Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also everyone for those of others.
Philippians 2: 3-4
When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or sisters or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
Luke 14: 12-14
We survive as a species because of our instinct for self-preservation. Perhaps the greatest witness to the reality of spirit (that is a transcendence of instinct) in us, however, is the way that we expand this instinct from serving self-preservation to enhancing self-promotion. We are obsessed not only with preserving our vital lives, but also with preserving and building our own self-creation. We want to “be somebody” in the world and we live in abject fear of being a nobody or of being ashamed.
The great spiritual traditions all teach that this self-promotion is an obstacle to our realizing our true worth and so our true place in the world. As we have often noted, Theodore James Ryken experiences conversion when he is “put in his place” or “brought low.” He does not tell us the precipitating event for him, but only tells us that it was an experience he had at the age of 19 years. What we can surmise is that it was an experience of being deflated.
Our unconscious desire for ego-inflation is, perhaps, one of the greatest motivations that we know. It is also one of the greatest causes of our anxiety. We all know the paradoxical experience of at once desiring to be seen by others as significant in ways that our cultures value. We want to look good and be recognized. In fact, our greatest fear may be lack of recognition and a sense of insignificance. On the other hand, someplace in us also knows that whenever we are “successful” in our own self-creation and inflation, we are also lying. As Thomas Merton puts it, I intuit at that moment that “I am my own mistake.” Thus, the deep anxiety that we experience. This may be why whatever people seem to achieve or how much wealth they accumulate, it is never enough. It is the experience of the addict whose body only craves more of the addictive substance in order to still the anxiety and pain within.
In today’s letter to the Philippians, St. Paul offers the practice, the remedy, for this quagmire into which our craving for self-promotion pitches us. “Humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also everyone for those of others.” These are not fashionable words in our culture. Yet, they ring true when we realize how powerful is our drive to promote ourselves, to make ourselves worthwhile, to attain significance in the world. At the moment he was brought low, Brother Ryken experienced that he turned toward God and fell in love. What exactly happened to him? Up to this moment, he, as most of us, was attempting to make something of himself, as if he were nothing until he did so. When, however, the futility of that effort became apparent, he, in his lowly state, found himself in his humility and honesty standing alone before God. And there he realized that he was loved, not for what he did or how others saw him but in himself, poor as he seemed.
So, St. Paul tells us to “work against” the feeling that we are worthless and have nothing to give until we “prove ourselves” to others on their terms. Paul tells us to forget about ourselves and to put the interest of others first. In what sounds contradictory to us, he says that if we regard others as more important than ourselves, we shall experience our own significance. This is because the self that we are putting before others s our pride or false form. When we cease devoting attention to that self-creation, we can then experience the truth of who we are. As St. Francis prays, “It is in giving that we receive.”
What makes human community so difficult to realize is our innate difficulty in regarding others as more important than ourselves. A community based on apparent affinity, if that means continual mutual gratification, is doomed to failure. For we are insatiable in our demand for attention and what we tend now to call “affirmation.” Adrian van Kaam says that we cannot affirm each other, we can only confirm each other. Only God and then ourselves can affirm us. So, when we seek affirmation from others, there will be no end to that demand. We become “bottomless pits.” In relationship with others, this is a recipe for resentment. Community is only possible for those who have discovered how to live in such a way as to “regard others as more important” than themselves. This is true, by the way, in every human relationship.
Of course, be it in marriage or community, we never fully attain this goal. This is why we call the injunction of Paul a “practice.” We learn to love by practicing day to day and moment to moment the regarding of others as more important than ourselves. Parents are very familiar with this practice, for infants demand to be put first. When dealing with adults it is much more difficult. There is an old Chinese parable about the nature of heaven and hell. In both places the inhabitants have plenty of food, but they only have long-handled spoons with which to eat it. So, in hell people are constantly hungry because they cannot feed themselves with the long spoons. In heaven all are filled because they are feeding each other.
Jesus’ story in today’s gospel from Luke further nuances this teaching. It’s moral is the same, that is to give without seeking repayment. He illustrates for us, however, that even in our giving and our hospitality there is often the hidden motivation of self-promotion. We give, we invite, we offer friendship with the hope and expectation of its being reciprocated. There is, inevitably, an unconscious hook in our generosity. Now the truth of the matter is that for human beings this is almost always the case. Our motives are pretty much always mixed. We do not do things that we, at some level, do not perceive to be in our self interest. So true is this, that Jesus, as Paul, is teaching us that to keep balance we must work against our strongest tendencies. The practices of the spiritual life are not intended to make us perfect. Rather, they are to create a space in our self-centeredness so that the love of God might find its way into us. We are to practice putting ourselves in our true and proper place, as just one among the others, so that we, as Brother Ryken, might turn from our self-preoccupation toward God, and there fall in love, once again.
To put the others first is to put God first in our lives. As long as we manipulate the world, and so others and our relationships with them, in service to our pride form of life, we have no space for God. We human beings, who are so prone to self-promotion, are called to turn outward toward others and so toward God if we are to experience the truth of God’s love for us, both ourselves and all of us, as we are and not as we so deeply believe we must be. We can practice what Jesus and Paul teach because we are capable of much more love for others than we realize. We have merely obstructed that love’s flow with our anxiety about our own significance. That significance lies, ultimately, only in our being loved by God, and allowing that love to be for others through us.
Whatever you do, Arjuna,
do it as an offering to me—
whatever you say or eat
or pray or enjoy or suffer.
In this way you will be freed
from all the results of your actions,
good or harmful; unfettered,
untroubled you will come to me.
I am the same to all beings.
I favor none and reject none.
But those who worship me live
within me and I live in them.
. . . .
All those who love and trust me,
even the lowest of the low —
prostitutes, beggars, slaves —
will attain the ultimate goal.
Bhagavad Gita, IX, 27-29; 32 (trans. Stephen Mitchell)