Sunday, May 03, 2015

Good in human nature, continued

Are we good for a purpose in relation to others?

We don't necessarily like the idea of being good for something outside ourselves, good for a purpose. There is a risk of being viewed as tools. It is such a common human experience for one person to use another person; it dehumanizes both when this happens. There is bitterness in the accusation "they were just using us." Being useful carries the risk of exploitation.

Yet if we are not good for a purpose, the alternative is to be purposeless, or to have a purpose and be no good for it. We don't like the idea of being useful because we don't like the idea of being used; still, we don't like the idea of being useless any better. One of the best-loved Christian prayers is a prayer to be useful in a holy way, and begins: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." How can we be useful without being used? Is there way to serve without being demeaned by it, without becoming subservient?

As we start looking at usefulness, we should take a quick look back at our last conversation about how we are worthwhile in ourselves. Whenever we focus on our own goodness, we run the risk of self-adoration. We easily become greedy for recognition and praise. And if we allow ourselves to be corrupted even in a small way by self-worship, it creates a problem for how we see others. We can crave exaltation. It is a short step -- how often have we seen it taken? -- that people who self-worship begin to look down on others. (Most people are particularly good at one thing. And whatever that one thing may be, we generally come to see it as important.) The very thing that we see so clearly as wrong -- being seen only for how we serve someone else's ego or agenda -- is the very situation in which we put others, if we let our pride run its course. It is not good to be so impressed with ourselves. If we are not likewise impressed with other people, it is nothing but self-centeredness. We can think of infamous people who used others, but we often do the same thing on a smaller scale. In our daily lives, are we pursuing goodness, or pursuing recognition? A thirst for recognition can make every conversation turn back towards ourselves, every hobby somehow self-exalting. Even an act of service could be a chance to show off. And whenever that happens, the people we talk to are an audience, and we are using them for our own purposes. It's not a good purpose.

Let your light so shine

There is a purpose that does not exploit us or use us: there is a purpose that fulfills us. And fulfilling that purpose will serve and bless others without demeaning ourselves. We looked at the problem that we might be used for some agenda that is not our own, used in a way that robs us of who we really are, We looked at the opposite problem that we might use other people for our own agenda, and trample on who they really are. There is another option: we might work for a goal that is part of our own purpose -- so that we are not used. We might work for a goal that comes from our own desires and is part of our own nature: that is what I mean when I say there is a purpose that fulfills us. We might see others in a way that lifts up the other person, and recognizes them, or restores them.

"Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.". Our purpose shows us as a source of light but not as attention-seeking. We are called to give out our best for the benefit of others rather than to call attention to ourselves. The details vary by person: one will teach, another will encourage, another will garden or cook or paint or build homes. Any of those things could be done in a way that is a light for others (or in a way that seeks a spotlight for ourselves).

What does it take to see other people as they are, and not turn them into supporting characters in our own dreams? It takes humility. What does it take to be a light for them instead of for ourselves? It takes a generous and giving spirit: it comes from love.

Everyone has good things in them -- in general for simply being human, and each person individually in particular has their own distinct blend of abilities. The problem is that our best parts can easily become our worst parts depending on what we do with them. Whatever specific good is in us in particular, the more we use it to glorify ourselves, the less of a light it us for other people. The more we use it to lift up others, the more we sow light in the darkness.

If we see it as our purpose, and begin to do it on purpose, it is a powerful thing.


Martin LaBar said...

I appreciate your emphasis on purpose.

Weekend Fisher said...

It's a variation on people who say that morality is reflected in the fact that we have a choice. That "choice" view typically pictures us as drifting through life and being occasionally confronted with choices that matter. If good is an ocean, we are an occasional drop. With the "purpose" view: we climb up the high dive and do a cannonball. (Or a better dive for those who know how to be acrobatic.)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF