We Are More Than Self

From the Vision archive: We are by nature focused first on self. Until we change that, the world will never work for all of us. (Republished in Spring 2022 from our Summer 2020 issue.)

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Practicing that principle would resolve so much of the discrimination, hate and anger in our world. It’s a universal truth, universally underutilized. But to make this work for us all means first knowing who we are individually and asking whether we can love what we are.

Coming to a right appraisal of self requires honest introspection that leads to change so that we can have a positive view of self. It also means understanding the relation between individuality and community, for one cannot function healthily without the other.

We are by nature focused first on self. The drive for self-preservation requires us to protect everything that makes each of us a unique being. Yet we cannot achieve self-preservation without resources beyond the self. We are not completely independent. Even the castaway alone on a desert island cannot survive without food and water, provided from outside the self.

Now, we might say that such individuals depend on nature to sustain them. That’s true, and for a while they will survive. But what is always missing beyond the basics is social interaction with others. We are not merely individual beings. We prize our individuality, but complete isolation will eventually kill us. Loneliness is one of the curses of this age, and without relief it leads to a slow death.

But there’s a greater reason why we should love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s simply this: as individual beings who share common humanity and earth’s common resources, we have a duty of care for each other in physical, emotional and social ways. As we care for others, they will care for us, but only if we share the same commitment to duty of care.

A related principle puts it this way: “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” If that were practiced, would the migrant be held in a cage? Would the black and brown, the indigenous and the minority, the poor white and the homeless of all colors be denied equality? Would inequality, disadvantage and hatred be the order of the day for most of humanity? How much would be achieved by straightforward application of this simple rule?

There is also a level of care for neighbor that goes beyond love for self. It is sometimes referred to as the principle of self-denial—not inwardly focused ascetic punishing of the body, but the setting aside of personal needs in outgoing concern to help others. As with the other guidelines already mentioned, it is based on the law of God, as lived by Jesus. He set aside personal preferences in service to others. And He expected the same of His followers, explaining that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

His teaching went far beyond any shallow and incomplete application of the neighbor principle: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

How do you go about loving your enemies? I think the first thing is this: In order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self.”

Martin Luther King Jr., “Loving Your Enemies”

Coming to terms with our individuality to the point of serving others by denying the self is key to the social progress we’d all like to experience. It’s a major step along the way to a cooperative and peaceful world, freed from the hatred and division we see everywhere today. Treating others with outgoing love is the measure of a Spirit-led mind.

You can read more about how transformation can come to your life in Vision’s article collection, “The Path to Change.”