A Discussion about Values: Selfishness and Individualism between
Tolu Akinyemi, Author of "Your Father Walks Like a Crab"
& Oyindamola Shoola, Author of "To Bee a Honey"
This conversation with Tolu Akinyemi that led to discussing the idea of individualism started from a prompt on millennial values, how it is changing and their extremism. In a recent event at a leadership group, one of the ice breaking questions that a team of about 5 of us answered was, “how many children do you want to have?” We were all millennials in the group. Only one person was certain that she wanted to have children while the rest of us, some uncertain and others declined stating our reasons including “feeling as though taking care of a whole human being is too much of a responsibility.” Another reason was that some of us as high achieving individuals spent a lot of our late teenage years and early twenties taking on adult responsibilities including taking care of other people. So, we want time for ourselves. Another reason was that the world was already terrible enough with numerous children up for adoption, “why bring a new one to this world?”
At the core of all these reasons we gave for not wanting to have children in the future was a form of selfishness or self-centeredness that I could strongly identify with. At this point, Tolu and I elaborated on the consequences of this ideology that being self-centered is profitable which many motivational speakers preach. I have heard stories of speakers who decided to quit their day job, leave their family and travel to many places just to please themselves. I have heard and read about some feminists recently who state that because men have benefitted from women’s oppression for so long, any man that can’t meet the needs of a selfish and self-centered woman - who only wants isn’t worthy of having their time or attention.
Another outcome of this self-centered idea is that it tricks us into believing that because of oppression that we have dealt with or pain that we have been through, we are good people while others are evil. This belief is dangerous. Similarly, when reading self-help books like Chidera Eggerue’s What a Time to Be Alone, in my review of her work, I wrote, “While this book educates us about other people, it is also a lens through which we need to evaluate ourselves and our actions towards others. It is easy to be tempted to conclude that everyone is a bad person and because you have been hurt, you are a good person which isn’t necessarily true. While you are identifying how others have hurt you by a particular action or series of events it is necessary to ask, how have I hurt others by this same action or in similar circumstances?”
Despite this individualistic – selfishness (self-centered place) sounding terrible, it is better than the alternative which is taking too many responsibilities more than what one can handle. In the case of the question about childbearing, responsibilities are great things, and if someone feels like they are not ready, it is better to be self-centered at that moment than have a child they can’t care for.
Another way in which this selfish and self-centered thought sips in, is through our feelings, especially when under stress. I shared with Tolu Akinyemi that one of these past weeks, I was extremely worn out and frustrated about all my responsibilities. In the moment of stress, while ranting to my sister, Ife, I said that I wanted to quit everything I did for other people and wished to travel far away and cut off many people just for myself. After allowing me to vent and validating my feelings, she responded that “I was only making conclusions under stress.” We had a deal and said I should wait until the following week, and if I still feel the same way about all the things I said to her then, I could make a 6-8 months plan of how I will quit a major responsibility per month. Of course, the next week, I did not feel the same way, and I was somewhat glad and proud of all my responsibilities. The moral lesson here is that “time tells.” While it is good to make temporary decisions on matters, we should allow ourselves to be adaptable to the new perspective of our situation that time would bring to us.
Similarly, Tolu shared an experience he had years back. He said in his early university days when Timberland shoes first came out, and his friends had purchased them, he would think and express why he wouldn’t invest so much in shoes. While Timbs at that time was very fashionable, in his values against materialism, it did not make sense to him why someone would spend N10,000 on one pair of shoes when they could buy more shoes for a lesser price. Years later as a result of a friend’s influence Tolu’s perspective changed. He realized that it almost cost the same amount if not more to buy many inexpensive shoes of lesser quality that wouldn’t last long in comparison to one costly pair of shoes that may last a decade. His friend introduced him to places where he could shop for quality shoes that were pricey but affordable and that paid off well. In Tolu Akinyemi’s case, besides the lessons that time will tell, you will also realize the need to be conscious of one’s decision-making process. It is best to avoid making permanent decisions on temporary feelings and values that may change with time.
