When I first started exploring Christianity, one of the teachings that was most surprising and counter-intuitive to me was the notion that we are called to live other-focused lives.
A product of secular culture, it seemed obvious to me that the way to find fulfillment and meaning in life was to be self-focused (not necessarily selfish, but self-focused). The way I used to see it, serving others was only one of a variety of good and worthy a person might choose to do with his or her free time. By default, you made your life goals based on pursuing personal interests and maximizing comfort; if possible, you would try to find some ways to give back to others, but to do so for any extended period of time would be to put your life on hold.
When I first heard that Christianity taught that our lives are not about ourselves and our own wants, that we are to look to serve God and others before serving ourselves, it was a radically different message than anything I’d ever heard…so radically different, in fact, that it sounded crazy. I resisted it. Wouldn’t spending too much time focusing outside of ourselves lead to misery? How were we supposed to accomplish all our big goals and do all those fulfilling things we planned to do if we never optimized around our own desires and wants?
Yet, in the process of resisting this teaching, I began to take a second look at the self-focused philosophy I’d had all my life.
I began to realize that introspecting and focusing on my wants never brought me lasting peace, and that it didn’t seem to work for anyone else either. I began to notice that as I started accomplishing some of those big goals that were going to bring me so much fulfillment…I didn’t feel as fulfilled as I thought I would. I’d heard before that this Christian teaching about living to serve God and others was not the personal philosophy of the religion’s founders, but an objective truth. I’d heard the claim that this, like all the other Christian teachings about moral law and how we are to live, was an articulation of the law that is written onto every human heart by our Creator, a statement of truth about what is best for each individual and for the world as a whole. When I first heard these claims they sounded like so much grandiose religious posturing. Yet more and more I realized that my way wasn’t working, and I started to wonder if these Christians might be on to something.
I decided to give it a try. I’d make an effort to spend a whole lot less time searching for meaning and answers within myself, making all my plans for the day, the year, and the rest of my life based on what I felt like doing. Though I would set aside time for prayer and time to myself to recharge my batteries (as religious orders do in their rules of life), I would start to think of my purpose here on earth as nothing more than to serve God and others. Honestly, it kind of sounded like a recipe for misery. But I had learned over and over again that every time I thought I knew better than God and his Church…it turned out that I did not know better than God and his Church. So I gave it a shot.
Almost immediately, I began to see the power of this teaching.
Even with my halting, far-from-perfect efforts, things began to change. For one thing, ironically, I found that everything I sought by focusing on myself and my own needs — peace, joy, fulfillment, direction, feelings of security about the future — I began to find only after I stopped looking inward and started looking outward.
The biggest thing I noticed, however, was that to be other-focused is to create an economy of love. Every single time we set our gaze outside of ourselves seek to serve others, whether it’s something overt like volunteering at a soup kitchen or something more subtle like simply saying a sincere, kind word to the checker at the grocery store, we add a little bit of love to the world. Through these actions there is more love in the spiritual economy than there was before. The other-focused life is, ultimately, a life of love.
I’ve been thinking about the power of this teaching a lot lately, noticing how differently I see the world now that I understand that serving God and others is not one of a variety of nice options we might pursue with our free time, but is actually our very purpose for existing.
All of my scattered thoughts on the subject were brought into relief the other day when I had a conversation with an immediate family member (whom I don’t want to identify directly). He seemed depressed and uneasy about something, and when I asked him why he said it was about his retirement account. He’s deeply distressed that he won’t have enough money to afford anything other than a government-run nursing home in his old age. I reminded him that my husband and I would love for him to move in with us when it gets to the point that he doesn’t feel comfortable living on his own. We weren’t even talking about a situation where he might need intensive medical care, yet he flatly refused to even consider the notion.
“I would never do that to you, ” he said. “I would never have you put your life on hold like that.”
We’ve had this conversation many times before, yet this time, the first since my conversion to Christianity, I was hit by just what a profoundly sad worldview this reflects. I’ve always wanted this family member to live with us when he can no longer live on his own, and he’s always refused on the same grounds. That part is nothing new. Yet this time I saw clearly that the situation goes beyond an unfortunate refusal of help: it reflects a worldview in which well-meaning people like my relative believe that the best thing they can do for their loved-ones is to not burden them with their presence, where the very meaning of life has been twisted to suck love out of the world.
One of the logical results of the self-focused worldview that is so common in the secular world is that, if we assume that the best use of our lives is the unfettered pursuit of our personal goals and interests, we therefore don’t want to get in the way of others doing the same. It creates a situation in which we’re all constructing our own little self-sufficient desert islands, not wanting others to get in our way but also not wanting to get in others’ way. It leads us to believe that if we were ever to lose our self-sufficiency, our presence would not just be an annoyance but would in fact prevent our loved-ones from fulfilling their very purpose in life.
When I compare my life with the self-focused worldview to my life with the other-focused worldview, the difference is striking. Not that I am anywhere near some saint-like level of always seeking to serve others before myself, but simply understanding that that is the goal, that my own life isn’t about me, has changed everything. It’s counter-intuitive, it requires sacrifice, and it isn’t always the most comfortable path. But it is clear that, truly, this is how we were designed to live. After all these years of trying it my way, it’s like I’m finally operating my life according to the instruction manual. And it is ultimately a manual for how to live a life of love, written by he who is Love itself.
UPDATE: A Part II to this post is here.