On a hectic October Tuesday, just before 7x7’s monthly race to the printer, I took it upon myself to enjoy some languorous me-time at the W Hotel. Looming deadlines had triggered my tendency to crack under pressure. I settled in at Trace for a two-hour feast of beet salad, mushroom flatbread, a lamb pastrami sandwich, and butterscotch pudding, and then waddled up to Bliss Spa for a two-hour mani-pedi chaser. My phone was tucked away in my bag, where its buzz-killing cries for attention would be muffled by my open-toe Aldo sandals, ready to be unearthed to accommodate my freshly polished toes. A little after 4pm, when I returned to work, I walked into “the tundra”—an office climate made glacial by the icy stares and cold shoulders of colleagues who failed to comprehend the benefits of self-indulgence in the eleventh hour.
We all know the pitfalls of selfishness: Ebenezer Scrooge’s miserly ways put a strain on Christmas celebrations for the Cratchit family; and my personal hero, Veruca “I want it now” Salt, went the way of a bad nut in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We’re all guilty of a bit of selfishness—raise your hand if you’ve ever felt something less than joy for a friend who landed a high-paying tech job or experienced pangs of bitterness when an ex found love again.
But in proper doses, selfishness can be a good thing. Aristotle, the sage of all
sages, argued that it is key to good relations with others. In his Nicomachean Ethics, the philosopher writes, “A man’s best friend is the one who not only wishes him well, but wishes it for his own sake. And this condition is best fulfilled by his attitude toward himself.” Perhaps the ancient Greek would have approved of Julia Roberts’ Eat Pray Love character (confession: I didn’t read the book), who abandons her responsibilities and loved ones in New York City to gallivant around the globe in search of herself.
“Selfishness is traditionally defined as being exclusively and excessively focused on self,” says San Francisco psychotherapist Alexis Stricker. “But if you think of selfishness as self-love, then there can be a lot of benefits.” Just the right hint of selfishness, says Stricker, is “a way of honoring yourself.”
At least my act of self-preservation didn’t involve traveling across the globe to stuff my pore-free visage with prosciutto and burrata cheese on the floor of an Italian villa. I merely journeyed a few blocks away from the office, and returned the same afternoon, refreshed and ready to work. Compared with Elizabeth Gilbert, I’m practically a saint.
Luckily, selfishness exists within a gray area and is “always a question of degree,” according to a November 2013 article penned by Dr. Jeremy Sherman in Psychology Today. “If there were no reason to do anything self-ish we should all just kill ourselves on day one in order to make generous room for others.” Oh dear. Who knew altruism could be so deadly? Oakland shaman Alan Waugh points out, “There’s a difference between selfishness and self-nurturing. Tending to your needs first can be important.” (Doormats of the world, rejoice!)
I suppose I could feel guilty about taking that long lunch and getting my nails done. But I won’t. I hereby absolve myself of all minor transgressions, past and future. After all, I am saving the life—or at least the sanity—of the man I love the most: me.
This article was published in 7x7's December/January 2014 issue. Click here to subscribe.