Monday, December 5, 2016

The Paradigm of Altruism - Meditation and Sermon given December 4, 2016 First Parish Fitchburg

Meditation: The Acorn of the Seminarian

We are here because we have been called. We are here because we perceive a potential within us. A potential we choose to cultivate and nurture in the esteemed company of Seekers. We are as seeds of hope and good news, wisdom manifest, with a sacred intent to both nurture and nourish.

Within us, in this exact moment, we hold the full culmination of our past as well as the complete foundation for our future. A future that includes not only us, but all those whose lives we will touch and all those whom we may inspire to sacred callings such as our own. Within us we store the great blueprint of our soul’s intention here on earth. Like a great oak tree, whose hidden roots below stretch as far outward as the reaches of its sacred canopy above; mirroring the seen and the unseen attributes of its deciduous duality.

The oak is the embodiment of patience and wisdom and strength. A strong wood, concentrically growing and drawing into itself, as we draw knowledge, all that the earth is willing to provide it.

Close your eyes. In your mind’s eye see the fruit of the oak. See the sacred acorn, full of possibility, full of promise. Your possibility, your promise. The acorn is a covenant between earth and tree, their long-awaited offspring ready and brimming with life. Their co-created offering to the world. The acorn does not know the fullness of its own potential, nor do the branches from which it fell know the fate of its child. But the potential knows. The blueprint knows what is being built here.

Of your own future, do not fear what you do not know. Celebrate your potential and let that suffice. Draw to yourself the synchronicity of what you need to grow and mature into the oak you were destined to be. Like the acorn, you were created with a grand purpose. A purpose far greater than the sum of your visible parts. A plan conceived far in the past; with a legacy that extends into eternity.

Know that you have power in you. Know that you have purpose. Know that you were made in love and designed to be an enduring instrument of comfort, strength, wisdom, prosperity, and magic. Blessed be.

Sermon: The Paradigm of Altruism

Did you know that for all our talk about the ‘pursuit of happiness,’ we actually take a very dim view of people who seek it? We see the pursuit of pleasure (which admittedly is different from happiness) as hedonistic. Distracting us from our true purpose as humans. Old religious paradigms that encourage austerity and sacrifice and suffering as the only path toward true salvation have caused us to doubt the relevance or even the spiritual safety of just being happy. If you are too happy you must be doing something wrong. God will punish you because you’re obviously thinking too much about yourself. Stop being selfish. It’s not your happiness that matters, it’s the happiness of others that matters.

Well, that is a way of thinking that will doom one to a life of perpetual unhappiness. Because it’s a fool’s errand. And we struggle because we sing Joy to the World but we are encouraged to mean for everyone but ourselves.

So when it comes time to doing for others as we would have them do unto us, we’re not on a very good footing because we have yet to include satisfaction for ourselves as part of the metric. How can we satisfy, or comfort, or console another when we don’t feel worthy of that same gift in return? We may say we are worthy, but that’s an intellectual observation, not an emotional one. Your brain might be shouting Equality! But your heart is saying For everyone but me. And it’s our heart, our emotions which dictate outcomes more often than not. Happiness most of all. When we are happy or feel pleasure or satisfaction or gratitude or validation or even remuneration we are more inclined to repeat our behaviors that created the reality in the first place. That dopamine rush is a sacred reward system, and to acknowledge it as such is to make excellent use of it. Not out of selfishness, but because we actually deserve to be well. What good is raising the level of the water in the harbor so that all boats go up if your anchor is still tethered at the old water level? Everyone’s boat goes up but yours. Is that what you meant to do? Is that what spiritual logic wants you to do?

When we volunteer our time or donate to a cause, we will lose our steam pretty quickly if it’s not to or for something that is meaningful to us. Something that makes us feel as though we have made a positive impact on something important to us. It has to be relevant to you and to who you are. If you don’t like cooking but get cornered by someone into making church spaghetti suppers every month where are you getting your fuel from? You’ll burn out if you don’t include yourself and what makes you happy in your decision-making process. How can you be of good service to others while serving yourself poorly?

How many committees have you participated in at the urging of someone else? Maybe you’re a person who can’t say no. Well, how’s that going for you? How does it make you feel? Do you resign yourself to it and say, “Well, at least it’s a good cause.” That may well be, but aren’t you a good cause too? What good is a runner who shoots themselves in the foot? What good is poorly matching a volunteer with work that does not inspire him or her? We do not volunteer or donate or serve in order to feel worse than before. We do it to feel better.

In the western world we are heavily influenced by the teachings of religious Christianity. Even those who are not Christian find that they are smeared with the same brush which declares us all to be a little damaged, a little unworthy of consideration. And we often find ourselves believing it because it comes to us not just through religion, but through our friends, our families, our limited understandings of how “the real world works.” We believe we are unworthy because society has a hard time with seeing its own value. It is suspicious of statements that embrace our own joy.

There are concepts in the Bible which trickle down into our various cultures and form indirect connections to ideas which insist we think of others to the exclusion of ourselves. For example, Paul says in Philippians (2:3), “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind, regard one another as more important than yourselves.”  And we wonder why we struggle with inequality.

If I consider you to be more important than me, how is that a respect for all of creation? Aren’t I a part of creation, too? Aren’t you? Aren’t you equally worthy, equally important as anyone else? Aren’t you? These are the ideas we have been ingrained with which confuse us when it comes time to express our compassion for others. It also insures we have the least amount of wind in our sails when pursuing what we feel to be our obligation as humans, caring for one another.

