I'm giving up selflessness for Lent. That may seem counterproductive to the Lenten focus on denying self. I should probably do something more...spiritual. Like committing to fast. Or getting up before dawn to spend an hour in prayer. Or giving up Facebook, Twitter, and television so that I can spend more time reading Scripture. Even something seemingly as mundane as giving up chocolate might be more high-minded than giving up selflessness.
Trust me, I tried to think of something else. I was really thinking about giving up social media. That’d be a tough one for me. I will try to curtail my compulsions to check Facebook. But that’s not my Lenten discipline.
Nope, my discipline is being less selfless. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines selfless as “concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s owns.” The chief antonym for selflessness: unselfish. New Oxford has nothing positive to say about selfishness.
That’s problematic. It would seem that a certain level of selfishness, or self-centeredness, is necessary for the preservation of the self. By the way, New Oxford seems to approve of the idea of having a self, “a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, esp. considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action.”
But what about Scripture and Christian tradition? Scripture is a pretty strong advocate for self-denial. In each of the synoptic gospels, Jesus tells his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them” (Luke 9:23-24, see also Matthew 16:24-25, Mark 8:34-37). A whole host of monastic movements and practices of asceticism have been based, in part, on such teachings.
However, denial is not the final word that Scripture has to say about the self. Embedded in the Great Commandment is an often overlooked element: Christ’s assumption - in fact, his command - that we love ourselves. In response to the legal expert who asks which commandment is the most important, Jesus responds: “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these” (Mark 12: 28-31). It turns out that Jesus thinks that loving oneself is connected to loving one’s neighbor.
For Christians, then, self-love and self-denial live in an
dynamic interplay. It’s a tension, to be sure. Straying too far into self-love can lead to all manner of sin, not the least of which is idolatry. But excessive self-denial is just as problematic and can also be a form of idolatry. For some of us, self-denial comes easily precisely because we don’t have a strong sense of self to begin with. That’s often the case for women and girls, who are often taught to put others before themselves. The helping professions (including ministry) also tend to attract people who are good at putting the needs of others before themselves.
So being a woman in the helping professions (both a psychologist and minister), self-denial comes easy to me. To make matters worse, I’m the eldest child of a single mother. By the age of twelve, i was a full-fledged parentified child, taking care of my younger brother while my mother worked long hours, often on the night shift. My mother, coincidentally, was the eldest of eight children. And her father had to drop out of elementary school so that he could take care of his younger siblings while his parents worked on a sharecropper’s farm in Mississippi. That’s at least three generations of training in self-denial culminating in one package…me.
I’m always looking out for the needs of other people, whether they be family, friends, or strangers. I don’t even wait for people to express a need; I anticipate it. I’m the person who sees a problem, develops a solution, and assumes the responsibility for implementing it so as not to add a burden to anyone else. Even when I’m driving, I look out for the needs and feelings of others. If my turn approaches too quickly and I’m in the wrong lane, I’ll miss the turn rather than cause other drivers to slow down momentarily. For some reason, one of my chief driving rules is that it’s wrong to inconvenience other drivers. I have no idea where I got that from, but it’s paradigmatic of my life.
Selflessness has gotten me in trouble health-wise. About ten years ago, my body sent a not-so-subtle message: “You’re doing too much for other people and you need to take better care of yourself.” I listened, at least until I went to seminary, where the workload and content taught me that good Christians (and good students) take up their cross by pulling all-nighters, living off caffeine, and putting off health until they graduate. Moreover, they should do this without uttering a complaint, otherwise their professors might accuse them of having the wrong priorities.
There have been plenty of reinforcements for the message that I should focus less upon myself than upon others. The devotional that I use, with its heavy emphasis upon social justice, instructs me to direct my prayers toward others. Save for the Lord’s Prayer, there is no space within its daily liturgy to bring my own needs before God.
And sometimes churches add fuel to the fire. One night during a church committee meeting, I tearfully shared my struggles with balancing my teaching position, being a new parent, and serving the church. Several committee members responded by telling me that I needed to get better childcare so that I could do more for the church!
It turns out that my body’s early signals of physical distress were roadside signs warning me of the all-out roadblock up ahead. I now find myself living with a chronic illness that could possibly have been prevented if I had put more focus upon myself than upon others. Fortunately, or perhaps not, the condition can be managed if I finally learn to do what I’ve been so horrible at doing: loving myself. Hence, my Lenten discipline.
It’s not the easiest discipline to observe. There is no clear checklist or set of rules that I must follow on a daily basis. Right now, I'm beginning with something simple: praying for myself. Each morning, I pray the Psalms. After I read the Psalm through once, I pray it through, putting myself in place of the petitioner, even altering the words to reflect my situation. It makes me feel less guilty to pray for myself if I’m following a Biblical precedent.
So kudos to those of you who are practicing some form of self-denial this Lenten season. As for me, I’m practicing self-love.