The self vs. the selfless

15

Children are naturally self-centered. The process of aging, if one does so gracefully, is one of abandoning the self, of letting go of personal attachments in order to be truly free. It has taken me the better part of seven decades to realize this and I am nowhere near there yet.

The consciousness of self becomes most acute with the awareness of mortality. Nothing focuses the mind like death. As an adolescent I was so full of myself that I could not imagine my non-existence. Like most young people I acted as though I would live forever.

I have never seriously contemplated suicide, but I do remember thinking when I was a teenager that if I failed this test, didn’t finish that term paper, lost that girlfriend I could always kill myself and that would be the end of it. It was, in a perverse and short-sighted way, a consoling thought.

The notion that self-destruction might put an end to suffering, no matter how slight, eventually gave way to the realization that no one, despite all claims to the contrary, has the slightest idea what happens after death. Suicide might not be the end. It might not provide relief from pain and suffering at all.

As a teenager I became an egotistical existentialist, embracing the absurdity and apparent meaninglessness of existence with an enthusiasm for Albert Camus’ dictum, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide,” Camus wrote. “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Judging life worth living, I spent several years as a philosophy major in college searching for a system of thought to help me make sense of the world and I found it in the very American pragmatism of William James. James talked about the “cash-value” of truth.

“Grant an idea or belief to be true, what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life?” James asked.

The idea that there are no absolute truths, only individual conceptions of it, resonated with my own experience.

“Truth happens to an idea,” James wrote. “It becomes true, is made true by events.”

I was raised in the Congregational tradition of Christianity, which I stubbornly cling to to this day, despite deep doubts. But it seems to me that all religions are human constructions aimed at explaining the human condition, which is that we find ourselves on a rock in space where we once did not exist and soon will cease to do so.

My religious practice is Christianity informed by pragmatism and this-world empiricism. I am not big on the hereafter. I tend to think this is it. We are told that the kingdom of God is within. It is our job to transform this phenomenal world into heaven on earth. So far, we have not done a very good job of it.

My doubts about my Christian faith are many, so I am deeply troubled by fundamentalists who can admit of none. I have trouble respecting any religious practice that says, “We are right and you are wrong. God loves us. God doesn’t love you.” There is a self-centeredness about all conservatism, whether spiritual or political, that strikes me as a failure to evolve. Me first. Every man for himself. What’s mine is mine. That attitude makes a virtue of selfishness, overvaluing the self at the expense of all others.

If I were true to my beliefs I would probably be a Buddhist. The goal of true selflessness is appealing, but elusive.

“Selflessness is the interdependent nature of all things. Without interdependence, nothing could exist,” writes Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.

Some years ago I had the privilege of sitting with one of the monks of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing as he lay dying in a Vermont monastery. Half a world away from his birthplace in Vietnam, Thay Giac Thanh was in the process of letting go of all his worldly attachments.

“The emptier I get,” he told me, “the happier I become.”

Surrendering one’s self is an act of wisdom. It enables one to look with compassion upon all living things. Ironically, letting go of self also makes one bold to speak and to act as there is nothing to lose.

One of my own glaring imperfections, of course, is a lack of compassion for the mean, the foolish and the short-sighted. I may get there. I may not. Ultimately, however, what I believe only matters in so far as those beliefs make life better for those around me. What will be, will be – despite what I think, do or believe.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.