Friday, March 27, 2015


I think I'm selfish. I've raised five kids. So that wasn't selfish. I'm not selfish with my partner. (What is the right term, anyway: lover; friend; inspiration; safety net; all of the above? Nothing with the cultural baggage of wife or even spouse. We need a new term. Partner makes it sound like it's not personal, just business. Although I'd gladly kiss her ring.)

So if I'm a decent father and whatever that other role should be called, if I make sacrifices for those I love, why do I think I'm selfish? Because, if I'm honest with myself, that's as far as it goes. At least as to anything like a formal commitment to someone or something else. I give money to charity, to homeless people. I ask strangers how they're doing, and I'm actually interested. But I don't have to. I can skip a charity appeal, a homeless person's plea. I can walk by a stranger and look the other way. No one judges me for any of that. Or I don't know they do. I haven't promised them anything.

I could change that. I could throw myself into a cause--lord knows there are plenty of worthy ones--but I don't want the obligation. I don't want others to depend on me. Like I said: selfish.

I've been a volunteer. I've served on non-profit boards. I didn't mind. Sometimes I even enjoyed it. But I rarely felt like I was adding much. Human effort is like an ant colony. That's the way it has to be to get anything done. I just don't want to be one of the ants. There are plenty of others, I tell myself. They don't need me.

Maybe they do, maybe they don't. Maybe I'm just rationalizing. Like those (not including me) who don't vote because they are certain that statistically their vote doesn't matter. They are right, of course, as to their individual votes; and completely wrong as to the aggregate effect of all votes. Democracy is the product of the voting ant colony.

If we all stopped voting and volunteering, we'd have tyranny and and an uncompassionate society. But if one of us drops out, no worries, right? It's a form of freeloading. As I said: selfish.

I worked as a lawyer and a businessman for decades. I got stuff done, but I was mainly a cog. If I hadn't done it, others would have. For the money, if not the humanity. There was one business I ran that I tried to remake into a better thing. I got the employees all excited and then couldn't fix the business fast enough to pay for all the debt I took on to try to remake it. Even that was something of a selfish endeavor. I was in it for the thrill of doing something fun and exciting. I was a pretty good huckster, but I couldn't deliver. What is that? Pioneering? Delusional? Generous? Selfish?

I've read The Selfish Gene. I understand what you're thinking about now.

For years now, I've sat on the sidelines of the fray. Kids grown. Partner needing only flowers and champagne. I've been writing because I've convinced myself that if I have something to say I can reach people through novels and essays. More people than I could reach any other way. For longer. Books live on. 

I suppose I've just traded one ant colony for another. There are thousands--millions?--of writer ants out there. We're not working together, so maybe that's why many of us accomplish so little. But we're dreaming together, in that separate kind of way of writers: I know you're out there, and I'm sending out good wishes through writer-ant telepathy. I feel your angst. I'm running around in circles too. You know like those individual ants when you disturb a line of them and the ones who are cut off from the others stagger around like they're drunk. When you see them, you think: they're going to be no good if they don't reconnect with their buddies. 

The difference is they have to be ants, but I don't. Or maybe I do. Maybe I'm just staggering around looking for a line to fall into.

1 comment:

  1. And here's where language helps! What if you change the metaphor? Instead of writers as ants marching in lines, anonymously, thoughtlessly, really --- what about . . . birds? or . . . musicians? I think the difficult part is how hard it is to gain a position from which even a few hundred people can HEAR the songs and notes of one wonderful writer. I don't think there's a line to fall into. I think you are simply singing your heart out, like any superb writer does, because it's what's in you to do. I wish it were easier to find the listeners. At the end of the day, though, it's all about the singing. And I think it's crazy to bash yourself with the idea that writing is selfish ---- so much of valuable human activity is about the growth and nourishment of our selves, and those we love, yet I can't call this "selfish." I think it's part of the creative urge of life, and the effort to live well in our little space of time.