Notice: I've taken a part-time job, and it's definitely affecting my blogging time. I'll continue to add content here as often as possible.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Selfishness and Sacrifice

Mary washing Jesus' feet
This blog is turning out to be difficult to maintain since posts here take a lot more time and thought than my other blogs. Nevertheless, I'll add a post whenever I can. Thanks for your patience.

This post was prompted by a book I read. This is not going to be a book review, but the book was Final Payments, by Mary Gordon. I have no idea if she is actually a Christian or was simply writing out of a knowledge of a Roman Catholic upbringing in the 1960s. She does force one to think hard about the meaning of love, and what sacrifice is all about, as contrasted with selfishness.

In Final Payments, the main character, Isabel, swings from care of an invalid father, whom she dearly loves, to wild, self-pleasuring living after his death. When this leads to spiritual and moral ruin, she determines to sacrifice her life in the care of a horrible, ungrateful woman, as a service to God. Her own strength of character is insufficient to sustain such an impossible task, and she emerges at last with a new-found understanding of life and love.

Anyone who thinks that decisions about these topics are easy hasn't been faced with miserable choices. It seems so pure an act of sacrifice to give up one's own life in service to another, especially to one for whom you feel no affection; it feels so spiritual. Isabel says, "Charity. That is what I thought I would do for Margaret. The greatest love is to love without wanting anything in return, even an acknowledgement of loving. And this is how I would love." But if that is not what God has asked you to do, it is simply an act of selfishness- an attempt to make yourself feel holy.

Also, to have no investment in care of your own self is not as sacrificial as it may look on the surface. In the book, Isabel has let herself gain a great deal of weight. She has been through a huge range of emotional struggles, but has told herself that her own body had no value at all as compared to her spiritual values. A priest, who is also her good friend, tells her that she is breaking the fifth commandment. Isabel is shocked and asks what "thou shalt not kill" has to do with it. The priest replies, "It also means slow death."

When Mary washed Jesus' feet with her hair she was rebuked by Judas for wasting the expensive ointment which could have been used to care for the poor. But Jesus said to let her do it, because "the poor you will always have with you." This answer seems to fly in the face of everything we have been taught about using resources prudently, taking care of others, or sublimating our own desires. The book uses this story as an example- when Isabel comes to the realization that "we must not try to second-guess death by refusing to love the ones we loved in favor of the anonymous poor.

On the other hand, no one would ever say that to live a hedonistic life is in keeping with God's will. Somewhere between the two extremes is the ideal balance of self-love and sacrifice that pleases God. The golden rule says to "love your neighbor as you love yourself." Jesus does not rebuke us for loving ourselves- he uses it as a reference point for our outward actions. Isabel's period of seeking sexual pleasure quickly brings her to a realization of the emptiness of that choice.

This essay is turning out to be very superficial. That's probably inevitable, since I have all the details of the story of Final Payments in my mind, but can't make you experience them here, in a few words.

In short, it's simply impossible to put cheap labels on actions and call them sacrifice, love, service, selfishness, without knowing God's will. We need to examine our own motives and actions. (And, a corollary, to leave other people's motives to God to judge.)