Friday, February 17, 2012

When Selflessness Becomes Very Selfish

Everybody wants to be well thought of.  But that's selfish, right?  And to be well thought of, it's better to be selfless.  For a species well acquainted with simultaneously embracing opposing values, this apparent contradiction is no problem.  At least it's not for me.

Here's how it might go.  I want my wife to think well of me, and she wants to think well of me.  So we are on the right track.  But, in order to think well of me, I need to do things that show her I value what is important to her.  I need to do something that shows I am acting in her interest. 

That's fine, but here is where the trouble starts.  I am happy to act in her interest, if it serves one of my own values, but not if it doesn't.  Let's say that my wife wants me to keep the financial books and pay the bills in order for her to feel safe and have peace of mind.  But let's also say that I have always lived without much thought of finances.  I pay the bills before anything gets shut off and if I am ten days from another paycheck and run out of money, I just don't do anything or eat very much.  It is more important to me to not think about money and deal with the fallout than to discipline myself to keep up with the books. So out of necessity, my wife takes over the books.

On the other hand, let's say my wife doesn't care if the car is clean at all.  It can smell like six month old chicken nuggets and she would not even notice.  But a clean car matters to me.  So when I act "selflessly" on behalf of my wife, guess what I do?  I clean the car and happily surrender the finances to her.  And if she says I am irresponsible and don't care about her, I just point to that clean car or the gate that I fixed or the carpet I shampooed or the tile I re-grouted.  Can't she see how selfless I have been?  Never mind that what she values is help with finances, helping kids with homework or making dinner once in a while.  That's irrelevant.  I keep doing and doing and all she does is notice what I do not do?!  How ungrateful! 

Not really.  The truth is, I do what I do because it's what I value.  I leave undone what I do because it is not what I value.  I am willing to act selflessly and to serve my wife all day long, as long as it serves what I value, and even if it only serves what I value.

But selflessness serves the other, regardless of one's own concerns.  Selflessness serves her because it is important to her, even if it is important only to her.  I am really good at being selfishly selfless.  My guess is that I am not alone.

May God give you a heart that sees others as he sees them, and create in you a desire to serve in a truly selfless way.  May you find value in the serving, regardless of the form that service takes.  And may you take joy in knowing that as you serve, you are never more like the one you follow than you are in that moment.  Grace and peace.

PS.  Any resemblance of the characters in this post to actual husbands living in my house is purely coincidental, no matter what my wife says.

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