Sunday, February 17, 2013

Turning Away From Self

I kept getting a message about giving up self today. First at Sunday School, studying 1Peter Ch 3 we were talking about how we should treat each other, and what’s hard about it, and when it’s hard. What we came up with is that we are called to be kind, honest, humble, working for peace, not retaliating, offering understanding, and giving blessings. It is hard to do those things when you are hurt, angry or scared and we all had a lot of examples, from being cut off on the road to getting wrong orders in restaurants to having the doctor not be there for a medical appointment.  I commented that what you have to do is take your “self” out of the picture. If you want to be humble, and kind, and not retaliate, and offer understanding, and seek peace you have to stop worrying about me, mine, I. You can’t be thinking about your security, or your reputation, or your comfort, or your anything. And you can’t be focused on the other person exactly, either, it’s more being focused on doing things the way G-D tells you to do them, because it pleases G-D. It’s being willing to let your “self” die that then lets you do all the good things we are told to do.

Which is not to say it’s not okay to set limits or speak up. One woman talked about a huge mistake her doctor’s office made and she wrote them an angry letter about the situation. She was wondering if that was okay. When she talked about the letter it sounds like despite her anger she was calm, fair, courteous and even kind to the people who made an unsuccessful effort to help. She just laid out the situation, explained why it was not okay, and suggested some different ways it could be handled. I don’t see that as being self-focused; she is bring attention to a problem that can (and she knows for a fact did) affect not only her family but many other families. She is speaking up to write a wrong and doing it in a mature, focused way that people can hear. I think that to do that you actually have to be able to take a step back from self and so it’s actually a good example of not being in the self. I don’t think that’s easy to do.

Then the singing today was by the youth group and I got the message again. I was so incredibly moved by the music they offered. It’s hard to say why, exactly. The music as a musical performance was okay, the instrumental parts were very good, but their voices weren’t strong and some of the timing was off. But I had tears in my eyes, listening to them. Some of it was song choice; they started with “Lay Me Down” by Chris Tomlin which just rolled right into the things we had been thinking about and talking about in Sunday School – if you don’t know the song it essentially is saying I give up my “rights” and will follow G-D, which is the same thing I think as saying I will turn away from self-interest and self-involvement. Some of it was just seeing these young women and men standing up in front of the congregation leading us; it makes me hopeful.  

After that the pastor during the sermon quoted from “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis, which is one of the books that has been most influential in my life. He quoted the passage from the chapter “Is Christianity Hard or Easy” in which Lewis states “The terrible ting, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves’, to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good’.” This is part of a longer passage about giving over our entire selves to G-D, to be reformed, formed anew, in G-D’s image. It is a process we resist, but for as long as we do we struggle to live our calling.

This idea of giving up your self, your rights, your ego isn’t just a Christian idea either. Buddhist practice also talks about moving past your ego and your self, although if I understand correctly (and I may not, if you know better please feel free to offer a corrective), the premise is less one of obedience and more one of releasing an illusion that keeps us unhappy and trapped. Selflessness is also a value in Judaism. I don’t know enough about other religions to say, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that this process of turning away from self is part of many others. It is also a concept in human psychology; letting go of excessive self-involvement (narcissism) and becoming invested in other people seen as genuinely other and valuable for it is considered an important step for healthy development. Once you acknowledge someone else as genuine, valuable and real it is harder to remain in a place of extreme self-interest. I’m not sure what the message means for me today, although I’ll be thinking about it for a while I expect. I do believe as a whole learning this selflessness is fundamental to our continuing survival as a species.