Saturday, 19 December 2015

Being for Others

When I set out to write a blog back on December 1st I had, at that time, no inclination that 3 weeks later I would still be writing and that I would end up writing one blog every day throughout Advent. But so it is turning out to be. If you had told me back then that I would write a blog about "being for others" I would have thought you vaguely strange. I would have thought you were merely showing your ignorance of me, my thoughts and my attitudes. But in the process of writing the blogs that I have written between then and now I have come to the point where I need to write exactly that blog. And here it is. "Being for others" can be taken in two ways; it can be read through the prism of a background knowledge of existential literature or it can just be regarded as our attitude towards other people. It must be said that if you have been reading my blog regularly of late then much that is gathered together below will have been hinted at in much that has gone before. 

I am not the world's most sociable person. I am not going to win a "Humanitarian of the Year" award. At various times people may have regarded me as grumpy, misanthropic, unfriendly, unsociable and rude. And often I may have been happy to encourage these beliefs about me. For reasons that are not all clear to me, I have chosen to be private and closed off for much of my adult life. The rare times I have strayed from this path have often turned out to be reasons for embracing it more fully once again. But human experience is more than the things that happen to us. There is also the matter of what we do with the things that have happened to us, how we process them and where we file them in the biography of our lives that we carry around with us. Human reason and understanding are not slaves to their environment. We have freedom to think about things, weigh them and consider different ideas and come to differing conclusions. A person subject to cruelty is not fated to be cruel in return. Those subject to kindness may not always themselves turn out to be kind.

And so what of being for others? As I understand this it is through the prism of existentialist texts although I also have a background in religious texts that stress love for your neighbor and notions like that. In religious texts the care you show others is often a reflection of the character of the god the religion is supposed to be about. If not a theistic religion then it may be about honoring some spiritual notion or belief in the togetherness of things. From an existentialist perspective being for others is a matter of being responsible for yourself as a moral being and actualizing yourself as an individual by using what measure of existential freedom you have to broaden your horizons. In all cases being for others is seen as ultimately bouncing back on you and being good for you too. To extend another's peace, health or freedom is to extend yours too.

It is not my job here to appear as some kind of "do-gooder" saying that we all need to help everyone because we are all one and things like that. If anyone knew me well enough it would be easy for them to point out my own hypocrisy there anyway. The world is a complicated place and many competing thoughts fight in our minds for headspace. I have my thoughts and ideas and you have yours. And besides, once you get into the nitty gritty thats when the general principles that every one can agree on (such as "love your neighbor as yourself", the so-called "Golden Rule") start to break down under the harsh, unforgiving glare of partisanship. Some think, for example, that Capitalism is the best way to care for most people. Others say its Socialism. Some say we need a creed of brotherly (and sisterly) love. Others say we are all children of Gaia. But my concern with "being for others" does not go that way. 

Wishing to bypass all those types of arguments I really just want to give some kind of testimony to the insights that the kind of blogs I have been writing recently have opened up. One is the old insight, that we can never tire of having, that helping others takes you outside yourself and gives you a purpose beyond yourself. This has been demonstrated many times to be psychologically and existentially beneficial to human beings. Life, egotistical and individual as it is, cannot be all about you. This risks a detrimental solipsism. In the same way, it is quite paradoxical how being for others helps strengthen you yourself as a person. It might be thought, pre-reflectively and pre-actively, that if you want to be strong you should concentrate on yourself. But this, so psychologists have shown and philosophers have argued, turns out not to be the case. Whilst many of us would be critical of theistic aspects of religions and their regular claimed sources of authority which can too easily lead to notions of kingdom and dominion, the moral ideas of many religions would be more widely accepted here with their ideas of treating everyone with respect and living in peace, even going so far as to help the poor, the sick and the troubled.

