I had a conversation with a friend this week about his planned weight loss. It wasn’t about the how and why; despite what the Associated Press once said about me, I’ve never claimed to be a weight loss expert, and I’m happy to see people make positive change one way or another.
Instead, it was about his motivation to change. I’ve had several such conversations with people over the years, and they all seem to follow the same model. What follows is a composite:
“I’m not happy to be doing this,” he said.
“Why not? You should be dancing for joy at the prospect of change. ”
“I’m only doing this because I have obligations.”
“Such as?” I sensed where he was going, but I wanted him to go there. And he did.
“I want to see my grandchildren. I want to see my nieces grow up. I want to further my career and help people.”
“All those are good selfish reasons. They should make you happy.”
“There’s nothing selfish about them. I’m doing this for others, not because I want to.”
“All three statements start with ‘I want.’ And to be blunt, you aren’t the only person in the world in your line of work, or the only person who can help people. As for your nieces, just like mine, they are going to grow up with or without you. So you might as well admit there’s an element of selfishness in your motivation, and enjoy it.”
“I’ll assume your Asperger’s made you say that and ignore it.”
…. and the conversation went downhill from there. The rest of it isn’t important for this post. The point I made to my friend, and I make to anyone and everyone, is that positive change, in weight loss or anything, is a personal, and selfish, act. And that’s OK. In fact, its required.
That last statement, that selfishness is required for change, seems to fly in the face of thinking both secular and Judeo-Christian. “Do unto others” is practiced by atheist, agnostic, and believer, and I’ll let them argue about whoever first espoused the idea. But my point is that even for Jews and Christians, who are commanded to do things for others, they are also commanded to enjoy them. Psalm 100, for instance, opens with a command to worship God “with gladness.” In other words, take pleasure in the worship.
You can choose any example of selflessness and there’s an element of selfishness in it. Mother Teresa is often cited as an example of giving without receiving, but lets face it, she took pleasure in her selfless labor on behalf of India’s poor, otherwise she would have chosen a different life. And that’s OK. She made the world a better place for it.
At a lower level, my friend Michael Mills works as an advocate for the disabled. Life in a wheelchair is tough. Putting yourself out there daily as a role model for the physically challenged is wearying in body and spirit. No one would blame him for sitting at home watching the world go by through a television screen. Instead he goes out and competes in obstacle course racing and stunts like climbing the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Yes, he might feel obligation as an adaptive athlete to do such things. But lets face it, as challenging as it is, he gets pleasure that’s deeply personal along with the scars and sore arms and broken wheelchairs.
I’m no Mother Teresa or Michael Mills, but people have cited this website as “inspirational” and “great reading.” That’s very kind, and I keep that praise in mind when I’m up at 2:00 AM after a long day at work, writing a blog post and hoping WordPress doesn’t crash before I hit Publish, but for all the work I do I get a selfish pleasure out of it. Just as I got pleasure out of changing my life all those years ago. And just as I wanted my friend to experience the pleasure, or at least be open to experience it.
But to do something without the pleasure, without the passion, without the selfishness, is to do something solely out of obligation. And regardless if your holy book is the Bible or Atlas Shrugged, obligation without joy is sterile and deadening. I wanted my friend to avoid that as he undertakes a major life change. It’s OK to be selfish. Its OK to admit to yourself you are being selfish. And as you work towards a goal, through all the problems and stresses that arise, its selfishness that’s required.