The gift we give ourselves
Last updated 12/15/2021 at Noon
“Love is not real.”
I remember blinking in surprise and being somewhat dumbfounded. It was said to me some years ago at a Christmas gathering here in Sisters. The person who spoke went on to say that people are basically egocentric, self-centered. They may live or die for their ideals, but ultimately, it’s to feel good about themselves.
Many philosophers and theologians agree that humans are basically self-involved, trying to survive in a speculative world, but this was a new concept for me. I began to wonder. If people really began to self-examine, would they secretly find this to be true? And if so, could disbelief in inherent goodness be what drives distrust and division in society today?
We live in a time when everything is seen as manipulation, even charity. Cherished ideals are challenged. Some suggest our very democracy is declining, America decaying, our trust in each other broken. Two loud, opposing forces fight to proclaim our nation’s true identity, enticing Americans to one side or the other.
One does not shy away from selfishness. It raises a closed fist, a symbol that says we must put ourselves first so we can all rise together. It is the kind of self-involvement that says, “I’m right, I please myself, and you should, too. This is honest, it’s real.”
The second is a kind of self-centeredness that is more subtle, more refined. It is an open hand, the sort that says, “Give us your downtrodden. We know you are hurting. We will help you, give you a way out, and then you will help us. We are the real America.”
One pleases itself, the other pleases itself by pleasing others. Both are ways of maneuvering through a complicated world. Both, intuitively, are understood as being controlling. This might be disturbing to look at, but if we don’t look, we won’t see.
So can we find our trust again? Is love, is charity real, or is everything manipulation?
I found it freeing to contemplate the idea that I am a manipulative, intelligent human. By facing the self-involvement this entails, now when I do a good job at work, or give to charities, I recognize I am really giving a gift to myself, pleasing myself. My self-worth is no longer dependent on the praise of others. This is a good thing.
On another note, I have seen and experienced a kind of charity where the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, where there is no praise involved, not even secret self-praise. Where the person is not aware that they’ve done a good deed. It comes about when someone takes on a “way of being in the world,” a compassion that is not clingy and has no expectations, such as the man who takes a homeless man’s dog to the vet. The Good Samaritan story comes to mind. Beauty arises from it that is attached to nothing. It offers the experience of deep connection with another, and out of this trust can find a way. Do I dare call this love?
I believe this country, and many around the world, are at crossroads that require the maturity to face flaws of self-interest, yet still see the potential beauty of admitting it. I would also hope this holiday season that we, as individuals, will try to discover the charity within. Not a raised fist, or an open hand, but the kind of charity where the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, a way of being in the world. The gift we give ourselves.