A warm spring breeze swept over the balcony as I sipped my drink and puffed on a cigar. The lightly flavored tobacco mingled with the fresh upswell of grass and mud that danced along the edges of my senses. It’d been a quiet week, and as I sat watching a couple of sparrows chirp and hop along the top of the bushes, I breathed in the clear skies and peaceful surroundings. I thought about the past week and the upcoming summer, always a time for reflection and writing and perhaps most important – sleeping as late as I pleased.
The contentment lasted for about thirty seconds.
I could feel the itch, the sensation, as it started somewhere in my solar plexus and moved its way along my arms until my entire body felt like a coiled spring. The glass trembled in my fingers. I stood and tried to roll my shoulders to relax, and as I did the sudden movement caused a flurry of wings as the birds flushed out of the bushes and arose en masse and flew out of sight.
“What’s wrong with me?”
My thoughts came out in a jumbled whisper.
I took a deep breath and tried to take another puff on my cigar, but the rich tobacco flavour had fled with the birds, and in its place was a burning sausage of leaves and grass. I grumbled and powdered the rest of the brown lump into an empty tuna can.
I’d been saving that cigar for a month. So why did I feel so… empty all of a sudden? I looked to the sky for an answer, but the only sound was the distant voice of a neighbour yelling at their cat. I looked at my book, but it suddenly seemed as bland and uninteresting as my cigar and a night of pleasant quiet. I shook my head and headed inside.
It was a long time before I fell asleep.
When I woke up the next morning, after hours of fruitless tossing, it wasn’t until the next day that I gradually realized why I’d been so miserable the night before, why on too many occasions the nights I’d planned for myself had ended so badly. Like the rest of my fellow humans, I was an addict. Addicted to something that was never advertised, and rarely spoken of, in any circles. And yet, it was the world’s greatest addiction.
I didn’t know it that early Saturday morning, but I was about to learn one of the most important lessons of my life.
When I was a kid I never thought a whole lot about the world that I lived in, the culture miasma in which I was being educated, or the values of my society. Mostly, my parents taught me the difference between right and wrong, and I obeyed. Not always, of course, especially in high school, but as the years have passed it has become obvious that on so many levels that my values largely mirror the ones they taught me.
They were traditionalists, my parents, and I was raised with a solid understanding of right and wrong, of treating people well, of not only loving God but a loving God to help along the way. Consumerism and individualism were as foreign to me as the idea that morality didn’t matter. They were academic terms, learned in university when discussing culture or anthropology to describe various ‘difficulties’ within the modern Western world. For me, they held little significance.
They still don’t mean a whole lot, in that whenever we talk about cultural ‘struggles’ or human ‘difficulties’ we prefer to talk about it in the abstract, academic terms that keep it far away from our own everyday lives. Better for it to be a ‘cultural struggle’ than a ‘me struggle’ for obvious reasons. If it’s about me, I have to do something. If it’s about our ‘culture’, than I am free to do what I like, and I can score points merely by correctly analyzing the issue.
I showered and pulled on my sandals, lost in thought about my previous night. The coffee was ready, and I mixed in the sugar and cream, sipping it periodically until I was satisfied with the result. I checked my bag, packed as usual with my laptop and a million odds and ends, and headed out for the day. I knew that I was on the edge of realizing something important, something about my time the night before, something to do with why too many of those nights had felt so empty, but what, I had no idea.
The roads were quiet. Despite my inability to sleep I’d risen early, and the clock in my car read 7:51am. It had to be bothering me, I thought miserably, for me to be up so early on a Saturday morning. I pulled into the Starbucks parking lot, and after I’d parked, passed by a couple of other early morning risers who were smoking outside the building.
When I’d finally settled in with a fresh coffee, I flipped open my laptop. The lack of sleep was already getting to me. I leaned back, sipped my coffee and looked around. Over to my left a young family I’d known since their first child was wheeling their two young charges through the door. They nodded their greetings and I smiled and said hello. I couldn’t help but wonder, looking at their kids, at how quickly the last few years had passed. I turned, and browsing around the magazine rack was an older gentleman I hadn't seen before. His hair was sparse, and the expression on his face was pinched and small. He frowned at a young woman who leaned near him to pull another magazine from the rack. I turned back to my laptop.
