Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wax Philospohical #2: Psychology of Service

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,

I shall not live in vain.
- Emily Dickinson

I love this poem, quite a bit. Emily Dickinson reminds me here of what George Eliot said, "What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?" I wonder…why do we feel this way? Why do we want to help people?

A large group in the world of psychology would disagree with Emily and George here. "We are conditioned, unchanging hedonistic creatures ,” say many psychological thinkers; “We are nothing more than the firing of neurons in our brain that have organized themselves based off our genetic predispositions and subsequent environmental conditioning. This conditioning has caused us to seek our own pleasure and minimize our own pain. We live for our survival. If you dig deep enough you will see that every kind thought or action has a selfish origin. Hedonism rules supreme and you cannot change this."

Ayn Rand
Well...isn't that right? I was born and conditioned this way, and I can't change. This conditioning teaches me that the world hurts and I need to alleviate my personal pain as best I can. I've learned that as a human being I want things, and so I try to get them for me. Isn't that right? Consider author Ayn Rand and her book, The Virtue Of Selfishness. In this book Rand presents the idea that selfish living, or "good" selfishness, is the greatest of virtues while altruism is a vice that is destructive to society. In another book of hers, The Fountainhead, her character Howard Roark plays the egoist, and he succeeds in his life by focusing on his own happiness. He does not live for others, nor does he live off them, and he asks no one to live off him. Isn't that right?


I forcefully submit this answer. Sorry to all you Any Rand cultists. Let me explain, because I think Rand is close in her thinking, but enough off the mark to be wrong.

Bad news for you too Paul Simon, because no man is an island, and no man can do it on his own. We are an interconnected world of beings that depend on each other. In our childhood we must live off our parents. We depend on them. This is so much a part of us that as infants we cannot even regulate our own body temperature. Without affection and being held by our parents we would easily die of exposure to cold, even in a warm room! Then we grow up and others depend on us. Our families and our friends need us. We need relationships and the connections that come with them. We cannot be alone and without love. We are not robots. I admit there are moments where we must take care of ourselves. I need to make money to pay my rent so I can live. If I focused solely on others I would die. There is need to understand and take care of oneself, but we would be better people, the world would be a better place, if in addition we  sincerely sought to help one another. What if I worked so I could earn money to pay my rent so I can to live, and I lived to help other people? I'm certainly not perfectly doing this, but its an interesting thought isn't it?

Scene from "A Man For All Seasons". Moore
and his daughter
Now this is a hard way of thinking in the world in which we live. "People just aren't like that." I've heard said. In response I think of quote in the movie, A Man For All Seasons, delivered by the character that plays Sir Thomas Moore. He is at risk of being executed for standing up for what he believes in. His daughter berates him and tries to make him give in, calling him a hero. His response is, "If we lived in a state where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us saintly. But since we see that avarice, anger, pride and stupidity commonly profit far beyond charity, modesty, justice and thought, perhaps we must stand fast a little, even at the risk of being heroes."

Now I'm not saying we should seek to be heroes. That would defeat the purpose, but we should seek to stand fast and really love other people. The question is, if we love someone, what is best for them?

I submit that we live for others. That is what life is about. This thinking, of complete selflessness and absolute concern for the help of others, reminds me of the bodhisattvas. These are people in the Mahāyāna Buddhism belief who have attained enlightenment, but instead of breaking from the wheel of life, they have turned their focus towards working for the complete enlightenment of all sentient beings. A bodhisattva is one who has a determination to free sentient beings from samsara, or the continuous flow of life, and its cycle of death, rebirth and suffering. This type of mind is known as the mind of awakening or bodnicitta.

C. Terry Warner, founder of the Arbinger Institute and author of the phenomenal book, Bonds That Make Us Free, talks a lot about our relations with other people. He talks about how we all have a moral sense and when we don’t follow the promptings of the moral sense we betray ourselves and damage relationships around us. The best way to view people, Warner says, is in what is called an I-Thou relationship which we attain when we follow our moral sense.

Martin Buber. I don't mean
any disrespect, but I really
like his beard, and his way
of thinking.
This is an idea adopted from Jewish theologian Martin Buber. The theory is that there are two ways to look at a person, “I-It” and “I-Thou”. In an “I-It” relationship we see other people as objects, either as vehicles to our goal, obstacles to our goal, or irrelevant for they aren't connected to our goal. The other way to see someone is an “I-Thou” relationship, where we see them as real human beings with goals, needs, dreams, and wishes that are just as important as our own. We can then live for the sake of another person. I want to point out that one must have an understanding of both parties in this relationship, the “I” and the “Thou”. If one is too focused on the “I” the relationship becomes imbalanced, and a similar thing happens if one understands the “Thou” with no concept of the “I”. Both must be in equal conjunction.

It is important to note that the “I” in an “I-It” relationship is different than the “I” in an “I-Thou” relationship. The person that we are when we see others as objects behaves differently than the person that sees others as real human beings, and we love them.

Jesus said in John 13:34-35, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” Jesus commands us to love each other. He says in Matthew 16:25-26, "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" Then link this to what a prophet, King Benjamin, said in the Mormon Canon of scripture in Mosiah 2:17, "And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God." 

These are the things that form my paradigm and my motives. We find true joy by serving God, and we serve God by serving others. We can truly serve others by understanding ourselves, by seeing others as real people, and making a conscious choice to do what we can to help.

What do you think? I would really like to know?

Elder Ballard

In my last post on service I spoke about my church’s General Conference meeting we had recently. Another speaker that struck me was Elder Ballard. He gives the example of bees, and how they work and their impact. An interesting fact that he shared was that in the lifetime of a bee it will produce only one twelfth a teaspoon of honey. This is a figure that seems small, but with the combined efforts of other bees making honey this adds up. Elder Ballard then goes on to apply that to us. "Imagine what the millions of Latter-day Saints could accomplish in the world if we functioned like a beehive in our focused, concentrated commitment to the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. 
             The Savior taught that the first and great commandment is: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. …“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37, 39–40). The Savior’s words are simple, yet their meaning is profound and deeply significant. We are to love God and to love and care for our neighbors as ourselves. Imagine what good we can do in the world if we all join together, united as followers of Christ, anxiously and busily responding to the needs of others and serving those around us—our families, our friends, our neighbors, our fellow citizens. 
             As the Epistle of James notes, service is the very definition of pure religion (see James 1:27)."

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