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The Virtue of Abnegation and the Ideal Nurse

“I will be my undoing If I become my obsession.
I will forget the ones I love If I do not serve them.
I will war with others If I refuse to see them.
Therefore I choose to turn away from my reflection,
To rely not on myself
But on my brothers and sisters,
To project always outward
Until I disappear.”

-Abnegation Manifesto

I only saw Divergent recently, and I didn’t even notice this quote at first–the movie is so focused on Dauntless, they’re not trying to make you notice Abnegation. But when I actually read the quote, it resonated with me maybe more than anything else has ever.

My brain runs on virtue ethics. Given this, it’s not surprising that, in my training as a nurse, I tried to figure out what the Ideal Nurse’s virtues were and then emulate them as closely as possible.

As a nurse, you don’t interact with patients as a fellow human being. Yes, you show them compassion and empathy, but you do so as part of a role. And the roles are not equal. The patient is allowed to scream at you, they’re allowed to shit in the bed, they’re allowed to refuse to eat anything all day and then ask for pudding at 4 am. As a nurse, you learn to focus on the needs of others, and keep your own needs outside of the situation.

…I think it hit me, after I read the Abnegation manifesto, how much of my younger self’s conception of virtue was “the Ideal Nurse doesn’t have needs, therefore neither will I.”

I did a lot of not-very-strategic self-modification as a teenager. Making myself useful was one of the common threads (ability to react under pressure, etc) and being as flexible and non-needy as possible was a lot of the rest. I had a mantra, “be like water”, which I think meant something like “absorb any inconveniences yourself.”

This is all well and good–I still think that Abnegation, in moderation, is a good thing to be able to have. I would even like to be better at it than I am now. The problem was when I started building it into my self-identity, started to model myself as someone who didn’t have needs. Because then, when part of me did need something, I couldn’t endorse it–obviously, those voices weren’t really me.

I think this is maybe 80% why I had regular sex for six months, even though I knew I didn’t want it–because I couldn’t let it be about what I wanted, that would be admitting I wanted things.

To a lesser extent, I think this has caused problems with my introspection/luminosity. Even if I thought Abnegation was the be-all and end-all of virtues, it isn’t an accurate model of my mind. I do have needs and wants. I can override some of them some of the time, but I can’t override all of them indefinitely…and if I had to, pretending they didn’t exist probably wouldn’t be the best way.

Fundamentally, the movie portrayal of Abnegation comes across as sort of incompatible with Dauntless (my friend was startled when I claimed to identify with both), and at the very least anti-self improvement. To improve yourself, you need to turn inwards, to look in the mirror; you need to care about your reflection, and want it to be better.

And to really help other people, you need self-improvement; you need to be the strongest possible version of yourself, and that means knowing your needs and desires and meeting all of them in the cheapest ways that hurt others the least.

The Ideal Nurse is a mode, a role. The person playing that role has needs, desires, etc; she just isn’t trying to meet them in her interactions with patients, because she already met them on her own time–and that’s not selfish.