I like to consider myself, for the most part, as an optimistic person.
I’ve seen enough negative to be able to recognize the positives in life. On the other side of that coin, I’ve been blessed and fortunate enough to have avoided the constant and soul-deep misery which has the potential to eliminate our ability to see good at all. We are in a recurring battle against ourselves, one that requires us to simultaneously love and hate everything around us – and including us – to a degree that makes true love – or true compassion or true anything – difficult to believe in.
I’ve struggled so mightily in the last few years trying to define myself. I’ve spent far too much time trying to discern what I needed for me to be happy, for me to be successful, for me to be find purpose. It’s a stunning realization (bordering on depressing; because of the wasted time and empty efforts, actually) when you’ve awakened within yourself the truth of these matters: Maybe we should stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about how we (the royal we) can be of service to other people.
It’s a simple idea, but incredibly difficult to execute on a micro and macro level. Difficult because it goes against our intrinsic human nature, difficult because it certainly doesn’t yield as much applause and attention as it’s worth and well, because generally speaking, we just don’t want to. Why would we spend so much of our precious time focusing on the lives and happiness of others when it seems the big ol’ world doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about us?
I don’t know. I wish I did.
The obvious and immediate benefits of selfishness are often too tempting to deny, and it’s clearly how the majority of people would prefer to live. Aside from just “getting stuff,” we’re also limiting the amount of self we risk losing to others. Others, who like us, are far more likely to take the kindness of others for granted and use it against us. We hate to be weak, we hate to be vulnerable, we hate to give not knowing if we’ll be receiving in kind. If we’re giving of ourselves for any reason other than with the truest intention, then we’re not really giving at all. What value is a gift you give, whether it be material, emotional, verbal or otherwise, if it’s actually just your attempt at bartering for something that you gain? Stop fooling yourself. Either submit to the knowledge that everything you do for others is for your own gain, or change yourself from a wolf in sheep’s clothing to just a sheep, ready for the shearing of others and not giving a darn if you end up naked and exposed. That’s the risk we run, and that’s the only way we’re actually able to enjoy what we give. Sitting back, waiting for your return is no way to live, and it’s certainly no way to give.
I’ve been fortunate to spend the last week in Lowell, Michigan with my brother and his family, a family that is as unique as any you’re likely to find these days. With seven children; three biological boys, each wildly different from the other and four adopted kids (ranging from 18-years-old to 4,) the house is constantly filled with music, laughter, fighting, tears, and screams. Somehow, rather than finding it to be a horror-show, I have been able to sit back and observe it and all I can truly see is a pervasive graciousness and humility of spirit, from the top to the bottom.
Sure, there are traditional family power-struggles especially among the younger three kids,) and yes there is playful antagonization by the older kids, gentle reminders that they are smarter, bigger, stronger, etc., but from sun up to sun down there’s an unmistakable air of giving. Giving of time, giving of support, giving of themselves and their personal self “needs” and wants so that as personal growth happens among the horde, they will develop with an others-focused attitude.
Being around that sort of attitude really helps brighten my eyes to the challenges I face within myself on a daily basis. I struggle with the basics and I generally can’t even fathom the more advanced levels of sacrificing my wants for others, but when its so obviously presented in front of you, how can you ignore it?
Have I been selfish by being away from my family to pursue my own family in the last decade? Have I been selfish by being away from others in the past few years who needed me to be there? Have I been selfish by not walking away when I am told I should just “move on?” Have I been selfish by thinking I should move to Columbus or anywhere else recently? I suppose the answer to all of those questions, on some level, is yes. Each choice, while not entirely awful or egregious in its self-serving nature, has been made with my best interest in mind. Does that mean I’ve not considered the needs of others as well? Of course not.
It is acceptable to want things for yourself, but that doing them without considering how those needs impact or hurt others that you love, is not acceptable. The challenge becomes discerning from inside of your own consciousness what your true motivations are.
As long as we are the guiding force in our own lives, the motivations we rely on will always be wrong. There has to be something bigger than us that gives us hope beyond this life. We give in this life not to receive in this life, but because we’ve been given this life. The only way to honor He who gave it to us through Grace is to give back back to others because of Grace.
I’ve got some very large decisions looming in my own life and while I fear the unknown, I know that everything that happens, if my heart is being guided by the proper motivation, I will be ok, no matter the outcome. This is not to be confused with some misguided sense of “what’s supposed to happen, will happen,” because I don’t for a second buy into that hokum. Our paths are not predetermined, we choose what happens next, but remembering that what happened before, now, or next doesn’t define who we are.
We, through our actions alone, define who we are. What will you do? For what reasons will you do it? When it’s done, when you’ve accomplished the things you never imagined possible, who will you give the credit to? Will the credit go to the same places you direct your blame when things go wrong? It’s either all you, or none of you. There is no in-between.
Give of yourself for others with no concern for what you get in return, or continue to take from others with no regard for the damage you leave in your wake, and make no mistake, that damage is considerable.
It seems like a pretty simple choice.