In the waning words of Voltaire’s epic novel Candide, the title character, after many adventures and lessons learned that brought her through three continents and a ton of misery and disaster, said simply to conclude: “let us cultivate our garden” (Voltaire, p.167). Candide learns just the opposite early on in the novel. Her professor, Dr. Pangloss, an expert in “metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology (Voltaire, p.2),” teaches optimism to the class, saying that they live in the ‘best of all worlds,’ and that ‘all is for the best’ (Voltaire, p.6). In essence, the power of positive thinking will do wonders. Well, after shifting through three continents worth of adventures, and witnessing some of the worst historic tragedies of the day, Candide shies away from Dr. Pangloss’ optimism, as positive thinking is great, but without action, nothing gets accomplished. Correcting her old professor, she concludes that it is best to work on one’s own garden.
What does it mean to cultivate our own garden? Should we get out the garden gloves and shovel? Is it time to go to the Home Depot? In this author’s opinion, no. Cultivating one’s garden means simply to put yourself selflessly first above all others.
I can hear the naysayers: “Selflessly first? That sounds like an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one!” But it does make sense once you get down to it. Let’s think about this for a minute through an example:
Let’s say you work two jobs and at least 60 hours/week.
You gain money, and a fair amount of it at that, every paycheck. Let’s say that you then go out and blow it on liquor, strip clubs, and movie concessions. You are negatively selfish here because you worked all these hours (whether you enjoyed them or not) to earn money that you can spend on yourself.
Sometimes you probably find that there is more month at the end of the money (probably because you’ve spent it on yourself), and you have to ask a friend for a loan. Temporarily, you are fulfilled (maybe ‘pacified’ is a better word), but at the end of the day, you haven’t helped anyone but yourself. Worse, you’ve become a financial burden to a friend or family member. This is true selfishness, and one that has become the norm in our society, sadly.
Let’s take another scenario:
You work the same amount of hours, and then go out and spend it on violin lessons, Spanish courses, buying a few round for friends, and donating to charity. You are still doing things for yourself, as they all make you feel good, but now you are doing productive activities – things that are pleasant and meaningful for a civilized society. You then go on to teach others what you have learned, thus propagating these skill sets. In the bigger picture, yes, you are being selfish, because you enjoy what you do, but you are also serving the greater good, one of the most selfless things you can do.
By being independent for yourself, you are also not a burden for anyone else. You’re not the responsibility of anyone else but yourself. You are accountable for all of your actions, not someone else. By being yourself and cultivating your own garden, by extracting the weeds, by letting good, useful flowers grow, you are doing one of the most selfless things on this planet: being independent.
See? There are advantages to putting yourself first, if only you stop thinking about yourself.