Is this so? I’ve heard it said, and on one or two occasions I’ve been called selfish myself. In any case, this seems to be an important point to talk about here because I know that I’m not selfish and yet I can see when I look back that I’ve lived my life very selfishly. Is this another one of those seeming contradictions, like being a realist and idealist at the same time? Or is it a paradox I may have a decent chance to explain to you?
When I say I know I’m not selfish, I base this on the fact that I try think of the other person first. Most of the time I do it automatically, but not always. This goes all the way back to my childhood, where I did farcical things like wearing a sport coat and tie to elementary school one day (and suffering ridicule for it) because the teacher said a new student was joining our class and we should make her feel welcome; or never taking credit for a good shot in basketball but always complimenting others for theirs—even opponents. (I continued this practice all my life.) Moreover, I always shared my candy, even to the point of giving it away if I felt the other person was particularly pitiful or deserving.
In adulthood I went out of my way to help others, doing more ridiculous things like stopping to help strangers push-start their cars (by hand)—I must have done this a dozen times or more, though nowadays cars are so much more dependable and don’t need this treatment. I’ve stopped men from slapping women around in the street several times, and have broken up a few teenage fights, once with broken bottle-wielding protagonists. I never thought I was any better or any worse than anyone else, so it seemed natural to help people out, strangers or not. I’ve always been that “nice guy who finished last,” you might say.
But boy, could I be selfish! When it came to protecting my time for writing, or my peace of mind to be able to write, I was, and still am, ruthless. I’m naturally sweet and easy-going (god, I hate the sound of that—see how our culture tries to shape men into the proper package?), but not when it comes to my work!
I was also selfish in trying to preserve my sanity so that I could continue the work. I’ve already talked about having cars and motorcycles to help see things through—maybe like a person might smoke cigarettes to accomplish the same thing. To me that’s selfish, considering the state of the environment. I’ve used romance to do this as well. So here I am, writing about the perils of relying too much on cars or romance (or money or whatever), and me on occasion trying to fill an emptiness or ward off frustration doing just the thing I caution against. My defense (or rationalization) has always been that I’m working for the kind of society where we don’t need to be selfish about these things, and in its absence I, too, can sometimes fall victim to the accommodating vices we’re offered. But I never felt good about it.
Basketball is another area where I’ve been selfish. I was never selfish about the way I’ve played the game—on the contrary, I’m always passing, setting picks, offering encouragement to teammates, always trying to be generous. Maybe it’s the fact that I demand to play that’s selfish. I’ve needed basketball, as I’ve needed everything else I do, to survive, and if I go to the gym and the guys are taller and faster and hell-bent on winning (this is usually the case), I join in anyway because I need to play. I don’t care if they think I might be a liability or take precious time with the ball that they themselves might better use to hog it and score their points—as players and as men. Thus I’ve had my share of words with such players on the court, simply because I demand my court time, just as they do. If I was as skillful a player as some of them were, maybe I could command a bit more respect. But that’s not the case, so I’ve had to stand up and play to the best of my ability and the rest of ’em can take a hike! And I’m not a bad player (give me a B-), so maybe I don’t feel so bad about being selfish there.
Okay, let’s elevate this conversation a little. I’m talking about some mundane things and we really want to know if writers in general are selfish and in particular, if this one is. And I already answered that, though maybe not to your satisfaction. I’m not particularly selfish—it’s mostly not in my nature and never has been (though I have made mistakes aplenty over the years)—but I can be completely, wholeheartedly selfish if it has anything to do with my survival or effort as a writer. But the fact is that even then, I’m not doing it for myself—it’s always been about the work. And the work isn’t for me. It’s for you. I don’t write for enjoyment or therapy, or because I want to be rich and famous. I write because I was born into this world, saw what I thought was needed, and feel a duty to talk about it. I’m completely selfish about protecting that.