“Don’t you think that’s a little selfish?”
I stare across the table, across the cups of coffee between me and my sort-of friend. I honestly didn’t feel like seeing her today. I could have used the time to work on the revision of my novel, but I agreed to get together with her because it had been months and, after all, I couldn’t keep hurting her feelings, right? So I was just telling her about the conference I’d planned to go to in January, and my mixed feelings about leaving the kids in the care of my husband for three days while I indulge my Muse.
That’s when she hit me with the selfish comment.
She must have seen my emotional earthquake, because she backtracked. Sort of. “I mean,” she said, “I know you love to write, but three days away from your kids seems a little, I don’t know, excessive. You could always just take an afternoon each of those days. And then be at home at night. I did that, when I was voice-training, for our last performance.” She proceeds to go into detail about the successes and pleasures of her avocation of theater.
I give her my full attention, knowing this is the last time I’ll make myself sit across a table from her. Still, her words rankle in the car on the way home, at home while I bathe the baby, at night, in bed.
“Do you think I’m being selfish?” I ask my husband. “About the conference?”
He sighs. “Why don’t you get your next assignment done, and see how you feel then?” He rolls over.
I stare at the squares of moonlight on the ceiling, mulling this non-answer.
Thirty hours later, I sit in a plush velvet chair, a wide mahogany desk separating me from the subject of my interview. He is framed all around by huge floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooking the harbor where busy ships carry out the labor of his life’s work.
His story impresses me with the strength of will he showed in building a successful shipping empire. I take notes on his humble origin, the setbacks he faced, the yielding of fate to his determination. Finally he wraps up his story.
“And now,” he says, “what do you want?”
“Oh,” I say. “Just the interview. Thank you. I won’t waste any more of your time. There’s nothing I really want.”
“What do you mean, there’s nothing you want?” He stands, takes his scepter in hand, strides around the desk, and brings his face close to mine, black eyes alight with anger. “How can you have no desire? Were you born without a soul?”
After the shock of surprise, my first thought is of the conference. The time to write. The chance to renew my inspiration. “Well, there is, but I just… my life is full, and I’m needed by others. I don’t want to be selfish.”
“Ah.” He leans back, a knowing look on his face. “Self-denial. A martyr.”
I’m about to object, but he goes on.
“Let me tell you another story, one quite different than the story of my success. You see, I was not always so driven. As a child, I was timid and eager to please. It was a challenge for me to go against the current of whatever I thought would make someone happy. If you asked me for a favor, I’d want to do it before I even knew what it is. If you told me how you wished I would change, I might have said no, but the pull of your desire would continue to act on me without my awareness, until I either moved in your direction or dug my feet into the silt of my subconscious. And so, when a benefactor helped me follow in his footsteps, working in his factory, I chose to ignore the call to travel, and make this man happy by learning his trade instead. I became moderately successful. But I was never happy.
“Then, one day, I met a beggar. The beggar recognized me, and hailed me as a man of means. I handed him a coin, thinking to be generous and good, but the beggar threw the coin back at my face. ‘I want nothing from you,’ he told me. Shocked, I asked why.
‘Because,’ he said, grinning with a mouth full of missing teeth, ‘I have pursued what I wanted in life. I followed my heart. I never sold out for the purpose of pleasing anyone else. I am poor, but I have lived the life I wanted to live. I would not trade places with you for all the coins in your vault.’
“It was then that I quit the factory work, purchased a small boat, and began my international trading business, step by step. Success was never sure, but my path was always clear, because I knew exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
“How do we know what it is we’re supposed to be doing? By our desire. What you want, what makes your heart sing — that is your direction, your purpose. To ignore it is to do a disservice not just to yourself, but to the world. When you follow your desire, you heed the call of your soul. The world offers us so many rules and threats about what we must do and what we must be. It is time to shed those, to dig into the silt of our subconscious, to build stone bridges, dams, fortifications against the desires of others.
“It is not selfish for you to do what you want. If you need an altruistic reason, you can say that you must set a good example for your children. Impress your will upon the world around you. Make your mark. Make no apologies. Make people unhappy. Say no. Make demands. Be unreasonable. Do whatever it takes to pursue your passion, for no reason other than pure desire. We have desires for a reason; they are our map to our enlightened selves. Honor your desires. Don’t deny them. Follow them, or pay a heavy toll in sorrow, which is a far more selfish thing than asking others to make sacrifices for your benefit.”
“When you do right by yourself, you are showing the world that you trust in its guidance. When you do good for yourself, you are doing good for the world. Do not be afraid of being selfish. The fulfillment of your dreams is your purpose here on this brief physical journey of life.”
He’s right. As I drive home, late that night after a seafood dinner in the little town, I feel immensely grateful for the resolution in his answer. I’ll take whatever time I need to write. We’re often told as girls that it’s right and good to give up what we want if it inconveniences others. That is a lie. Just because I am a woman, just because I am a mother, is no reason not to follow my dreams. I’ll write, and take whatever time I need to do it, knowing that I am following the path of all living beings in honoring my call, the call of my desire.