“Sometime last year, I remember the first time that I looked at myself in the mirror and was able to say to myself: 'You're a good man, you deserve to be happy and you'll be alright.’" This comment by Miguel to yesterday’s post struck a chord with me, both because I could personally relate to it and because I thought it also serves as a useful comment to frame the discussion on selfishness that evolved out of yesterday’s post.
There have been few times when I realized the depth and extent of my own self-loathing more than an afternoon this past August. I don’t even remember now what triggered the incident, but I remember sitting on the bed, crying my eyes out and telling my wife that I hated myself. For as long as I can remember, I had felt this way: though I was able to function in life, I was basically, fundamentally flawed and I hated myself because of it, because I seemingly couldn’t do anything to change it, and because I knew that I could never overcome the effects of it. I didn’t then even understand the exact cause of this self-hatred. It was just a knowledge that, it seemed, I had always had; it was just the way of things.
I could not even bring myself to look at my reflection in the mirror. If I looked too long, a strange feeling of revulsion and fear and existential panic would come over me, as if I was about to be sucked into a black hole of identity from which I would never escape. I can recall having this feeling even as a young child of 7 or 8. I remember asking my dad once if he was ever afraid to look at himself in the mirror. We were in the car on our way to a nursery to pick out shrubbery for our house. As best as I can recall, he looked over at me then back at the road and promptly changed the subject.
In recent months (prior to coming out), I had decided to try to conquer this fear and force myself to look at my reflection for longer periods of time; to look myself in the eye. I may not have particularly liked what I saw, but at least I could try to conquer my bizarre fear.
It was not until I came out (or rather, started to come out) that I began to dimly understand the root cause of my self-loathing, self-hatred and my inability to like, let alone love, myself. It’s all so obvious now, now that I have eyes to see. You guessed it: it was because I am a homosexual. I like men. I’m queer, gay, a homo, a faggot – all those nasty words that I’d heard my entire life and tried to dodge lest one of them strike and kill me. I hated myself because I was gay, and beyond that, I think my subconscious self probably hated me, too, for betraying my Self and for abandoning him to all that self-loathing – as if there was this gay self inside of me that wanted to get out, but I kept burying him in piles of excrement, hoping to smother him.
BUT! – Upon hearing Boyd K. Packer’s talk at Conference and deciding right then and there that I was no longer going to hate myself and beat myself to death because of my homosexuality, I started to change. For the first time in my life, as I reached out to other gay men and they reached out to me (and as I received support from my sister), I was told it was ok to be gay. I was told that I am a person of worth. I was told that I could not only like myself; I could love myself. Really and truly. That not only was it possible; it was desirable. I could get to the point of not only being able to look at myself in the mirror and not turn away in disgust; I could do so and love the person looking back at me. (I’m not quite there yet, but I’m working on it.)
This was an entirely new concept for me. Perhaps because it may prove useful to illustrate what I will later have to say about self-ish-ness, I think it is instructive to compare my attitude in this regard to that of my wife. I think she had a difficult time believing or understanding me when I expressed paroxysms of self-hatred like I had that day in August. She has never had a problem liking or even loving herself. For as long as I’ve known her, she has always had this quality of being comfortable with who and what she is. And for as long as I’ve known her, this quality has driven me crazy; not because I felt she was egotistical or self-centered (to the contrary, I think she was “healthy” and “normal” in this regard), but because no matter how hard I tried (and my inner voices told me not to bother even trying because it was hopeless), I could not bring myself to like the me who I am, let alone love that person.
Why the difference between us? Well, setting aside individual circumstances and ancillary issues, I think the general answer to this question is that she grew up not doubting who she was, not feeling like she had to hide who she “really” was, not feeling shame at the very fact of her existence, not feeling fundamentally flawed. She was free to like herself just the way she was because she was not gay. I, on the other hand, was, and I grew up with all these things that she did not.
Which brings me to the subject of self-ish-ness. It is precisely because of the way many of us grew up and evolved that we have to be “selfish” in order to allow ourselves to get to that point of “normalcy” that people like my wife take for granted. But, as was pointed out by some of the commenters yesterday, “selfishness” often becomes a term that is used as a weapon by those who do not understand or do not want us to change. As Mark pointed out, “calling this journey merely, ‘selfish’ is a cheap shot, reductionistic and simply puts a negative spin on what this journey is about … [Beyond this] I would say this is really an inaccurate description of what is actually transpiring. It's not selfish to exercise one's body, to enlarge one's soul by giving service, to read and educate yourself so you can have a better life …”
Trey expressed similar thoughts when he wrote, “I propose that the concept of “selfish” is misunderstood and misused by those using it to indict gay men when coming to terms with their identities. As Mark pointed out, self-actualization is at the core of our daily humanity. If we were to extend the concept as used by our spouses (I am one of the accused), one could argue that it is selfish to: get advanced degrees, compete in sports or pursue any other recognition, exercise, get the scout Eagle rank or the Duty to God award, get your nails done or a face lift. At the core of Mormon doctrine is the idea of truth, honesty, progress, and expansion, all part of the quest for self-actualization. God is in it! … There is a force in life (nature, the cosmos, the gods) that compels us toward self-actualization. I submit that it is harder and takes more emotional and mental effort to hide ourselves than it does to be our true selves. And the price is much, much higher.”
Lastly, I very much liked what Apronkid wrote about “selfishness”: “ … there IS a certain amount of selfishness that comes with self-discovery. And personally, if that's what it takes to know myself a little better, I'm okay with being selfish! I think when others criticize "us" for taking time out to focus on the self, it's because they don't understand the long-term benefits of what is happening inside "us" … [T]his selfishness of self-discovery is a time where we fill our "vessels" with experience … When we live our lives unwilling to accept who we really are, we are empty, and have next to nothing of ourselves to contribute to the world. We ache with the desire to contribute, and become confused as we are filled with experience of others and have no substance of our own. This selfishness is a time to fill up! It is a time to realize and define and create our own experience. After accepting the self, one has more to give. Perhaps, after all the introspection and self-discovery, such a seemingly selfish period in our lives isn't really selfish at all [emphasis added].”