Clive was looking at my soul.

22 10 2003

“I never had a selfless thought since I was born.”

Today I was thinking about how everything I do has a selfish motive behind it. At least in part. True, some of it is really great stuff that helps people or makes them happy. But deep down, I know I do it for me. For the way I feel when I see or hear approval. For the satisfied feeling that comes from doing something good for someone else.

As I thought about this, the above quote popped into my head. I couldn’t remember if I’d read it in a book or heard it in a song. But there it was, describing me perfectly, and I knew there was more. It hovered beneath my consciousness like a phantom. I just had to find the right mental file. At my age, mental files begin to get a little jumbled, but I finally stumbled on two things that rang a faint bell. Phil Keaggy and C.S. Lewis.

“Yes! Phil Keaggy did put some C.S. Lewis poetry to music,” I thought. “Maybe I can find the song that has those words.” I started working my way through our Phil Keaggy CDs. We have every Phil Keaggy CD ever made. I gave up. “George will know,” I told myself, and myself readily agreed. We waited for George to get home.

He came in the kitchen while I was peeling potatoes. “You know the line, ‘I never had a selfless thought since I was born’? Do you know which Phil Keaggy song that is, and which CD it’s on?”

“It’s not on a CD. It’s on his second album, Love Broke Through. It’s from a C.S. Lewis poem called ‘As the Ruin Falls.'” He went to the bookshelf and found the old 33 lp, then brought it into the kitchen. We haven’t listened to any of those old albums since . . . well, since we last had a stereo with a record player. Long time.

“I knew you would know!” I said, beaming at him. He smiled, pulled out the sleeve, and there they were.

I read the words my heart had been searching for all day:

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through;
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, reassurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin;
I talk of love — A scholar’s parrot may talk Greek,
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only now that you have taught me (but how late) my lack,
I see the chasm;
And everything you are was making my heart
Into a bridge by
which I might get back
From exile, and grow man.
And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.

I realize that great philosophers have grappled with the question of whether or not there really is such a thing as true altruism. I’m not pretending to offer solutions to that question. And I don’t think I should stop reaching out to people or serving them just because I can’t make my heart completely pure in motive. But I do want to be aware of my selfishness. And when other people disappoint me with their selfish choices, I want to be less judgmental. I have no ground on which to stand.

And more than anything, I want to be able to sing those last two lines and mean them.


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4 responses

23 10 2003
allenb

I’m going to shock you …

Ready? Selfishness is not necessarily a bad thing. Yup. You read me right. Selfishness – NOT bad. Not in and of itself. Let me explain.

Self interest is ingrained by our Creator, into our very make up. A BIG part of it springs from self-preservation. If we were all truly selfless, we wouldn’t last long. Selfishness is that thing that makes us think, hey, I want that last bit of food. I need sleep even though everyone else is wired. I’m thirsty, I need water. Self interest.

Why do we have kids? We have kids, at least on some level, so that a little part of us will remain. To carry on. It’s the closest thing we have in the physical world to immortality. It is a little bit selfish to want something all our own, a part of us, to imprint ouselves on. But the trick is, that little peice of us has it’s own ideas too. They want to go their own way, that’s selfishness too. Which keeps us from being clones.

Selfishness drives us to improve. It’s the longing for praise and acceptance that makes us want to improve to grow to become better people. We do things for positive feedback because it gives us a status check on how we’re improving as people. Edison, Jefferson, Curie, all selfish. Their efforts improved the lives of thousands, even millions of people, but you’d better believe that they had some personal motive there. Think of Edison vs. Tesla. AC vs. DC. (long story).

This is not to say that Selfishness is altruistic, good in and of itself. I think that it’s neutral. Selfishness run amok, however is where we get into trouble.

Truly selfish people seldom find the time to reproduce, largely because it wouldn’t fit into their life, schedule, etc. That way the gene pool gets some much needed chlorine. Selfish people run amok often end up one of two ways. They learn that selfishness doesn’t pay off, and they amend their ways, or B: They never learn.

I don’t have a whole lot to back up the second side. Hoping the first half is enough to make the case. But in the meantime, I’d say go easy on yourself. The aspiration toward total selflessness, while admirable, isn’t particularly realistic. There was only one selfless man, but He was a VERY special case.

Much love,

Allen

23 10 2003
jeannedamoff

Re: I’m going to shock you …

Yeah, I know you’re right. I’m not even shocked. And you don’t have to worry, because there’s no danger of my ever believing I could achieve selflessness. Sometimes I get disgusted with how much self-centeredness dictates my decisions. But on the whole, I’m content to be spoiled, pampered, praised, and appreciated. And I’m always good about being self-seeking when it comes to the last piece of chocolate.

But I do mean what I said about the last two lines to that poem. I want to recognize the love behind those times when I find self nailed to the cross. It hurts, but it frees me.

Thanks for such a thoughtful response! You’re the best. ♥ EZ

23 10 2003
ragamuffen

Re: I’m going to shock you …

I see you two have all the deep stuff covered….so, umm, yeah.

I’ll just say I love me some Phil Keagy from time to time and that True Believers CD was quite awesome and I’ll be moving along now. And thank you for your support of poetry….that’s always a plus.

P.S. What a treasure to have such an index of knowledge for a mate.

23 10 2003
jeannedamoff

No doubt we just put all the college philosophy depts. out of business.

Somehow I think you could add to the depth of any discussion.

Phil Keaggy is amazing. George has been a fan since before he went solo, going back to around 1970 when he played with a band called Glass Harp. So, yeah. When it comes to Phil Keaggy, George is a treasure trove of information. He knows a lot about earthworms, too, if you ever have questions along those lines. ;o)

There’s another Phil Keaggy song based on a C.S. Lewis poem called Portrait. It ranks among my all-time favorites. One of the best lines is, “I felt His presence when you laughed just now.” That song has always reminded me of George.

♥ EZ

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