There is a line from the musical Wicked that goes, “Something has changed within me. Something is not the same.” I love the musical now, but the first time we saw it up in Richmond, Anna had to drag me to it.
Selfishness is a funny thing, and it is something that I’ve been dealing with in the latter half of my life.
When reflecting on the demise of Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West), Glinda (the good witch) wonders, “Are we born wicked, or do we have wickedness thrust upon us?” I can safely say I wasn’t born selfish, no more than anyone else is born selfish from a purely evolutionary, survival of the fittest standpoint. I had a generally selfless mien as a child. I was affable and kind, funny and sweet, too smart for my own good, and generally a good kid. Then I wasn’t.
I cannot pinpoint the exact moment the shift happened, but I can recall episodes where my selflessness was chipped away. Over indulgences, bad relationships, weight gain, stress, disappointment, guilt, shame, self-loathing—they all chipped away at this rock of selflessness that I had prided myself on possessing until it was nothing more than a pebble.
My mother-in-law wondered where her daughter’s happy-go-lucky spouse went. My mother, who is never one to beat around the bush, told me on the phone that I had become, in a word, selfish. I did not receive these observations well at the time, though I now see that they were completely accurate. My distorted notions of self-preservation and keeping everyone else on the outside of the chaos within drove the selfishness like an engine. When I began to let myself heal, however, I recognized in some small part the change that had taken place so insidiously.
Even when I emerged from my darker days, before Nora was born, I did not shed every negative habit. I slept a lot. I did not want to be “social.” I hid behind my self-diagnosis of introversion with fierce conviction. I joked about my general misanthropy. Once again, I was using humor to defray attention from the insecurities, but this time, I was also using it to distract from my selfishness.
Then, just as quickly as it had come, it left. No warning. No lead up. No working at it in earnest. I cannot say precisely when it happened, but I can point to the exact moment that I recognized that something was awry (in a good way). We were in North Carolina, perhaps the second day of our trip, and Kemper wanted to go fishing. Hit wanted to go fishing the moment we stepped foot on the property, but once again, I was tired, and I promise to take him later.
I was always promising to take him fishing later. The trouble was that later seldom came. Finally, I had had enough of his incessant entreaties, and I knuckled under, and we went fishing. It was cold. It was raining. I was grumpy. And he was having the time of his life. Something clicked, though I didn’t recognize it at the time, and I just went with the flow. We fished for about two hours in the rain, because that’s what my dad would’ve done.
This post goes hand-in-hand with my gratitude post of a couple of weeks ago, because gratitude and selflessness go hand in hand. I took for granted the time with my kids, my wife, my family, and even with Zoe. When I found Deacon online and read his back story — about how he had been taken for granted, left out on a chain, and neglected — I thought back to Sadie, our rescued Golden retriever I had as a kid, when I wasn’t selfish, and when I didn’t take anyone or anything for granted. She had been abused and neglected, and she was the sweetest most grateful dog I have ever known.
I know we gave Zoe a good life, and I am comforted by the fact that she was loved, despite my selfishness and ingratitude. But I wonder what our connection would’ve been like had I had this epiphany earlier.
Anna looked at me on Monday, three days after we headed taken Deacon home, and acknowledged the change. She didn’t say that I had been less selfish lately, or that I had been a better husband because of it. She said that she noticed that I had taken Kemper fishing the first time he asked. I didn’t say it do it later. I got up from the ground, where I was petting Deacon, and I took him fishing. Because he enjoyed it, I enjoyed it. That, I think, is the opposite of selfishness.