When “Selfishness” Serves

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

ThurmanI love this quote by Howard Thurman, the late African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader. I wished that I could say that my love for it is because it mirrors my life so well. But the truth is, I love this quote because it gives me permission to focus less on other’s needs and more on what I truly enjoy and what brings me delight and deep satisfaction.

I know that it almost sounds selfish. What do mean you intend to think about Number One first and only secondarily to the needs of others? But Thurman doesn’t allow himself to get caught in a false dialectic. Rather he integrates the two reminding us that the world doesn’t need people who give up life for the sake of others, but that the world needs people who are alive, who are passionate, and who shine like a light on a hill.

It reminds me of the opening prologue to the Gospel of John. After introducing us to the concept of the logos, the Word, and Jesus’ embodiment of it the author informs us that “what has come into being through Him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

mother and childWe know that Jesus met people in many different ways—healing, forgiving, saving, redeeming, exorcising, inspiring, challenging, etc. But John reminds us that essentially Jesus came to us as one who was fully alive. Focusing on what brings us alive does not mean that we are selfish. It just means that we first make contact with the divine image within our own selves and then act in the world. “What the world needs is people who have come alive,” writes Thurman.

I have been taking a class on World Religions the last few weeks using Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One. This week the subject matter was Daoism. I already knew that I was going to be reflecting on Thurman’s quote for my blog. As I read the chapter I was struck by how closely Daoism reflects both Thurman’s quote and the prologue to the Gospel of John. A basic assumption of Daoism is that one should spend time nurturing what one would most naturally do. The idea of Daoism is to come into harmony with life by focusing on the self and one’s deepest expression of life. Said in another way, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive…”

not caringI think our fear is that if we focus on ourselves we will automatically, by definition, forget about the needs of others. But I think this is based on a low view of human nature rather than a high view. In a low view we assume that we are, by nature, sinful creatures and, given to our own devices, would prefer to act selfishly forgetting the needs of others. In a high view, we assume that we are, by nature, good creatures and that, if we get in touch with our deepest self, we will discover in the very act of being self-ish we end up meeting the needs of others.

I have met some remarkable people in my life whom I would describe as being truly alive. To a person, in every one of them, one could not tell the difference between meeting their own selfish needs and meeting the needs of others. The two went hand in hand. The more they concentrated on what made them come alive the more they ended up serving humanity.

Snapshots from my life:

  • The chorale conductor whose deepest passion was music and who brought delight to a whole community;
  • The professor whose calling was to teach and mentor and who made the difference in hundreds of young lives;
  • The singer who used her gifts at the bedside of hospice patients as they transitioned from this life to the next;
  • The athlete who dedicated his life to the game on the court and who inspired a whole new generation of young people to dream;
  • The retired person who missed the daily contact of work and who took up delivering Meals on Wheels;
  • The writer who delighted in words and discovered those same words brought life to others.

It’s a strange irony. I can tell you that every one of these people acted out of their own self-interest. And every one of them ended up meeting the needs of others in deep and profound ways.

I think the message is, “Don’t worry so much about what others need. Concentrate on what makes you come alive. Let God do the rest.”

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

3 thoughts on “When “Selfishness” Serves

  1. This was so inspiring. I truly enjoy making church banners… sewing, with appliqués, and creating. It reminded me that my joy brings others joy. Thank you.

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  2. Awesome post on self-ishness, Brian—on how it both glorifies God, and brings the deepest joy and satisfaction to people who live/love it. I long have felt “guilty” and “selfish” for enjoying my writing so much, for spending up to half my day doing it, or engaging with others who read and write. (But never “guilty” enough to cut back, or stop!)

    You and John opened my eyes fully to my situation. I knew God meant me to do this work. He has guided me in many ways, from readers’ heartfelt responses, from their saying how it affected them, to modest sales and thousands of “followers.”

    And the “rightness” and joy I feel just laying down words and scenarios! Actually plucking them from thin air—AKA my experiences and my heart. All of which flow from God.

    Whispers From The Holy Spirit. Or Whispers From Spirit. Heart Whispers. Wouldn’t one of those make a good book/essay/story title? On it!

    Cheers, Beers🍻 Author of “New West Mysteries with Heart”— Including the Pepper Kane Mysteries http://www.caroletbeers.com http://www.facebook.com/caroletbeersauthor

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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  3. This is such an important message. We see so many people exhaust themselves in extreme efforts to always be doing for others. People worry that if they just “do what they want,” everyone will just be selfish and uncaring about others. But in fact, as you describe, when we are aligned with the divine, compassion and caring for others in appropriate ways will come naturally and not be so draining. Was it St Augustine who said, “Love, and do what you will”? That seems to be the message here.

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