You Belong To Yourself

Today I decided I would like to write a long historical investigation of our culture’s desperate need to be seen as selfless.

I’m not going to; I have too many other books to write. But this obsession is inextricably woven into the fabric of our culture.

How does it feel when someone accuses you of being selfish? It’s cutting, isn’t it? It immediately churns up shame, and the terror of exile.

This collective horror of prioritising ourselves has deep roots in our religious history. Every major religion emphasises the virtue of putting others first, sacrificing your own needs for the greater good.

Of course, there are times when the greater good must win out. During war, for example, or when you have a newborn, or you’re the only person earning in your household.

But even in those circumstances, and more especially today, in the midst of this most modern of plagues, I would like to propose that the most virtuous thing for you to do is to prioritise yourself instead of others.

Wait! Don’t run away just yet. Let me tell you why.

Actually, let’s have Brenda Ueland tell you why, because she is pretty OG in this line of thinking. In her 1938 book, If You Want To Write, she says:

“If you are always doing something for others, like a servant or a nurse, and never anything for yourself, you cannot do others any good.

For to teach, encourage, cheer up, console, amuse, stimulate or advise a husband or children or friends, you have to be something yourself.

And how to be something yourself? Only by working hard and with gumption at something you love and care for and think is important.

To write, or to pursue any kind of creative work, you have to be selfish to some degree.

You have to scoop out time from the day that does not belong to anyone else and spend it entirely in your own company.

For just a little while, the rest of your life has to wait. And that, in turn, can raise much bigger questions than what you’re going to write about today. Questions like…

  • What are my everyday priorities (and therefore the ‘grand scheme of my life’ priorities)?
  • What deserves my time, and do I owe time to anybody?
  • What happens when I draw a boundary with people who are used to having unfettered access to me?
  • How do I feel about myself, my work, and the people around me when I do something simply for the sake of my own interest or enjoyment?

I have been practicing all this myself lately.

Sometimes it means leaving my partner to wrangle HRH Prince Obi without me so I can get in a workout.

Sometimes it means ignoring client work so I can do some writing of my own.

Sometimes it means saying no to friends so I can rest.

It’s all uncomfortable, and of course it benefits me — but it benefits everyone else too.

I’m a much better partner when I’ve been exercising. I’m a much better ghostwriter when I’ve been stretching my own creativity. I’m a much better friend when I’m rested and able to be present.

It is a profound grace and a generosity that we share ourselves with others and have others who share themselves with us.

But at the very core of our existence is the fact that we belong solely to ourselves. And the only person who will look back across my life, and feel satisfaction or regret with my choices, is me.

In those final moments, hopefully in the long distant future, I want to look back with satisfaction and the knowledge that in choosing myself, in pursuing what I cared most about, I made life richer for everyone around me.

So today, if you’re struggling to prioritise your own needs, interests, desires — I dare you to do it. Blame it on me if you have to; you can say your writing coach gave it to you as homework.