Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real-you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue-it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.
[David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College Commencement, 2005]
David Foster Wallace (DFW) hit so many nails on so many heads. This excerpt, from a commencement speech he gave, is one that I’ve listened to before. For some reason it smacked me in the face this time around.
Lately, I have been forced to open my eyes to the reality of human existence, and how each and every choice I make in my life can have a major impact on other people. Simple concepts like this have a way of being extremely impossible for me to wrap my mind around.
I literally believe that I am the center of the universe. Like DFW said, I have done nothing that I am not the *center* of. I haven’t and cannot experience life from someone else’s point of view. That being said, it is not exactly shocking that my mind works this way. I do not naturally look at someone else and understand that they are experiencing the same complex emotions as I do, or that they have thoughts going through their minds the way I do, or that they have desires and dreams and struggles, just like me. This way of thinking is not natural for me, and it is something that I must consciously and constantly remind myself of.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a fear of being alone. This fear has grown over the years, and has resulted in me latching on to people, ideas, things, CATS…etc. Because of this fear, I live a strategic life in which I work very hard to prevent people/things/cats from leaving me. Whether it is a friendship or a relationship, my goal is the same: do not get abandoned.
Yes, it is as tiring as it sounds. This fear leads to a life of secrecy, omission, guilt, paranoia, and ultimately, loneliness. I’M TIRED JUST THINKING ABOUT THIS.
I almost always feel like I am the only one that struggles in this way (and maybe I am…yikes). Which brings me back to the commencement speech that DFW gave; I am not alone. Part of being able to see people around me and understand that they have emotions, feelings, brains, souls, thoughts, desires, etc. is understanding that people have struggles like mine, and that I am not alone. I’m not the center of the universe, but I’m also not abandoned in it.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. [Philippians 2:3]
Jesus called us to love our neighbors. He called us to count others as more significant than ourselves. This cannot be done with selfish intent. It’s impossible. I cannot love anyone fully while I hold onto a fear that they will abandon me. As long as I have that fear I will always have an underlying goal for loving people, and that’s not real, life-giving love. That is tiring, draining, and life-SUCKING. I will break people (and/or cats) by putting the weight of my needs, fears, and worship on anything other than Christ. Believe me, it is not fair for anyone.
How the heck does this relate to DFW’s speech?
Other people exist. Other people are affected by my selfish actions. When I am the center of the universe, it’s all about me. It doesn’t matter who I use or what i do, as long as I’m okay. When I am not the center of the universe, everyone else matters. I begin to see people. I understand that what I say and do can impact them, positively or negatively. I begin to have patience for other people that might typically annoy me, because they are unique and perfect to the Creator. I begin to gossip less, because the people I’m talking about definitely have much more going on than I realize. I begin to show compassion, because human beings deserve nothing less.
I can’t do these things when I am the center of the universe. All I can do is try to protect myself. I live with bitterness and annoyance because people get in the way of my agenda. I live in fear that if anything gets out of my control, everything else comes crashing down.
Letting go of these fears, through whatever process, is key in experiencing the ultimate freedom that God designed for us to find in Christ. I used to think that in order to obtain this freedom in Christ that I would have to let go of these fears, people, and issues that I have. That is not true, my friends. I was given this freedom the moment I gave my life to the Lord. However, enjoying that freedom is different. I need to let go of these fears that are holding me back from enjoying the freedom that I already have.
The Bible talks often about leaving behind sinfulness now that we have been redeemed, and not letting sin cling to us (Hebrews 12). The reason is simple: it is no longer my identity. My identity is no longer based on worldly pleasure or moral behavior; my identity is the literal Jesus Christ. When God looks at me, he sees Christ in me. Any action outside of that identity is now foreign to me. If, indeed, “for freedom Christ has set me free; (Gal. 5:1)” then I am free. I am called to resist the slavery of sin, because that is outside of who I am now. Behold! I am a new creation (TWO Corinthians 5:17).
The ultimate way to leave behind my fear of abandonment and loneliness is to embrace my freedom in Christ. I am free to feel lonely, I am free to cry out in this pain, I am free to be awkward in social settings, I am free to be hilarious (because God has gifted me obvi), I am free to be beautiful, I am free to screw up, I am free to feel that God has treated me unfairly (even though he never does). I am free. I am loved. I am never going to be abandoned by God. And even if that doesn’t feel like enough right now, I know that it is. When the pain subsides and the tears dry up, God will be standing there, just like he always has been; his arms are stretched open, waiting for me to embrace him, because he has already embraced me.
Questions: How are you relating to the existence of other people? How are you loving people? Are you compassionate, understanding, empathetic? Are you selfish? Are you the only person that matters in the universe?