I’ve always hated the catchphrase “your twenties are your time to be selfish.”
This is perhaps a good reminder for those who truly need it – for those who tend to give too much, lend their time and their attention without restraint, to those who rush too quickly into caring for others and fail to care amply for themselves.
But this is not the world’s best catchphrase for the rest of us – those who naturally gravitate toward the selfish options as is; those who need to consciously and purposefully choose the higher road. We already know about selfishness. We don’t need the extra encouragement.
Are certain actions selfish in a vacuum but not when you layer them in context? Is what’s selfish in one situation admissible in another? Is there a good time to be selfish and a bad time? Is there a right or a wrong way to go about it all?
I’m inclined to believe that there is.
I’m inclined to believe that we can’t classify selfishness as purely good or bad in and of itself, but there are a few principles we can agree on. Particularly as we navigate our twenties. Particularly as we work our way through the troublesome years of both trying to find our people and trying to find ourselves. Because we’re going to mess up along the way. And we cannot just chalk every misstep up to ’these are our years to be selfish.’
Because they’re also our years to be accountable. They always are. They always will be.
And here is what I’d like to hope we can agree on:
You owe people common decency. You aren’t allowed to chalk flakiness and insincerity up to being selfish because you deserve to be. You have to show up when you say you will. You have to deliver what you’ve promised to deliver. Or at the least, you have to communicate the fact that you can’t do so. You have to follow up on what you cannot measure up to.
You owe people common decency, but you do not owe them your suffering. You don’t owe it to them to stay if you really want to go. You don’t owe it to them to fight if you want to give up. You owe it to people to be decent and understanding of the damage that your actions have imposed but you don’t owe it to them to inflict pain on yourself so they don’t feel it themselves.
Sometimes life hurts and you’re allowed to let it hurt for other people without sacrificing yourself as collateral damage.
You owe people honesty and transparency. You don’t have the right to make promises you don’t plan to keep because it gets you something that you want. You don’t have the right to manipulate others into serving you in a way that puts them at a personal disadvantage. You don’t have the right to take as much as other people as they’ll give you, because it’s their responsibility to stand up for themselves. You have to be open with people. You have to be honest about what you want and what you cannot give.
You owe it to people to be honest but you owe it to yourself to let your mind change. You are allowed want one thing at one point and then not want it later. You don’t have to hang on to something that’s making you miserable solely because you once thought it would make you happy. You don’t have to keep living out past choices because you committed to them at a time when you genuinely thought that you wanted them.
You owe it to others to explain why you’re mind changed and why now you must move in another direction, but you don’t owe it to them to stay stuck. You don’t owe anyone that insincerity.
You get to be selfish in what you want. You get to go after your dream job, your dream relationship, your dream route to self-actualization. But you don’t get to completely disregard the impact that your actions have on others.
You have to be open about your intentions along the way. You have to be honest when you mess something up. You have to stick around to pick up the pieces now and then, even if you’d rather move on.
You owe it to yourself to pursue whatever’s going to make you happy but that doesn’t mean your actions do not have consequences.
It simply means that you’re able to understand the impact you have on the world around you. That you’re able to measure your selfishness with decency. With fairness. With respect for the people who’re affected by your actions.
These are your years to be selfish. But they’re also your years to develop into a decent, caring and respectful human being.
And at the end of it all, you’re going to be happier to have developed into a well-rounded person than into someone who devoted an entire decade to selfishness.