Exemplary public service
Yesterday, I spent most of my day helping other people. Mr. Obama called me this morning to discuss a date for me to receive the Presidential Citizen’s Medal for my acts of exemplary selfless public service. My accoladed works include:
- Changing a dirty diaper
- Cleaning up lunch dishes (after someone else cooked)
- Shoveling a driveway
- Fixing loose plumbing
- Spending time with sick people
- Walking a dog
- Refueling a car
- Ordering pizza
Doing a few, moderately-inconvenient good deeds yesterday reinforced in me a conviction that I’ve had for a while now — I’m probably more selfish than the average person (please, neither disagree nor agree too emphatically with that statement). What most reinforced my conviction was that yesterday’s “selflessness” was really more of an exception than a norm. What’s more is that the opportunity for selflessness arose because my wife was busy with friends, and I failed to make substantive alternate plans. Yes, boredom and indolence made a way for thinking of others — it’s a Christmas miracle.
I spend most of the time thinking about myself or how to benefit myself. When I hear about something good that happened to someone else, my first thought (before I bring it under control) is often, “why not me?” When I hear about something bad that happened to someone else, my thoughts often go towards, “how will this ultimately affect me?” When someone asks something of me, I think, “how much work will this be, and what can I get out of it,” instead of, “okay, and what else can I do to help?”
That selfishness doesn’t pay off should not be any groundbreaking revelation for any of you (if it is, please visit your pastor, and he can give you a list of reasons why it isn’t so). What might be revelation to you is that selfishness is an addiction. And like any addiction, as I’ve indulged in it more, it has become tougher to recognize it. To compensate for it, I’ll even warp my perceptions of scripture. “Treat others as you want to be treated,” is interpreted as, “just take care of yourself and expect others to take care of themselves, and it’ll all be okay.”
Symptoms of an addiction
I did a little research on some of the symptoms of addiction, and I distilled a little list to help you out if you’re selfish like me:
“You’re selfish.” | “No I’m not.” | “Denial! It’s the first sign.”
There’s no winning this argument. We’re all a little selfish.
We are dependent on selfishness to make us feel better. When I’m feeling unfulfilled or anxious, my first impulse is, “I need to relax.” Instead of going to visit my friends, or a prayer meeting, or outreach or my family’s place, I decide it’s better to stay home. If I go to one of those places, I might be coerced to think of someone besides myself, and that’s what’s causing my stress and anxiety, right?
It might never occur to you that the fulfillment or release of anxiety you’re looking for is in the service of others.
3. Not being yourself
When you’re selfish, you’re not being yourself. You are princes and princesses of the most high king. Your lives are filled with purpose, and you were created to worship the king and serve one another. If you’re watching TV four hours a day and guarding your time against anyone who might make a demand of you, you’re not being yourself.
To build on that, selfishness doesn’t always take on the appearance of self-absorption. Sometimes when I’m always helping out and volunteering for everything, I am being the most selfish. My motivation stops being to help others and begins to focus on how good it feels for others to need me. Being yourself doesn’t mean running yourself ragged and over-committing yourself to helping others. Wise and selfless people know what’s too much and prioritize their time carefully.
4. Spending resources to support your addiction
An addict will spend or do anything to feed their addiction, even if it’s beyond their budget or outright illegal. We may choose at first to not “take the extra mile,” but eventually we’ll stop walking the first mile too. When we find we have no money, no time, or no resources to even cover our minimum responsibilities, we know our spending is out of line.
I won’t begrudge you your flat screen TV, your fancy drapes or your costly hobbies. There’s more than enough money in the kingdom for you to have those things, and I can trust you to hear from God what is exactly too much. But a good sign of selfishness is the prioritization of how your spend your resources. My time and my money are my two biggest resources, and I know when I can tell when I’m being stingy with both.
5. Inability to quit
Any smoker will quit for a day or two, and any selfish person will take a short-term mission trip or volunteer for a season, but selflessness doesn’t operate in seasons — it’s a lifestyle and an identity.
You might feel great coming off of that two-week relief trip to Guatemala, but while you’re giving each-other high fives, remember that those people you saw who lost their homes in the mudslide are still there along with millions of other people in the world. If you get swept up in the positive emotions that accompany service (and those emotions are not at all a bad thing), it’s easy to forget the pain and challenges you had to face to achieve them. Let your victories motivate you to do more.
The first step
In any AA testimonial, the first thing you’ll hear a recovering alcoholic say is “My name is ____, and I’m an alcoholic.” Why don’t we start our own personal confessions? I’ll take the first step.