Growing up we are always told to think of others first and put their needs before our own. We’re told that if we put our needs first we are being selfish and that that is a bad thing. Of course if you always put your own desires first that kind of selfishness is bad because those around you will suffer and you ignore their needs. But is it always bad to be selfish? Should we always put others before ourselves?
This is something I struggle with a lot myself. I am always thinking about what is best for my wife and daughters. What can I do to make their lives better? And then maybe if I have some time left at the end of the day I think about myself, and even then I often feel guilty about it. But there is a problem; maybe in the short term spending time with them is the best thing to improve their today, but when you extend the timeline to lifetime length and beyond things change.
If you always take care of others and never take the time to care for your own body, it will eventually deteriorate. After a long day at work the last thing you would want to do is spend more time away from your family at the gym, or take an hour to prepare a nutritious meal, but what happens when you never exercise or eat well? Before long you’re the one who they have to take care of when you are sick. Instead of taking care of them, they have to take care of you! If you do take care of yourself, the time spent isn’t lost; it returns several times over. Not only will you have more time in good health to give to your family, but likely many more years of life too.
What if you never spend time on your growth and development? If you never grow you will never be able to help others more than you can today. It can be hard to step away and sacrifice time with your family to grow your passion project, especially when rewards aren’t forth coming. But when you do grow, your generosity can too. Someone who is poor can give very little money to charity; they simply don’t have it to give. Even the donations from the most generous millionaire are dwarfed by the annual givings of someone like Jeff Bezos who regularly donates sums in $100million to charity. Because he was selfish and invested in his business and his self he can now freely give away more money than most will ever see, and make a much larger positive impact. And it doesn’t have to just be monetary: the more skillful you become in your art the more joy you can bring to other people, the stronger you are the easier it is to lift heavy objects that others are struggling with. The more you grow, the more you can give, and the less it asks of you.
There is one more very significant way in which self-sacrifice can backfire. You want your children to live a happy, healthy and fulfilling life, right? That’s why we sacrifice ourselves, we give of ourselves to help them grow and flourish. The problem is that is simply not possible to just hand them a life like this: we have to teach them how to live a good life. And what is the best way to teach them this? It is through our example. We have to live the kind of life we want them to live. If we show them how important taking care of our own health and development is, they will emulate us and be healthy and happy. If we sacrifice our own health and happiness for them, they will probably do the same. You have to be the kind of person, and live the kind of life you want your children to be and have.
If you don’t want to take care of yourself for yourself, at least do it for the children!