Friday, December 16, 2016

An Unselfish World by Reverend Tom Capo

“I am an unselfish person living in a world of selfish people.”
            I found this quote in Google images without any attribution, and I spent a little time wondering about it.  I do make frequent efforts to be unselfish, and I have seen a lot of selfish people.  I went to a potluck several years ago; I think it was a church dinner, not here; and the man in front of me in line took two huge scoops of candied yams, leaving none for me or anyone else.  And there was a person who, along with so many others, took selfies during turtle nesting season, scaring the mother turtles so much that many of them did not nest or lay eggs.  And what about government state and national representatives who take money from lobbyists to pass legislation that benefits the rich at the expense of the poor, or those legislators in Springfield who refuse to pass a budget, leaving those with mental health problems in Illinois without services. 
            I could go on, but I know that many of you, like me, wonder about these behaviors; you see them all the time.  You too wonder if we live in a world of selfish people. 
            To be selfish is not inherently a bad, destructive, hurtful, or an evil thing.  To be selfish is just trying to make yourself happy.  My wanting to have shrimp gumbo and shrimp etouffee on my birthday, which I did by the way, to make me happy is not a harmful thing.  If I wanted to eat shrimp gumbo and shrimp etouffee on the back of a mother turtle during nesting season, well that is another thing all together.  
            We all want to be happy.  However, I have three things for you to consider when wanting to make yourself happy: 
·         Will what you are doing for yourself really make you happy?
·         Will there be negative consequences as a result of making yourself happy and how far are you willing to go?
·         What values or ethics you might be willing to compromise, to make yourself happy?
Intense desire can blind us to reality.  We all have this tendency.  If a little bit of chocolate cake tastes good, a lot will taste better, even if eating the cake negatively affects our weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure.  And will the extra chocolate cake make us happy, really?
            All religious traditions warn against letting our selfishness, our desire to make ourselves happy, go too far.  In the Tao Te Ching, it is written:
“There is no crime greater than having too many desires;
There is no disaster greater than not being content;
There is no misfortune greater than being covetous.”
In the Hindu Scripture, Allama Prabhu:
“They say that woman is an enticement.
No, No, she is not so.
They say that money is an enticement.
No, No, it is not so.
They say that landed property is an enticement.
No, No, it is not so.
The real enticement is the insatiable appetite of the mind.”
And in Christian Bible book of James:
“Let no one say when he/she is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; each person is
tempted when he/she is lured and enticed by his/her own desire.” 

A Decision to Make Yourself Happy
            Think for a moment of a time when you were selfish, in other words, a time when you made a decision to make yourself happy.  You might find yourself feeling okay about this conscious decision.  You might regret something about this decision.  You might wonder if you made the right decision.  There are times when we do need to put ourselves first for our mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual health.  Heck the week before last I took an extra day off and didn’t do any church work.  I exercised, had a massage, had an acupuncture treatment, and napped on and off for the rest of the day.  Do I regret this decision?  Not in the least.    There is nothing wrong with taking care of ourselves or treating ourselves with extra care and compassion from time to time.  However, there needs to be some balance between making yourself happy and caring for the interdependent web of all existence of which you are a part. 
Buddhists refer to this as selflessness, when we consider the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part as part of our decision-making process.  Someone named Daphne wrote of this experience:  “Every day I walk down the mall to get a cup of cappuccino, and every day I get hit up for spare change.  Every day.  The panhandlers all have these wonderful stories but you never know what to believe.  After a while it gets to be an irritation, and then I find myself getting upset that I’m so irritated over what is really just spare change.  One day this person came up to me and said, “I just ran out of gas.  My car is about six blocks away from here I have two kids in the car and I’m just trying to get back home.”