Back to the topic of individualism and self-centeredness, while I am here for the idea that sometimes we need to set boundaries and step back to recuperate, it is vital to know our limits to individualism as social beings. We are all social beings with basic human needs; the need to love and be loved. At this part, Tolu elaborated that a life that is lived for one’s self alone isn’t a maximized life. You can do more with your potential and resources when you not only hoard for yourself but help other people with it. People who have extremely self-centered sentiments will never feel fulfilled intrinsically because the purpose of life is being able to help others which include being social.
Additionally, most times when we say “fuck everyone, I need to live for myself alone,” or “I need to be very selfish and not care about other people or things,” we say it out of defense. We also say it in the privilege of what we have. Until we lose the privilege of having those people around regardless of whether we want them or not, we can’t truly wrap our heads to understand our sayings of selfishness out of defense. For example, it is easy to say, “I want to be alone and not talk to anyone or value any other person’s place in my life” until the one you love dies or until you land in jail and are placed in solitary confinement where the privilege of choice to make such a statement is indeed taken away. So do you really mean “fuck everyone, I need to live for myself alone,” or “I need to be very selfish and not care about other people or things,” because of the privilege you have or because you can truly live without that privilege?
This latter lesson also ties back to how we can mostly maximize our purpose in life as social beings. Solitary confinement is a punishment because it takes away something precious and needed for a life to feel fulfilled, purposeful and needed which is the human social network. Now, this is not to say that you should let everything and everyone into your social circle because poor management of your social circle can lead to an emotional, psychological or mental breakdown as much as loneliness and self-centeredness will.
An additional example that Tolu Akinyemi gave is the case of individuals who live in dictatorship environments. Imagine an individual who lives in North Korea where Kim Jong-un is the Supreme Leader; such person can’t just say whatever they want to insult Kim Jong-un even out of self-centeredness, spite or personal interests. Why? Because not only does it put them at risk, it puts everything that they love at risk too. The fear of losing who and what we truly love is what hinders many of us from choosing to be selfish and self-centered. To buttress this point, Tolu stated one of his favorite quotes of all times which he heard from a movie. He said, “He who fears nothing loves nothing and he who loves nothing, what’s the purpose of his life?”
In the moments of stress and pressure or even dissatisfaction about one’s life or the current state of one’s environment, selfishness, self-centeredness, and individualism may look so appealing. However, it is essential to take a reflective step back where you also project how those choices will affect you and your future on a larger scale.
While it may work for those motivational speakers who tell you to be self-centered because they are in situations of privilege where they do not lose much, it may not work for you that doesn’t have as much. Recently on twitter, about the topic of rising feminist perspectives that women should be extremely selfish, I wrote: “Extremist feminism is only realistically beneficial to privileged women. The unprivileged and uneducated women who assimilate and act on its ideas bear its consequences. Feminism today fails to pay equal attention to the inequities even amongst women and that in itself is a danger.” Before you assimilate individualistic perspectives structured for a white woman to succeed in a 1st world country, evaluate your situation and experiences as a black woman in a 3rd world country and find what can honestly work for you or what is worth compromising for.
Also, evaluate if this need for selfishness and individualism is coming from your focus on your pain or oppression rather than your profit. The focus on pain and oppression is a façade that makes us think that our selfishness, self-centeredness or individualism is profitable even when it is not. In my moment of stress when I said I wanted to quit everything, I was only focusing on the part where helping others was taking my energy. I intentionally refused to focus on the fact that these same activities that I wanted to quit helped to boost my resume, LinkedIn page or even to earn an internship at a top company. At that moment, I had a choice to focus on experiences that validated my present need for selfishness and thank goodness that I didn’t make drastic or permanent decisions as a result of it.
To conclude, you have just learned how time is the real test for the need of this selfishness and idea that individualism will work for you. Time is also a test for the values that you hold which surrounds the experiences that you have. Give yourself and the choices you make time. Also, learn to adapt to new demands as they arise before making drastic and permanently damaging decisions as a result of temporary feelings about a situation. Finally, maximize your life as a social being while you can and enjoy the privilege of having people around you and being a person that someone else can rely on.