We live in an Era of Selfishness – a world full of a narcissism that seems to have been getting worse over the years. I recall commercials (while in university) advertising taglines like “You’re worth it” or “Obey your thirst”, because “I deserve everything I want, exactly when I want it”. And I shouldn’t have to wait to satisfy any desire. Ever. Nor should I have to be saddled with responsibilities or obligations I simply don’t want to have anymore. Spouses and children can be abandoned. Debts can be racked up and left unpaid. I can eat as much as I want of whatever I want. More stuff can be bought, trips taken, luxuries obtained by any means necessary. What about me? What do I get out of this? Why do others get to do what they want, and I don’t?
Dostoyevsky, in his book The Brothers Karamazov (first published in 1880, mind you), wrote, “The world says: “You have needs – satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.” Even back then, over one hundred years ago, Dostoyevsky knew that self-centeredness led to dissatisfaction, unhappiness and ultimately, self-destruction. And he was right. Our society is full of examples of the destruction that is the logical result of cultivating the fog of self-indulgence – abortion, euthanasia and divorce, just to name a few. Grey’s Anatomy, a television show cataloguing the loves and lives of a group of medical interns once had an episode revealing an unexpected pregnancy for one of the interns (keeping in mind this is a group of men and women working 80+ hour weeks and living on coffee and sex). The intern’s immediate reaction was “I’m too busy, this wasn’t in my plan, I won’t do this, I’m getting rid of it.” There was no thought towards or mention of the other people involved – especially not the unborn baby; there were only HER needs and HER desires. Full stop. I once worked for a palliative home care team and received a call from a palliative patient’s son, asking if the doctor could just “get his mother’s death over with.” He had a vacation scheduled in a few weeks and didn’t want to miss it. Left unchecked, our obsession with ourselves knows no bounds and can lead to our own destruction.
That being said not all thoughts of self are bad or selfish. We can care about and for ourselves without being narcissistic and ridiculous. But there is a fine line between “self-full-ness” and having a healthy – and decidedly Christian – view of the self. Human beings do have real and legitimate physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual needs that should be met to lead a healthy life – which is what God wants for us. We must realize that there are consequences to our actions when we purposefully do not meet our own needs adequately, or take steps to have them met. When we take on too many projects outside the home, our home life suffers. When we run ourselves ragged with the kids’ sports, the kids become tired and cranky, not being able to eat dinner or losing sleep from going to bed too late. When we repress our own legitimate emotions around taking care of a sick parent, we become angry, reactive and resentful when taking care of them. Creating good and proper outlets for our emotions – confession, counseling and exercise – and taking the time to reassess our priorities and do what we need to do, we can often come back to our families refreshed and ready to do the Lord’s Will. We cannot give what we do not have, and if we do not take care of our very basic needs, we cannot give ourselves fully, in the way the Lord may want us, to the duty of each moment.
But the problem isn’t necessarily that we should never think of ourselves, it is rather when we become overly focused on me, myself and I – becoming fixated and obsessed with ourselves over and above (or worse, at the expense of) others. It’s always thinking of my own wants and desires first, no matter the cost – this is the problem. And this is what our society advocates for, what it thinks will fulfill us – telling us that nobody could ever be as important as I am, and if I don’t advocate for the best of everything for myself, I will never have things and be happy.
Our society could not be more wrong; because the mystifying truth of the matter is that it is “in giving that we receive,” (St. Francis), that “God gives us things to share, not things to hold” and that “Intense love does not measure, it just gives.” (Mother Teresa) The saints knew that the secret of happiness and contentment – indeed the secret to becoming closer to God – was in giving of oneself, never thinking about what’s “in it for me” or desperately grasping for or gripping tightly on to “what’s mine.” It is in being free and easy with every kind of gift we have been given. Proverbs 11:24 says “There is one who scatters, and yet increases all the more, and there is one who withholds what is justly due, and yet it results only in want. The generous man will be prosperous, and he who waters will himself be watered.” If you notice, the author of Proverbs is saying we should not even be withholding that which is justly our due, but rather sharing out of our own want is what increases us “all the more.” I once read an article about some of Mother Teresa’s nuns who would give out small portions of rice to deeply impoverished families. One mother of many children took their share of rice, split it in half, and gave the other half to another mother with many children, claiming that the second family was even more poor than they were. I shake my head thinking about such radical poverty – and generosity – as I sit down to not one, but two large turkey dinners this Thanksgiving weekend.
But the fact remains. This, my friends, is where fulfillment and contentment lie – in the full and complete gift of one’s self, one’s things, one’s time and talents. In reading the accounts of the Jesuit Canadian Martyrs, Sts. Jean de Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues and companions, they suffered unspeakable hardships for the Native peoples. But they were happy – literally full of joy – to do so because they knew they were giving everything they had for the Lord. They even offered their lives, giving themselves over to the most brutal and violent of deaths. We are all called to give radically of ourselves and of the things we have been given – out of our need rather than out of our excess – which may include giving our lives for others someday. Though this is a scary thought for many (including myself), there’s no joy in the world like it, most especially when we do it for the Lord.
Prayer for Generosity by St. Ignatius of Loyola
Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
To give and to not count the cost,
To fight and to not heed the wounds,
To toil and not to seek for rest,
To labour and not to ask for reward,
Save that of knowing that I do your will.
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