I don’t think I’m a selfish person. Part of this assessment comes from my personality and part is my upbringing. Whether I offered to carry groceries into the house for my mom as kid or pulled the wagon of milk cartons to kindergarten class, I was always the boy that made himself available to lend a helping hand.
Growing up, the concept of needing something overshadowed wanting something. My parents provided everything I needed: unconditional love and support, food, shelter, clothing, and an occasional jelly donut from Peter’s Bakery. Unlike other kids, I didn’t have a Lite Bright set or electric race car track. That was okay by me.
I think I’ve been pretty unselfish as a man too. Nonetheless, I’ve done many selfish things in my life. I first started realizing this when I made the 6th grade basketball team. The kids who lived in the big houses “up the hill” wore red suede Nike high tops to match our uniforms. I wanted those shoes too.
The problem was that they cost $24 ($105 in today’s money). My parents couldn’t afford that, so the answer was “no.” It was the first time I remember feeling deep disappointment about not getting something. After wearing canvas basketball shoes for a couple of seasons, my mom saved enough money to buy the suede Nikes for my 8th grade year.
I had mixed feelings. I felt bad because I knew my mom sacrificed and scrimped to pay for them, yet I was happy because I got what I wanted. In high school, I couldn’t wait to get a part-time job. That way, I could get the things I wanted without having to ask my parents.
My parents’ insistence on working hard made sense. If I wanted something, all I had to do was work for it. There were a couple of hitches that my parents warned about. Getting what you want won’t necessarily make you happy and focusing on your desires can lead to selfishness. In hindsight, I should have paid better attention to those lessons.
After flunking out of college on my first try, I proceeded tirelessly to make amends. What I wanted was redemption from that failure. I knew that if I worked hard enough, I would get what I wished for. With every new career accomplishment or material acquisition, I would soar with happiness. With each setback, I would dwell in self-pity and displeasure.
Not completely heeding my parents’ advice impacted me negatively. When I was happy, I was generous with my spirit and my time. When I was disillusioned, I could be selfish with my mood and attention. I wanted to be the best father, executive, husband, public servant. But, I was a slave to my wishes and justified it with my “successes.”
Most of us are under the impression that getting what we want leads to happiness. That belief drove my quest for redemption from that early failure in college and dominated the first few years of living with heart failure. Exploring faith has enlightened me about the intersection of selfishness and unhappiness.
Finding true happiness has been a result of my faith journey. I’ve become a big fan of St. Paul the Apostle along the way. His lessons on love are inspiring. Paul emphasizes that “love isn’t self-seeking.” He also teaches us that the path to true happiness is accepting that life isn’t about achieving and acquiring.
One could say that just prior to having a massive heart attack, I was a man that “had it all.” My life was full with a beautiful loving wife and two wonderful daughters, a career I couldn’t dream up as a kid, the stereotypical middle-class luxury car and nice house in a desirable neighborhood, lots of friends, and a future seemingly without limits.
I look back and now realize that I wasn’t really happy. I hadn’t been for most of adulthood. I was too busy trying to be successful, too busy looking for that magic bullet that leads to genuine contentment.
That didn’t mean there weren’t joyful times. Being with Sandra and the girls and giving back to the community as a corporate executive and public official made me happy. Unfortunately, those instances were short-term and the professional generosity had strings attached.
Psychologists call this circumstantial happiness. That was me. In fact, that’s most of us. Research published in Psychology Today shows that “happiness is not the result of bouncing from one joy to the next.” The pattern of unhappiness sprinkled with moments of joy started in college and continued well into my battle with heart failure.
Since my life altering illness, I spend most of my time alone. I had never done well by myself. Being around people is a big part of those happy times. Left alone with my thoughts, I sulked over the desire to return to my normal life. I wanted the exciting career back. I wanted to shoot hoops with the kids. I wanted to eat bad food. I wanted to dance with Sandra well into the night.
Then my outlook started changing. The more time I spent alone reflecting on life, the more I got to know myself. Despite my ambition, I wasn’t meant to be an executive that expects something in return for a good deal or a public official doing good works for votes and recognition. I was destined to be the same unselfish little boy that carried groceries for my mom, but in a man’s body.
True happiness is a state of mind. Like good art, you know it when you feel it. For the first time in my adult life, I’m truly happy. I still feel anger, frustration, sadness, and anxiety. But those sensations are no longer the main event. They’re merely brief circumstantial encounters that interrupt my general state of contentment.
My existence and happiness aren’t dependent on getting what I want anymore. I accept all that I have and I’m grateful for everything that’s happened to me, including the probability that my life expectancy isn’t promising. St. Paul helped me understand how I feel. While awaiting a death sentence, he wrote, “Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.”
Yup, I get it now and I’m happy.