those were my version of Orwell’s “Burmese Days” (and basically his whole life’s modus operanda). As I embark on a new chapter in Maryland at age 49, I hope I can do a better job of self-caretaking. Thanks so ,much for the reminder! (via Richard’s Fb post)

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