None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself…We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves; let each of us please our neighbour for the good, for building up.
(Saul of Tarsus, Letter to the Romans 14:7 and 15:1-2, NABRE)
To be clear from the outset, I am not against self-fulfilment and self-realisation as outcomes but as goals. Indeed, the moment we set them as goals is the moment we make them unachievable as outcomes. Or so it seems to me. I should also make clear that this is far from the best translation of Saul’s letter but for the sake of a quiet life I chose one that pretended that two thousand years ago in a completely different culture a Roman citizen would carefully choose to write in non-gendered language.
Be all of that as it may let us begin with Saul’s proposition that we do not primarily live for our own selves. You might think that the obvious question to ask would be: “Is this true?” but much discourse seems to be in answer to the enquiry: “If it is true why is it true?” Saul, as a Christian, would answer that it was to do with God. Later defenders of the idea, like the founders of the North American Republic or the English novelist George Eliot might say that it was a self-evident truth. And still later critics of the proposition like Friedrich Nietzsche or Ayn Rand would contend that it was the opposite of the truth. And each one of those were dependent to a greater or lesser idea upon the ideas of Classical Greece and especially Aristotle’s contention that each human person pursued eudaimonia above all. This is a word often translated as ‘happiness’ but it carries with it also the notions of fulfilment and realisation of potential. So the answer to the second question would be: if it is true it is because we pursue eudaimonia, and if it is false it is because we pursue eudaimonia but just not in this particular way.
It’s not really a theoretical proposition though. Above all it is a practical one. The proof of it, therefore, is the application of the experimental method. That is, if living to meet the needs of others before pleasing ourselves is proposed as the optimal way for humans to be in the world then the only way that we can find out if the proposal works or fails is to try it and see what happens. We cannot deduce from thought alone the things we need to know when we live a life which includes but is certainly not limited to thought.
One piece of good news is that each of us began this experiment from the very start of our human life (which in every single case is the moment of conception.) The mere possibility of us having a Self at all, let alone one capable of being fulfilled or realised, is entirely dependent upon other Self’s making sacrifices of their Self for our benefit and not for their own. Humans are unusual in the world in that we are not only radically dependent for our survival and development on the goodwill of others during the period of our mother’s pregnancy (only women can be pregnant) and shortly thereafter but we remain in a dependent condition for literally years; and in a semi-dependant position for years after that as our minds and bodies slowly develop and learn what they need to do from teachers not from some voice of the inner-self.
From this we can deduce not only that our species is necessarily social but also that our happiness and flourishing, indeed our very lives, are inescapably bound up with this sociableness. The experiment thus far shows us that society precedes our individualness such that there cannot be an “I” unless there has first been a “we” into which we are inserted (without our consent or knowledge, because, hey, life is like that.) So far as the Self is concerned then, self-awareness is an emergent property which, to some degree at least, we do not possess innately but which we form as we negotiate the multiple-relationships and physical environment that we encounter from the beginning, and for many years afterwards.
You may think, though, that while your ability to be fulfilled and self-realised depends upon them does their ability do to the same depend upon them pleasing their neighbour, for the good, for the building up? That is, is self-fulfilment/realisation an universal possibility which all can attain to through a mutual process whereby we all make sacrifices of our selves in order to benefit others or are these things only available to those canny enough to benefit from the self-giving of others without themselves doing the same thing?
Again, I would suggest, the answer is an experimental one. In modern complex Western societies much of the care and teaching provided to children and young adults does not come from family and friends but from paid employees. It is a contractual not a kinship or neighbourly obligation that these teachers discharge. Or is it? In this experiment I ask you to reflect back upon your life. Were those teachers and care-givers who most changed your life for the better, or most fired your enthusiasm to do this thing rather than that thing, those that did just what they were employed to do and no more or those who went above and beyond the contract? And, for the purposes of this argument, were those teachers and caregivers who seemed happiest in their job and happiest in their skin those who gave of themselves to you by measure or those who gave without counting the cost? Obviously these are loaded questions but do they not contain a great truth? Those who most obsessively protect and guard their Self from giving away anything for free are least likely to get anything for free, like the love and high regard of others which are the basic building blocks for any half-way decent human life.
The proof of the pudding though is in the giving of it away to appreciative pudding-lovers. By which I mean that the experiment cannot be confined to you ransacking your memory because then it would be a thought experiment and we concluded earlier that this, however necessary, is insufficient on its own. No, you can prove or disprove Saul’s proposition only by trying it out for yourself. How? In another of his letters Saul of Tarsus (who is also known as St Paul) wrote ‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good‘ (1 Corinthians 12:7, NRSV) In our context this means, I think, that while we belong to and are dependent upon the universal, the collective, we have, nonetheless that in us which is uniquely ours. The “we” has indeed given birth to an “I” and that “I” has qualities about it which the “we” cannot possess and which no other “I” has in quite the same combination. By putting that “I” at the service, not so much of the “we” but of each other “I” we start our experiment in earnest. And then we shall learn.
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