We're in the midst of examining a criticism that "good" people don't focus on their own wants and needs, but focus on the needs and wants of others. Previously, we acknowledged that shame can cause us to think that we are not worthy of having our needs and wants met, and we asserted that if we want to be fully alive human beings, it's important for us to recognize the worthiness of our own vision for our lives and the world around us.
There are a couple of other points we need to consider from critics, however, including the belief that we harm other people by focusing on what we want -- essentially, that everyone cannot simultaneously have their wants and needs met. We should also address the argument that Jesus or some other legendary spiritual leader offers a model of self-sacrificial living. In fact, let's tend to that last point first and then move on to the idea that it costs someone else when we focus on what we most deeply want.
Throughout the history of some religious traditions, suffering has been equated with righteousness or worthiness. This began because the people who engaged in those religious practices were marginalized in their particular society, and they had to do something to explain their suffering in the face of a belief that they were set apart -- "chosen" by their god. Either their god was malicious or powerless, or there was some greater reason for their suffering as marginalized people. Even though some such religious traditions have become more powerful -- even oppressive -- practitioners often still cling to the idea that they are persecuted. Their persecution makes them like a beloved spiritual leader of mythology, and thus their suffering marks them as more holy -- chosen or set apart by their loving god who values their suffering for some reason.
The fact of the matter is that this coping mechanism creates tons more harm than well-being. Liberal and feminist theologians especially have written quite a bit on the damage done by the belief that suffering makes one more acceptable, lovable, or worthy in the eyes of a deity. Self-sacrifice can be a powerful gesture, but only when it is an intentional choice that one makes to nurture a system toward wholeness. Giving up one's personal safety, in and of itself, does not nurture anything. Choosing between what feels safe and what one actually wants for the world -- a personal creative life dream -- can be worth the risk. There is a big difference.
Even when one looks at the example of Jesus, for instance, the model of behavior is not self-sacrificial. There is an abundance of examples in the gospel narrative of Jesus going off by himself for solitude. He chooses to fast on occasion, but he never goes hungry when he actually needs to eat. He reprimands people who don't behave the way he wants them to, and he thinks highly enough of his own ideas that he challenges the rationale of religious authorities. He even chastises his disciples when they don't meet his needs or wants. There are moments in which the Jesus of the gospel narratives is downright arrogant, and there is no reason for us to criticize the self-assurance of someone who has conviction about what will bring wholeness to the world. The lessons of the teachings attributed to Jesus have little to do with self-sacrifice and lots to do with being aware of one's own power to transform one's own life and the lives of others.
Too often, believers seem to focus on one episode at the end of the story, in which religious and political leaders abuse their power with violent retribution toward a person who upsets the status quo. They invent in their heads a Jesus who could have resisted such power, making him a willing sacrifice rather than a victim of oppressive and fear-filled authorities. Yet this behavior is in contrast to the rest of the stories told about the life and actions of a bold and self-confident Jesus who is consistently willing to express what he wants people to do and how he wants people to think.
Anyone who includes self-sacrifice into their religious values is choosing to imagine that their own wants and needs are inconsequential, which is the same thing as denying their inherent worth and dignity. Some religious traditions thrive on telling people lies about being unworthy, unacceptable, and unlovable -- perhaps making their invented deity look all the more magnanimous for deigning to love such wretches. Do you know how people create wholeness when they think of themselves as inherently unworthy, unacceptable, and unlovable? They don't. Why would they? Their self-image is dominated by weakness and powerlessness. This image of humanity is flawed, fear-driven, and useless, except to those that like having an easy time manipulating the masses. That's the one thing to be said for teaching people that they are weak and worthless -- it makes them a lot easier to control.
Contrast that with people who believe in their own inherent worth and dignity -- who believe in their own capability and beauty and creativity. People who recognize personal responsibility in their lives ought also recognize that they have the power to wield that responsibility thoughtfully. This means taking the consequences of one's action into consideration. Powerless people don't have choices, but people who are willing to recognize their own power also recognize the ability to choose actions that nurture wholeness in their lives and the lives of those around them. Really, it's the people who live into an identity of being weak, unlovable, powerless, and unworthy who are harmfully self-indulgent.
There is something that gets in the way of creating wholeness, though, even for those people who recognize their own worth and power and responsibility. Fear. Just as shame convinces us of lies about ourselves, our fear gets in the way of living life as fully as we could. Our fear convinces us that we need certain things in order to be safe, or to prove how lovable or acceptable we are. And we wind up doing the things that placate our fear rather than doing the things we actually want most deeply. Most people don't ever think about what they want for their lives and the lives of those around them because they never get past thinking about what they have to do to be safe, or heard, or respected, or loved, or successful. We don't really know what we want more deeply because we never get past wanting to be free of our anxiety.
From this perspective, the criticism is absolutely true: Everyone cannot go about alleviating their fears without hurting anyone else. Focusing on our anxiety and trying to make it go away as quickly as possible almost always means we hurt someone else in the process. We also hurt ourselves. Letting fear control us is not the same as tending to what we most deeply want. We don't actually get what we most deeply want by indulging our fear. We need a way to get past our fear and anxiety, and get to the heart of what we really want for our own lives and for the world. And we need a way to know when it is our fear talking and when it is something deeper within us that longs for wholeness.
The criticism of selfishness really doesn't hold up when we consider the full implication of intentional people living with integrity to their deepest values. Certainly, when we think of the typical fearful behavior of human beings on reactive autopilot, self-indulgence is harmful. That isn't what we're talking about when we encourage living into a best possible version of oneself, or developing a meaningful creative life dream. If our passion is nurturing the world toward wholeness, we have to be competent at nurturing wholeness in our own lives. Respecting our own needs, valuing our own vision, caring for ourselves -- these are behaviors of personally responsible human beings, and it takes personally responsible human beings to create wholeness.