Peggy La Cerra’s “Why Relationships Are So Difficult” ends with a challenge: “Perhaps it’s time for a new approach to the problem [of human selfishness and self-centeredness] — an approach based on a fearless assessment of ourselves and our nature within a broader and more comprehensive energetic network.” I agree.
Here is my fearless assessment of humanity: we suck. After reading Peggy La Cerra’s essay, I can now blame this fact on nature rather than nurture, but we still suck. Having admitted that we suck, we must then ask a second question: “How then shall we live?”
Before answering that question, let’s define what it means to suck. We might, for example, point to the seven things God detests, as listed in the book of Proverbs (6:16): pride, dishonesty, murder, scheming, mischief, bearing false witness, and sowing discord. Or we might examine the seven deadly sins, as defined by Dante: lust, gluttony, greed, discouragement, wrath, envy, and pride. All these pretty much peg us for what we are. But let me suggest a simpler understanding of human “suckiness,” based on the one unforgivable sin of Islam: shirk, placing oneself above God.
In short, we suck because we look out for number one at the expense of numbers two through infinity. Everything we think, feel, or do is rooted in the narrowest understanding of self, an understanding that pits me against you, and us against them, in an ever-darkening shadow world of compounding selfishness. Even when we act compassionately, generously, and altruistically, we do so, as Ms. La Cerra so clearly argues, only because we think it is in our own best interest to do so. Even being selfless is fundamentally selfish. Denying this fact leads to the situation we have today: people making a fetish of values they have no intention of actually living. And because we refuse to accept the fact of our inescapably selfish nature we never really change. We suck and have no real desire not to suck.
Imagine, for example, if the United States of America, the most Christian nation in the industrialized world, actually took Jesus seriously: “Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor” (Matthew 19:21); “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21); “Sell your possessions and give alms” (Luke 18:22); “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25). If we took Jesus seriously, would we live in a country where 1 percent of the population controls 40 percent of the wealth? Where tens of millions of Americans live below the poverty line? Where three million children go to bed hungry every night? Of course not. As one Catholic priest told me recently, “We couldn’t stand Jesus, so we invented Christianity.” The same could be said of most religions: the founders taught compassion and justice, and we practice selfishness and greed in their names. Why? Because we suck.
So How Should We Live?
To answer this question I turn to Rabbi Hillel, an elder contemporary of Rabbi Jesus. Hillel taught: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? (Avot 1:14).
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? No one. You have to celebrate yourself, promote yourself, and work hard to fulfill your dreams and desires. No one is going to do this for you. In fact, if you don’t affirm your value as a human being and make the most of your life, no one is going to notice you at all. This is what Jesus meant when he taught us not to hide our light under a bushel (Matthew 5:15 and Mark 4:21). But …
If I am only for myself, what am I? Answer: selfish, lonely, and bitter. Being for yourself alone and/or being for yourself at the expense of others results, as Peggy La Cerra tells us, in an energy deficit that robs us of one of life’s most meaningful pleasures: loving and being loved by other people. The truly selfish will live and die without a single true friend or companion. So while you must take care of yourself, you are wise to take care of others as well. This, too, is a matter of self-interest, what Peggy calls “enlightened self-interest,” and that’s just fine. When being for yourself includes being for others as well, everybody wins.
The answer to Hillel’s third question, If not now, when? is “now.” The longer you wait, the worse things get. So, starting this very moment, be for yourself — just not only for yourself. How? Translating Hillel’s timeless teaching into an ethic for living in the present moment leads me to Leviticus 19:18: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Notice the Bible does not say, love your neighbor as you love yourself. Far too many people read it this way and then spend enormous amounts of energy trying to love themselves, while never quite getting around to loving anyone else. The Bible says nothing about loving yourself. It says we are to love our neighbor as our self. To understand this we must understand just what this self is.
Who Are We Anyway?
Given that this essay is a response to Ms. La Cerra and that she focuses on the physical dimension of self, it is only fair that I do the same. To simplify things even more, I’ll focus on just one element of the body essential to life: our lungs.
Most of you will agree that if your lungs cease to function at this very moment, you will be dead a few moments later. Without your lungs you can’t exist, but lungs, in and of themselves, are useless. Imagine removing your lungs from your chest and stuffing them into your pocket. You still have them, but you still die. Your lungs need the rest of your body no less than the rest of your body needs your lungs. The self is a system of interdependent parts, a process of energy exchange. as Peggy La Cerra tells us. No part can function without all the others. What is true of the body, however, is not limited to the body.
Lots of us restrict our definition of “self” or “myself” to the sack of skin that contains our organs, but imagine this self removed from the larger ecosystem of which it — you — and all life is a part. Can you live in your skin alone? No.
For example, your body needs oxygen in order to survive and yet has no mechanism for producing it. You rely on plants and trees and the process of photosynthesis to feed oxygen to your lungs, just as you rely on your heart and vascular system to feed blood to your body. Trees and plants, then, are no less essential to your self than the rest of your body, so why imagine that they are other than your body? They aren’t. And don’t stop there.
Trees and plants can’t function in a vacuum either. They need earth in which to root and rain, sunlight, and carbon dioxide. If they need these things to live, and you need them to live, then you need these things as well: the entire planet is your body; all beings are this process you call “myself.” And it goes on: the planet needs the solar system to hold it in just the right relationship with the sun to allow for life — too close, we fry; too far away, we freeze — so the solar system is also your body, your self. And the solar system needs the Milky Way galaxy and the Milky Way needs … Face it: the entire universe is your body. Tat tvam assi, as the Hindu sages put it: you are that, and “that” is the entirety of creation. To love your neighbor is to love all life; to be for yourself is to be for all life.
Getting Our Stories Straight
Of course, not everyone will realize that the universe is her body, and not everyone who does realize this will care. While I would like to agree with Peggy that if we knew the truth we would act from enlightened self-interest and remake the world to the betterment of all the living, the truth is I can’t. Knowing the facts won’t mean a thing to most people.
People aren’t moved by facts but by stories, and the story that dominates our culture is that life is a zero-sum game in which a growing number of players are each competing against the others for an ever-increasing slice of an ever-diminishing pie.
This is the story that guides our lives, and it is pure fiction. Its purpose seems to be to provide a rationale for pitting nations, tribes, clans, families, and individuals against one another, in order to fill the this-worldly coffers of the rich by feeding the other-worldly fantasies of the poor. The true story — the reality that life is about interdependence, cooperation, and enlightened self-interest — seems to have no impact on us at all. So with all due respect to Ms. La Cerra’s essay, we need more than new facts; we need new stories.
We need non-zero-sum stories that reveal the true nature of self as universe and that motivate us to cultivate the morality of mutual caring that arises from the fact of our interdependence. We need new children’s books that tell our kids who they really are and not who our society pretends they are. We need stories that free people from meaningless work, endless war, and self-defeating socio-economic systems that commodify life and worship zero-sum gods who serve the interests of the few at the expense of the many. We need stories of new men and new women (and new gods, for that matter) who no longer fear the other or delight in their suffering — in this world and the next.
So, yes, let us look fearlessly at ourselves. Let us understand who we are, physically, emotionally, intellectually, religiously, and spiritually. Let us accept the horror and the hope that is human existence, and let us tell new stories that admit to both, while teaching us to contain the former and free the latter.