The past few weeks I’d gradually pulled away much of my volunteer work at the school, readying myself for the changes to come the next year. But in so doing, I’d distanced myself from the most important aspect of my life. I frowned and took a sip from my coffee. It wasn’t just that either. We all had to make adjustments to our schedule from time to time. What I realized however, was that more than ever my life was all about me. There were some weeks when I would think that I had this addiction licked, that maybe I'd finally beaten it. Without fail, I'd soon find myself acting selfishly again.
You can argue that we always act for our own self-interest, even if we’re trying to be altruistic, because even then we’re doing it for the way it makes us feel. But that explanation is a load of philosophical hogwash for people trying to explain why it’s okay to be more self centered.
I sipped my coffee and smiled at one of the baristas who was just starting her shift. It was both an enlightening and saddening realization. The world was constantly preaching this message of self-actualization. That the customer, the individual, was king. That all we really needed to be happy was to earn enough riches, to store enough in our barns, to just worry about ourselves and everything would be okay. Our commercialistic culture emphasized this, but I wasn’t sure that this wasn’t a problem for everyone. That it was the same the world over.
The disheartening aspect to this whole thing was realizing that this wasn’t something that would go away because I wanted it to, or because I’d figured it out. It was like discovering a broken part of the human soul. People could talk all they wanted about education, and while that could help, it seemed to me that this addiction to self was evident in even the best universities around the world.
I stared at my laptop and then quietly shut it down. I glanced over at the old man as I packed up. He was still scowling, even as he read his magazine. In the past, I’d always assumed that my faith would be the difference. That somehow Jesus would cure me of this awful addiction, one that too often left me gasping at the emptiness of life.
I mulled this over as I headed home, watched as the driver beside me suddenly sped up and cut off the car in the opposite lane. A frantic, desperate hurry to get from one place to another, I thought, to get to the next scene in the movie. That continual playing reality show starring us. I slowed to a halt as the light turned red.
“No. Starring me.” I muttered. I couldn’t push this away.
The woman in the car next to mine raised an eyebrow when she noticed me talking. I smiled but she only looked puzzled as she put her sunglasses down and turned her head. I accelerated slowly when the light switched, and watched as the trees and houses and stores flashed by my window.
Faith helped. Well, it could help. Knowing that I was loved (and liked!) by God meant a great deal to me. That realization gave my life an eternal perspective and fulfilling hope in the future. However, I couldn’t rely on God’s grace alone. I’d seen too many rich, selfish Christians to believe that. No, I needed to manage my daily decisions, I thought, I needed to consciously apply myself to the task of overcoming this addiction to self.
By the time I got home I felt better, though I wasn’t sure why. The thick bushes that lined the parking lot glowed lime green in the bright morning sun. I leaned against my car and watched the birds hop and skip and dance and sing in the morning light. I’d been miserable when the world had told me I should be content. I was most at peace with the world, however, when I was thinking about others. When I was dwelling on the needs of those around me. I wasn’t sure what I could change at the moment, what I could do differently during a time when there seemed to be no end of daily change for me. But what I couldn’t do was not respond to this check in my heart.
I smiled and watched the birds for a while. Sometimes, we thought that giving of ourselves meant ‘big ideas’ and ‘big time commitment’, but maybe it was a mindset to do the little things, to keep ourselves conscious of the people around us, the ones who really needed our help in a world screaming for our attention. Maybe that’s what it meant. Maybe there was no final cure from this addiction to self. With a little effort however, and the sweet touch of God’s hand, maybe we could manage it so that when we did sit down at the end of the long day, we could truly enjoy the full life that Jesus talked about.
May God give us the courage to examine ourselves, to open our eyes to the lies of the world around us, and show us the contentment of working towards a more selfless life. In all that we do.