I'm strangely conscious at this point that I may be preaching to the converted. After all, every one helps someone in trouble, don't they? Well, some do and some don't. (Today I saw a news headline "McDonald's customers step over man collapsed on the floor".) And some put themselves out of the way of other people so that the question doesn't often arise and seems strange. But I find myself forced to ask what other consequences being for others might have beyond those that first come to mind. Does this, for example, entail having an eye for issues of social justice and political responsibility? It may well do and philosophers and religionists have both played active roles in these fields throughout human history because of their felt need or other felt imperatives to act. But it is often people who are neither of these things who felt themselves, or their friends, family and neighbors, to be being treated unjustly or unfairly and so rose up and started movements to bring about social and political change. I'm reminded at this point of the thought "How you can you be happy whilst outside there are those who are not?" and the old school hymn "When I needed a neighbor were you there?" comes to mind too.

At this point some would say that you cannot bring all the troubles of the world onto yourself. All you will do is crush yourself under their weight and be of no help to anyone else. This is true. But those citing this belief do themselves a disservice if they stop there with the thought as if that settles the argument and they can go back to caring about themselves to the detriment of others. Admitting you cannot help with all the world's problems is not to admit that you cannot help with any of them. Indeed, it is very likely that there are very simple things that everyone can do to help someone and, all these little steps adding up, it may be seen that we, together, get a very long way. The problem comes when the idea I began this paragraph with is harnessed to the belief that this world is really every man for himself. It can be. But it doesn't have to be. Its a choice. If you think it is then that is the choice you make. Something I read 2 days ago comes to my mind. Someone wrote as a newspaper comment somewhere that from a cosmic perspective we are all irrelevant. We just need to realize that from that same perspective we are all equally irrelevant. Ego gets in the way.

The problem comes when people don't take views like that seriously, views from way outside of themselves. It is easy to live life with blinkers. I know. I am a specialist at it. Most of you reading this will live in towns or cities and so its very likely that within a mile or two there are people with no homes and struggling for food. I can't speak for you, but that troubles me. This doesn't mean that I can do anything about it but its arguable that it might mean I should or we should. People are wrapped up in themselves and their own survival. Or is it they are wrapped up in their own comfort and leisure, in spending whatever time the Bank of the Universe has deposited into their cosmic account on themselves? Again, people make their own choices. But when I stop to think I have to say it makes me uneasy how many people have nothing when we, as a race of beings, have so much. No one in this world needs to be hungry or homeless. If they are its because of choices other people made. People like us. This all seems to pass a comment on us and not a positive one. What's our responsibility?

Ultimately, we are the only ones who have to live with and justify ourselves to our own consciences. Many people do indeed live in bad faith, a hollow version of the values they know they hold and the people that somewhere inside they wish they could be. They get caught between their ideals and their perceived realities and between the poverty of looking after number one and the riches of deploying their resources beyond themselves. Contrary to the prevailing ideology in our world, life is not about how much stuff you've got and making the bottom line of your bank account the biggest number you can make it. It would be a hell if it was about doing those things and ignoring the starving of the hungry, the injustice of the oppressed and the pain of the suffering.

There is an old philosophical debate that is sometimes had between notions of quality and quantity. It is often applied to life thus: would you rather have ten years of absolute top quality life or 100 years quantity of life where no quality whatsoever is guaranteed? To my mind choosing the quantity option is what most people do and that, to me, is the life dominated by things, by ego and by hubris. You go for the amount without any reflection on what things mean or are worth. This is thinking dominated by amounts of stuff and I regard it as shallow. Thinking like this gives you something in common with Donald Trump or the Koch Brothers who love to tell you how rich they are whilst you can see quite clearly how shallow they are. I've always instinctively gone for the quality option. Because quality, depth of experience, actualizing this life with some kind of meaning thats not just about you, is what counts. Do you remember the warm feeling you get when you do something good or help someone you don't have to? That's what quality feels like and it feels like that because you gave something of yourself away. And money and things can't buy you that, no matter how much you've got. Its when you get that feeling again that you start to realize the wisdom behind our mutual irrelevance in the universe and our mutual need for each other because of it.

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