Skirting the Issues: Unlearning Selfishness

Photo courtesy of BigStock/EvgeniiAnd
Photo courtesy of BigStock/EvgeniiAnd

Photo courtesy of BigStock/EvgeniiAnd

For several years up through the present, whenever I speak to audiences, I make what I call “My Standing Offer”: that I’m willing to talk to anyone about gender or sexual identity issues or simply about surviving the Human Condition.

“I’m making this offer to all of you,” I say to every audience, regardless of the setting. “It’s a real offer.”

Sometimes, people take me up on the offer. When that happens, I remind myself of just how far I’ve come in my journey of learning to be unselfish.

As a younger human, I didn’t understand the concept of selflessness or altruism. That was because of the blueprint I was given as a kid.

In my blue-collar family (it was such until my father parlayed a U.S. Navy electronics background into a white-collar tech writer job) no one volunteered their time. In fact, the subject of giving of one’s time or personal resources to strangers wasn’t ever a dinner table topic.

I had no role models who volunteered at the local food bank or who served on a nonprofit board. Even as Catholic—as my family purported to be—no one saw fit to be on the Lenten fish fry organizing committee.

Throughout my youth, I was oblivious to that kind of thing.

Even worse, my parents were extremely money-oriented. They constantly talked about money—how much things cost; the things they wanted; and whether they’d put it on a credit card. I remember my father, all 5’8” of him, standing in our living room and taking the plastic credit-card insert out of his wallet. He let it unfold, accordion-style, until a dozen credit cards were hanging in a row, like some fisherman’s prized catch after a productive day on the boat.

“See,” my father said, pointing, with a big grin. “I’ve got an American Express card, three Mastercard cards, a Diner’s Club card, a Visa, and best of all, a Playboy Club card. All of these companies think that I’m worthy.”

I couldn’t have been older than 10 at the time. That image stuck with me, along with the implicit messaging that the way to measure one’s value was by how much money a person made and by what they bought.

When I started working in high school in 1973 as a part-time fry cook trainee for $1.65 an hour, I became obsessed with earning, and then with saving, money. And, boy, was I so jealous when I heard that a friend had landed a much cushier job as a grocery store produce assistant making $2.00 an hour.

I’ve got to do better than him, I thought.

By the time college rolled around, I had saved enough to entirely pay for my first year (that was possible in the mid-1970s when a year of college, including room and board, cost $3600). Because I had sacrificed to do that, I felt entitled to sit at my dorm-room desk every night, even though the blazing desk lamp kept my roommate awake.

When my roomie gently asked me to use the study lounge down the hall, I callously answered, “I paid for college myself and have the right to sit at my desk anytime I want.”

What a selfish ass I was. But then again, no one had ever showed me how not to be that way.

Fast forward to when I became a lawyer—by then, my obsession with money was out of control. Fueling that was the brutal reality that I literally could earn as much as I wanted by simply working more. (In my last “Skirting the Issues” column, I wrote about my workaholism.) So I worked 70-hour weeks and made a lot of money.

Thankfully, my journey toward becoming selfless began in my early thirties when I was asked to join the board of a local nonprofit. That single experience opened my eyes to what it meant to give of one’s time and talent. Additionally, I met people who had grown up much differently than me, where early on, role models had taught them that everyone has a civic responsibility to “give back to the community.”

Wow. I had no idea! It would have been great to learn this when I was a kid.

After that, I volunteered for other nonprofits and even my church’s parish council (where I served two terms as council president). Soon I was raising money for various causes and recruiting other people to volunteer, espousing the “give back” theme.

I’d be lying to claim that I don’t still focus on money to a certain degree—old habits are hard to break. Still, I’d hate to see what I’d be like if I hadn’t come to understand the incredible value of living as selfless as possible.

I’m sure it wouldn’t be pretty.

Thank god I’m better than I was.

Ellen (Ellie) Krug, the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change, speaks and trains on diversity and inclusion topics; visit where you can also sign-up for her monthly 9000+ recipient e- newsletter, The Ripple. She welcomes your comments at [email protected].

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