I must confess that in the last year-and-a-half I have come to view the term ‘self-help’ with some ambivalence. I believe it is important that we learn to understand ourselves in all our uniqueness and that we learn to care for ourselves as best we can. But the emphasis on our personal happiness, fulfilment, and needs has come at a dangerous cost to our society as a whole. Yes, self-help is important. But equally important is mutual help. If we care for ourselves at the expense of caring for each other we’re not really helping ourselves or anyone else. But it seems that the self-help movement of the last couple of decades has had a negative impact on our capacity to look after the needs and interests of others.
Perhaps the clearest example of how self-interest has become paramount is in the debate over vaccines. For many people, the decision to get vaccinated or not falls into the realm of ‘my body, my choice.’ (For this post we’ll ignore how many of the people who claim this with regard to vaccines are strongly opposed to applying that principle to women in many areas of their lives.) Somehow the realities of how viruses spread and how one unvaccinated person can literally cause the deaths of dozens of people are completely overlooked. Quite apart from the fake news and conspiracy theories around vaccines, there seems to be this idea that nothing matters except that the choice of the individual is protected. And many of the people who fight for their right to choose, support their decision by appealing to religion, faith, or spirituality.
WHO IS SPIRITUALITY FOR?
Our love for self-help and self-determination based on a personal connection with a personal God raises an important question: who is spirituality for? This is quite closely related to the question of what the goal or aim of spirituality is. In my last post, I tried to outline a view of spirituality that is different from religious observance or belonging. The danger in that post is that it could seem to give unconditional support to an individualised vision of spirituality. But only if we view our best life as a life that is only concerned with our own personal good.
Ideally, the spirituality of any one individual should bring great benefit and goodness to all the people who come into contact with that person. It should be obvious that a world in which everyone strives only to serve their own needs and desires would be a world of chaos, conflict, and anarchy—which would only bring misery on everyone. But unfortunately, this isn’t obvious to everyone. We need to be taught to see the world from other perspectives than our own. We need to learn to see how making the world better for others makes it better for ourselves. We need to be shown that loving our neighbours is inseparably intertwined with loving ourselves.
This means that our spirituality is for us, yes. But it is also for everyone with whom we share this world—and also for the world itself and the creatures that find a home here alongside us.
NAVIGATING THE PENDULUM
What we find as we begin to explore these questions is that there is a pendulum that is inherent in all spirituality. The focus and emphasis in our spiritual lives is always swinging between how we learn to understand and care for ourselves and how we learn to understand and care for others. We are constantly swinging between our quest for our own best life and our quest to help create a better world.
It is unfortunate that we so often see these two quests as rivals between which we must choose. They aren’t. When we seek a life for ourselves that is genuinely good we will inevitably find ourselves working for the good of others. Because it is impossible to have a good life in a chaotic, violent, conflicted world. And when we strive for a better world in whatever small way we can, we soon realise that we’re automatically involved in creating a better life for ourselves. This means that the spiritual pendulum is not a problem to be solved, but a creative reality in which to live. And whatever our spirituality may be about, it has to take this pendulum into account.
PLAYING ON THE SWING
As I wrote last week, our spirituality is about learning to know what a good life really is, and learning how to live toward that good life. Now we can begin to see how other people have to be an integral part of that spiritual journey. This means that this spiritual pendulum between self-interest and the common good can be the most inspiring, energising, and fun part of our spirituality if we will let it.
How do you navigate between a spirituality that is about your finding your best life and a spirituality that seeks a better world for all? How do you include the needs of others in your own spiritual practice? What do you think needs to be added to this post? Or what would you want to remove or disagree with?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this post. Please leave your comment below and let’s include one another as we seek a deeper, more life-giving spirituality together.
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