Well it’s Tuesday but it’s still my Monday Merton for the week since I like alliteration. I’m continuing to step through No Man Is An Island. Today’s set of quotes has to do with selfless love.
We cannot love ourselves unless we love others, and we cannot love others unless we love ourselves. But a selfish love of ourselves makes us incapable of loving others. The difficulty of this commandment lies in the paradox that it would have us love ourselves unselfishly, because even our love of ourselves is something we owe to others. [xx]
How do you love yourself unselfishly? There’s a difference between taking care of yourself and wanting the world to revolve around you. People can actually be unloving towards themselves for selfish reasons. This is often called a martyrdom complex, in which you very conspicuously make sacrifices and treat yourself harshly in order to earn credit in your relationships with other people.
To love yourself for the sake of others means that you recognize your need for adequate food, recreation, and rest in order to be a productive member of your community. To advocate for your self-care is not selfish; it is actually your responsibility to others.
As long as we secretly adore ourselves, our own deficiencies will remain to torture us with an apparent defilement. But if we live for others, we will gradually discover that no one expects us to be “as gods.” [xxi]
Here is another paradox. When I am overly enamored with my successes, I will also be extremely neurotic about my inadequacies. Idolizing myself actually causes me not to love myself. It’s like being the psychotic parent of an abused and worshiped child beauty pageant contestant all inside your own psyche. I run into this problem a lot with my writing. It’s one thing to enjoy the beauty of words themselves; it’s another thing to get off on my own self-perceived brilliance after I write something that seems poignant.
My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others. The fruit of my labors is not my own: for I am preparing for the achievements of others. Nor are my failures my own. They may spring from the failure of others, but they are also compensated for by another’s achievement. [xxi-xxii]
Individualism is the basic delusion of original sin. Adam and Eve ate the fruit in order to become their own gods. Much of what is wrong with American Christianity is rooted in the attempt to create an account of sin in which individualism is not problematic. One of my favorite verses, 1 Corinthians 4:7, Paul asks a rhetorical question that makes the same point Merton is making: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”
The only reason that my successes needs to be individualized is if I want to use them as currency with God and other people. If I recognize my successes as gifts that are really the property of God and the community, then I can enjoy them without being corrupted into self-worship.
Every other person is a piece of myself, for I am a part and a member of humanity. Every Christian is part of my own body, because we are members of Christ. What I do is also done for them and with them and by them. What they do is done in me and by me and for me. But each one of us remains responsible for his own share in the life of the whole body. Charity cannot be what it is supposed to be as long as I do not see that my life represents my own allotment in the life of a whole supernatural organism to which I belong. [xxii]
There is a way in which belonging to Christ’s body simply means that we have gained the basic insight that humanity is a single organism in which we subside like red blood cells moving through our physical body. People who refuse to acknowledge their embeddedness in the body of humanity are like tumors who have pulled themselves out of communion with their surrounding tissue and turned their growth completely inward. Since Christ is the Word of God and the image of all humanity, all humanity belongs to Christ in a sense, though some of us are integrated into His body and others of us are tumors within it.