Something pressed on my mind this morning until I had to sit down to write my thoughts. The other day I had a conversation with a friend who took offense when someone told her she was being selfish for choosing not to have children. Of course she took offense! What a terrible thing to say to another person!
I have a personal relationship with the word selfish. Let me explain.
Born fourth in a family of six children, I grew up to be a people pleaser, one who always helped, did a little more than expected, and did everything I promised, whenever possible. I know now that I formed those traits to avoid being overlooked, to get a little praise, because most of the praise naturally went to the eldest and the youngest children in the family. Was I selfless? It depends on how you view the situation. In actuality, I was probably being selfish, doing all those things to draw good attention to myself, to feel good about myself, to get praise for my deeds. To others, though, I probably looked selfless, willing to help others, even to the detriment of myself, my time, and even my finances, at times.
Skip forward a few decades to the time when my mother was in her seventies. She had been so demanding and neurotic that my father divorced her two decades earlier. She had smoked herself into emphysema and vision loss and imbibed until her heart and liver rebelled. She lived alone, tethered to oxygen and so frail she needed someone to push her around in a wheelchair if she left her apartment. My brother and I, who lived four hours from her, made all the arrangements and paid the expenses to move her to our city, so we could take care of her. We took turns checking on her and ensuring she had everything she required, including clothes, food, medicine, and rides to the many doctors she saw regularly. Both my brother and I ran our own businesses and had other obligations and preferences for our spare time, but we donated a large portion of our time to meeting our mother's needs.
Mother always called me by my formal name when she wanted to insult, instruct, or punish me. I can't even recall the small thing I was unable to do for her one day, when she pointed at me and said, "Roberta, you're selfish." Her words crushed me. I'm selfish? How could that be, after I had done everything I could possibly do to make her life tolerable? I walked out of her apartment that day with tears in my eyes and chastising myself for being selfish. I felt a weight on my shoulders, a burden, that despite my trying to be a good person, one who helped others, I was, in fact, selfish. All the way back to my house, I felt pain in my chest while my mother's accusatory words circulated in my brain: "You're selfish."
Several days passed, while I did even more for my mother, anything to prove I was not selfish. I stopped attending to my business. I arrived earlier at her place and stayed later, doing whatever she asked.
"Count my silverware, Roberta; I think the housekeeper is taking my spoons."
"Yes, Mother." After a complete count, I found the "missing" spoons at the back of the drawer instead of the front.
"Fill my ice trays, Roberta. It's too tiring for me to do so."
"I need milk, Roberta, go out and get me some."
"There are two containers of milk in the refrigerator already, Mother."
"I want fresher milk."
Bathe me, dress me, feed me, fold my laundry, comb my hair, shop for me—I did whatever she asked, until I came home exhausted at night to a dog that had been neglected all day. I then worked until late at night to complete the editing work I should have been performing during the day.
One night as I ruminated over my selfishness, clarity struck me: my mother was being selfish, not me! She called me selfish so she could get her way, and it worked. In other words, only a selfish person would claim someone else is selfish. Holy cow! I had hit the mother lode of understanding.
I grew up with a love for words; I love examining them, learning new ones, and delving into their meanings and nuances. Despite my admiration for words, I had not considered the obvious, that name-calling reflects not on the person being called something but on the person who does the name-calling.
When writing dialogue, now, I use my newfound knowledge; when I want to show someone is being selfish, I have that character call someone else selfish. Best of all, should anyone dare to call me any name again, other than Bobbie (or even Roberta!), I will not take it to heart. I will know the problem is in the person who called me that name, and not my problem at all.