(Content Note: Discussion of deciding to be or not to be a parent. No connection to Shakespeare)
In my last (and, incidentally, first) post about Things I’ve Learned From Books, I wrote about selflessness and how the Divergent series by Veronica Roth had given me a road map with which to try and escape the dreary suburbs of my own inherent selfishness.
So, it makes total sense for this Booklearning post to focus on the complete opposite: how selfishness can be good.
(In the interests of being completely honest – this post is adapted from a talk I gave at a conference a few weeks ago. But it’s still all my own original thoughts from my own original brain).
The evils of selfishness have been stressed in children’s stories throughout history. Fairytales are full of selfish characters who meet terrible ends. In Cinderella, the wicked stepmother and the ugly sisters’ entire personalities are based around their selfishness towards the heroine – they make her do all the chores while they laze around and go to fancy parties. Snow White’s stepmother is so selfishly obsessed with her own appearance that she plots to kill a young girl just to keep her position as ‘fairest of them all’.
More recent stories have picked this idea up and run with it. Edmund Pevensie’s selfishness means that he betrays his family to the White Witch, giving her knowledge that she wouldn’t have had otherwise. Bella Swan spends most of Eclipse angsting over her own selfishness, although she never actually takes any steps to change it. Veruca Salt’s selfish attitude makes her the most memorable of the highly unpleasant group of children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Neil Gaiman’s Helena, from Mirrormask, has to make amends for her selfishness towards her mother, or risk her entire world being destroyed.
With the exception of Edmund, all of these characters have one significant fact in common – they’re all women or girls. According to social conventions, a ‘good’ woman is supposed to be utterly selfless, to sacrifice her time, her dreams, her career, or even her life for her husband, her family, or the greater good. This can happen in relatively small ways – TV’s Sherlock’s mother giving up her career in mathematics to raise her sons – or by more drastic means, such as Buffy jumping off a tower to save her sister Dawn.
Women and girls who refuse to play this role end up like Veruca Salt – shoved down the garbage chute. Boys, on the other hand, often get away with selfishness. Artemis Fowl kidnaps a fairy, steals her gold, then organises a hostage exchange, all for a selfish end – to get a wish granted. Harry Potter’s need to be recognised for his talents rather than his legend – the entire basis of his becoming a star Quidditch player – is never viewed as anything but positive.
But occasionally, along comes a book that puts forward a more nuanced view of selfishness, suggesting that it can be a force for good as well as bad. Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett, is one such book. The story follows Tiffany Aching, a young girl who becomes a trainee witch, and who is entirely motivated by her selfishness – something that the story presents as a strength:
“All witches are selfish, the Queen had said. But Tiffany’s Third Thoughts said: Then turn selfishness into a weapon! Make all things yours! Make other lives and dreams and hopes yours! Protect them! Save them! Bring them into the sheepfold! Walk the gale for them! Keep away the wolf! My dreams! My brother! My family! My land! My world! How dare you try to take these things, because they are mine!”
This is one of my favourite passages, not just in this book, but in any book. I already identified with Tiffany right from the start, thanks to reading another favourite passage ever: ‘it was the blonde people with blue eyes and the redheads with green eyes who got the stories. If you had brown hair you were probably just a servant or a woodcutter or something.’ Being a brunette with brown eyes, like Tiffany, I’d also grown up noticing that we didn’t seem to get many stories compared to the blondes and redheads. (This pales in comparison to the erasure of POC in children’s literature and all other media, which, shamefully, was something that I took a lot longer to realise).
Tiffany Aching (copyright Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidby)
I instantly rooted for this nine-year-old brown-haired, brown-eyed, awkward, bookish girl, and wished that I’d been able to read about her when I was nine (I’m still brown-haired, brown-eyed, awkward and bookish). And, as the novel established Tiffany’s selfishness as her strength, it helped me shape some of my own ideas about selfishness itself.
I condemned selfishness in my earlier post, but that was one particular kind of selfishness – namely, the kind that is useless, or harmful. Selfishness that is turned against others to hurt them, or focused in on yourself until you’re rooted to the spot, is no good at all. But there are times when selfishness can be a force for good. Not quite a weapon, as Tiffany’s Third Thoughts put it, but a tool.
For example, people who don’t want children – particularly, again, women – are often lambasted as being selfish. Yes, I’ve had this first-hand. And I would agree that my decision to stay childfree is selfish, and that’s exactly why it’s the right decision.
My belief (and I stress that this is just my belief) is that anyone who has children shouldn’t have them out of selflessness; as in, out of a sense of duty, a feeling that having children is What One Should Do. Instead, they should have them absolutely and only because they want them – because their world will not be the place it’s supposed to be until that child exists within it. Which, when you get right down to it, is a selfish reason – and that’s okay. It’s the form of selfishness that doesn’t hurt, doesn’t stymie, but instead acts for goodness and happiness.
I don’t feel that deep, fundamental want for children that my friends who are parents have spoken about. Instead, that’s how I feel about writing. My decision to become a writer is entirely selfish. I do it because I want to do it, because if I don’t, I feel like the world around me doesn’t quite fit right. Doing the ‘selfless’ thing – setting aside my selfish love of writing and focusing on a child because I’ve been persuaded that that’s The Right Thing To Do – would cause so much more harm that staying in my selfish, bookish world.
When it comes down to it, I believe every child deserves to be the selfish decision. Every child deserves to know that they exist because someone really, really wanted them to. My parents have always made sure that I know that, and I can’t describe the feeling of security it gives you. I can’t imagine feeling the same way if I had the impression that my parents’ having me had been a sacrifice.
Selfishness has a lot of negative connotations, but really, it should be a neutral term. If Tiffany’s Third Thoughts are right, and selfishness is a weapon, then we need to remember that it can cut both ways – and, if it’s not being used to harm, we should recognise that it can be a force for good.