     I said to myself, ‘Here we go again.’ But for some reason I gave him $10.  Then I went on and got my cappuccino.  As I was walking back to the office, I again saw the man standing by his car, which had run out of gas right in front of my office.  Seeing me, he came over and said, ‘Thank you, but I don’t need the full ten,’ and handed me $2.
        Now I find that being asked for money no longer bothers me and I give whatever I can every time I get the change.”[i]        
            I think we can all relate to the experience of this person’s struggle with being unselfish.  Wondering if being generous to “certain people” will be helpful or harmful.  Wondering if we’re being duped by professional panhandlers.  Wondering if our small gestures have any meaningful impact.  I have certainly struggled myself.  Sometimes I’ve given to street people asking for help; other times, for whatever reason, I didn’t give anything and tended to avoid their persistent pleading looks at me, treating them as if they were invisible.  What is your decision-making process when you see a man or woman or family by the side of the road holding a sign saying, “Homeless”?  Will our unselfishness result in really helping someone who is really in need?  Should we always choose to “teach someone to fish?” Is it okay to sometimes just “give a fish” to someone?
            When I reflect today’s opening words by the Buddha, “To live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one's own in the midst of abundance”, I wonder what does that mean? 
            Most of us are familiar with the Buddhist concept of no “possessions”, but what does this concept really mean?  Does it mean that if I don’t want to give up, say, this tie, one of my deceased father’s favorite ties that reminds me of him every time I wear it, that I can’t be purely unselfish?  Is it okay to be somewhat unselfish?  Does it still count?
         I invite you to think of a time when you were unselfish.  When you made a choice or decision that made you feel intensely connected to the web of existence.  Many times, these kinds of acts don’t focus on ourselves, don’t “put the glory” on us.  More often, these are times when we’ve put our energy and resources toward a greater good or common goal, when we’ve put the “other” before ourselves, and in so doing have found a part of ourselves in the other.
             Let’s go back to the Buddha’s statement: to live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one’s own in the midst of abundance.”  If this statement is to be incorporated in a useful way into our lives as Unitarian Universalists, we probably need to let go of the concept of “pure unselfish life.”  As I’ve already said before, we are a “both/and” faith, and our rationalism helps us, we recognize that “pure unselfishness” is an ideal.  But recognizing this does not mean the statement is without practical meaning.  Here’s a simple example:   I don’t have to stop feeling a little possessive about my dad’s tie.  It makes me happy to think about him when I wear it.  I do have to realize that those feelings aren’t in the tie itself; they are in my heart.  The tie just brings these loving feelings to the front of my consciousness.  If I were to lose my dad’s tie tomorrow, I would be sad, but I wouldn’t lose my feelings about my father.  After all, it is just a tie.
            There used to be a saying going around, especially in churches around the annual budget drive time, pledge season.  “Give until it hurts.”  I don’t think that’s a particularly helpful saying, and I don’t think that is what the Buddha is saying.  In fact, as its core, I think it’s a harmful saying, because it de-emphasizes our connectedness with each other.  It is our connectedness, our sharing of our lives, our spiritual and ethical journeys, our being together that is most important.  I see the fruits of your unselfishness when you live lives of spiritual and ethical abundance, of love abundance, of friend abundance, happiness abundance.
             I’m proud to be among spiritually and ethically abundant people.  Unitarian Universalists who will not refuse to do the something we can do to make a difference.  A people who know themselves to be part of the interdependent web of all existence and act accordingly, unselfishly, affirming and promoting our Unitarian Universalist principles.   

            Volunteers from the DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church canoed, walked and picked up trash along the West Branch of the DuPage River, Illinois, October, 2016.
           Do you feel you are an unselfish person in the midst of selfish people?  I don’t.  I feel free to give enough to myself to be happy; I make time to be loving and compassionate with myself; I have an abundance in my life.  It’s okay for me to be a little selfish.  And I feel that this community gives to me, gives to each other, and gives to people beyond these walls because we feel the abundance of this community.  We, this community, have love enough, compassion enough, heart enough to share.  I want to be with people who want to be of use in this world, who can be selfish enough to take care of themselves and selfless enough to try to change the world. 

[i] (; Random Acts of Kindness by the Editors of Conari Press; Daphne)

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