We have become infected with a belief that we do not matter. And how is that a good posture for humanity? For if we truly don’t believe that we matter, our inherent desire for equality still equalizes us—in the wrong direction. If I’m not worthy, neither are you. We will be equal one way or the other.

Today we speak of the paradigm of altruism. By definition altruism is “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. in zoology: behavior of an animal that benefits another at its own expense.” It’s that last part at its own expense which causes us grief. Must it be at our expense? Must we serve others to the exclusion of, even detriment of, ourselves? I’m not saying that we should exclude others, quite the opposite. The trick is in finding ways to be of service that are in alignment with who we are as people. With who we are as individual pursuers of happiness. But we feel selfish when considering our own happiness because we have been taught to.

For all of the concern about it in religious Christianity, the word selfish doesn’t actually appear in the Bible at all. The word selfish was coined in 1640 by a Presbyterian Archbishop who was trying to describe the events of his time. Presumably to condemn them. But what’s interesting is that the word selfish doesn’t exist in Greek or Hebrew. The philosophical concept of self didn’t really exist in antiquity. Words that are now translated as self were actually words that referred to the physical body or the bones, not who we are intrinsically, independent of our physical form. Our minds. Our souls, perhaps. In that spirit, selfish may be a reference to things done with a heightened awareness of the needs of our physical bodies rather than our higher minds. Our physical bodies biologically predispose us to both acquire and protect—at all costs—valuable resources such as food, shelter—or mates. Maybe selfish is a word that means in service to the body. To be selfless is to do things without considering the body or its needs.

But if we look at the word closely we find that no true distinction is made between body and soul when it comes to the Self. They are one. So when scripture asks us to be selfless we are demanded to be disinterested in how our actions in service of another affect us. It doesn’t matter if you suffer, so long as you alleviate the suffering of others.

But is that feasible? Is that possible? Is that what we are being asked by world spirituality; to remove ourselves from the equation in favor of literally everyone else? How can we ever be disinterested? How can we truly be self-less? What is selflessness? How is it even calculated? How is it possible to do anything at all without it being at least partly decided by how it will make us feel? We give money to a charity because it makes us feel good. And it is supposed to. We volunteer because it is supposed to feel good to do it. We are not divorced from our own desire to feel good simply because a bit of hardship comes with the territory.

One day Abraham Lincoln was discussing this very point with a friend when they happened upon a big old pig stuck in the mud. Lincoln went down into the mud patch and pulled her to safety, ruining his clothes in the process.

His friend commented that that could not have been for his own benefit. Lincoln replied that of course it was. If he hadn't rescued her he would have worried about her for the rest of the day. That’s actually what altruism means. It means I love because I am loved.

Lincoln clearly saw the pig’s happiness as being equally worthy as his own. Winston Churchill felt the same way about pigs, by the way. He once said, “I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” When we equalize those whom we serve we understand what we both need much better.

So I’d like to now state clearly that altruism as it is defined by our society is a lie. It is an impossibility. We can never be utterly disinterested in what we do. And one can say that altruism exists in nature. You’d have the support of many scientists. Many animal species sacrifice themselves for one another without apparent benefit. Unless you call the perpetuation of the species a benefit. And that’s the benefit which non-sentient animals are wired to choose. It satisfies their instinctual needs to serve the species by helping the herd. An elephant helps the herd by adopting orphaned elephant calves. A bee helps the herd by stinging the enemy of the hive, even though to sting means certain death for the bee. But it dies satisfied that it has fulfilled its instinctive purpose.

It may sound as if I am a pessimist when I say that altruism as defined does not exist. But I think this is freeing. We are not being asked to do unto others in ways that we would not let them do unto us. We are not being encouraged to ignore our own desires and dreams in favor of others.’ But when we think that way we do things like perpetuate unhealthy marriages “for the sake of the children” because that what parental selflessness suggests we do. And while every situation is different, forcing a child to live in an unloving household is not in the child’s best interest. Learning from you how to perpetually exist in unhealthy relationships will not help them form healthy ones as an adult. All they’re learning is how to suppress their own needs in favor of others. And the only way you’ll even realize that is if you include your own desires and happiness in the equation as being equal to that of your childrens.’ Your child will not be happy if you are miserable. And you are doing them a grave disservice if you think otherwise. Your happiness matters to them deeply. It defines their own. For life.

So the lesson here is not to be self-less, but self-full. Involve all of your desires and dreams when deciding upon a course of service to another. That doesn’t mean you will have it easy. Some things which give us the most pleasure take hard work, determination, and doing things which we may feel are unpleasant. But they are toward a larger goal of not only peace in us, but peace on earth. They are in pursuit of happiness in the most sacred of ways. Excluding no one, especially ourselves, in the desire to be of service to humanity in the most profound and fulfilling of ways.

Free yourself. Undo the burden of feeling selfish because you have heard somewhere that you are unworthy. Don’t listen to it. Because you have also been told that you are the gold of the heavens, and of the earth. Created to gleam with pride for all that you do to make more beautiful this world and all who look upon you. To be disinterested is to disengage from the gifts of our reality, and they are so many. They are for you, too. Your happiness is a gift. Receive it.

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