In the past couple of months, I’ve had frequent conversations with a person that for the purpose of this blog we will just call Socrates. Something that Socrates has often said to me – sometimes I think more for his own sake than mine- “Take care of yourself: if you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will.”
On one level, I agree with Socrates. In order to function most effectively in whatever job you’re performing, you’ve got to make that you are physically and mentally alert and healthy. Failure to ensure this will lead to declined productivity during job performance (blog for another time: why is it that our society approves of losing sleep for the sake of work? Something’s wrong with that…).
But the more I hear that sentence uttered from Socrates’ mouth, the more it starts to leave a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t think I realized why until this week. Too much of an attitude like that – taking it to the extreme – leads to the very thing that drives me nuts about American culture: the ultra-emphasized individual. Living too strictly to such a statement runs the risk of putting yourself at the center of the universe.
The repercussions of such a mindset can be hazardous. Placing yourself at the center of your concern detracts from any community your involved in. I think of St. Benedict, who at meals encouraged monks to be looking at how much water was in each others’ glasses so that you could step in and fill your neighbor’s cup as soon as it is empty. Focusing on yourself and your own needs blinds you to the needs of others.
But I think the only reason I have such a problem with this thought process is because of my faith. I mean, without realizing that God put his own desires aside to die for us, whom were so unworthy of his help, who would have any motivation to truly help others? Without that belief, there’s really not much to convince you to look after anyone but yourself. And that’s where sin has destroyed the communities that God intended for us.
So, in my mind, I think I’ll alter Socrates’ statement: take care of your relationship with God first. This year the writings of Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier have slowly seeped into my peripheral thinking. I think the heart of my response to Socrates’ statement is wrapped up in Nouwen’s article “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry” (article here). But Vanier also has that philosophy at the core of writings.
I don’t think it’s until the world realizes this that our culture will ever be able to exit the individualistic cycle that it’s trapped in.