A blue-boned restaurant, early morning. Weak city light crinkling through the windows. A man with leathered skin and bulging eyebrows, leaning over the counter to take our order. A plastic menu, and a friend sitting next to me. 2016. Summer. New York.
“I’m just tired of feeling selfish.”
Katie chewed her thumbnail, thoughtful. We’d met through a summer program at Columbia University, me on a scholarship for creative writing and she there for a psychology course. We got breakfast together most mornings before class. Several months beforehand, I went through my first major breakup. The relationship was rotting from the inside out and it was far from healthy, but I still felt like shit when I broke it off. Weeks after the ending, I got a text which accused me of being selfish.
I felt selfish throughout that entire relationship. Selfish for wanting to go out. Selfish for wanting to stay in. Selfish for saying what I thought. Selfish for talking about writing when it bored him. Selfish. Selfish. Selfish.
“I’m just tired of feeling selfish,” I said.
Katie had the sort of burnt sneaky smile that still gives me goosebumps.
“Why?” she said. “What’s so bad about being selfish?”
That summer, in the black-out heat of New York and the slip of her smile, I unlearned my understanding of selfishness.
Being “selfish” is both condemned by society and necessary to function within it. Our system of capitalism and competitive marketing requires that we put our own needs at the forefront of our ventures. We do what we have to do to make money, buy food, pay for college. That means putting yourself first. In a capitalist society like the United States, it is necessary to put yourself first to become traditionally successful. It’s great to be self-motivated, right? To put yourself first, to work hard, to ask for what you want, that’s admirable, right?
Of course it is. If you’re a man.
Women, on the other hand, are taught from the get-go that our job is to serve others. To make other people more comfortable. To make room. To lower our voices. We are taught that if we exercise the same assertion and privilege as men – whether that be in the social world, the educational world, or the work world – we are being selfish.
“Everyone’s in the same situation,” said Katie, her eyes drifting across the restaurant. The smell of hash browns and fried eggs smoked in the air. “There is only one thing that you know, for sure, is real in this world. And it’s you. So why not be selfish? You’re real.”
In saying you’re real, Katie was saying something different too: you matter. I matter. So why should I feel cramped with guilt whenever I make a decision that makes me happy? When I make a decision that improves my life?
Selfish, to go to college hundreds of miles away. Selfish, to study the arts. Selfish, to travel, or turn my phone off, or use my money the way I want to. Selfish, to kiss people. Selfish, to have secrets. Selfish, to speak.
I am loud, and passionate, and nomadic. I am selfish: I put my own needs first, I ask for what I want, and I work hard to get it. People will try to tell me that this is a bad thing. But I’m done believing them.
yours in haste,
kelsey day is a young award winning poet who grew up in the blue mountains of north carolina. she has received recognition for a collection of short stories, as well as two novels she published at the ages of 11 and 13. today she is studying creative writing in boston, massachusetts.