I don’t know about you, but sometimes I catch myself valuing people more for how they make me feel than simply for who they are; I can be guilty of enjoying what I get from them more than what I give.
It happens a little too often, if I’m honest.
Occasionally I might get it right and somehow manage to love my friends, family and random strangers with a vaguely altruistic heart, but more often than not I find myself challenged by a deeper selfishness that lurks within me and I desperately want to love people better than that.
As I sat thinking about what stops me from loving people fully—what gets in the way or lurks within me that makes me more interested in what I can gain from, rather than give to, other people—I remembered a talk I heard from Don Miller a while back (come on, it’s been a while since I’ve mentioned him). As I’ve gone back through it recently, it’s helped me to unpack what might be going on behind the scenes.
If you are a co-sufferer of the selfishness gene, I hope you find his thoughts (and a few of my own) helpful.
Someone suggested that one of the most commonly asked questions in society is, “what is wrong and how do we fix it?”
It’s no great revelation to state that the world is wide awake to the fact that something’s not quite right. We all live with a bit of dissatisfaction and brokenness, and we’re all trying to figure out how to make it better and make ourselves feel more whole.
My Christian faith gives me a story that helps me to understand the picture a little more. It tells me that something happened a long time ago that made human beings relationally incomplete and from that point on we’ve been longing to be restored. But we can’t do it on our own.
In Genesis, Moses describes paradise and what life is like in perfect relationship with God. He concludes, “Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed”. He repeats the phrase quite a lot. Like a lot, a lot. I think he wants us to take note.
Naked and unashamed. Completely unaware.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m naked, I totally know about it.
I don’t ever walk out the house and forget to put my clothes on.
I am completely and utterly aware. Always.
I hadn’t really thought it about it until recently but we’re the only species on earth that wear clothes. Isn’t that odd? I mean I get it to a degree, of course, it’s cold outside so we wrap up to keep warm…but it’s warm inside, so what’s the deal there? Why don’t we just get naked? Why do we still cover up?
With only a few exceptions, the idea that we feel shame when we’re naked is pretty much universal for human beings.
Shame is a feeling that no other creature seems to experience like we do. Why is that?
Well, Genesis seems to suggest that something happened in the beginning that moved us from a place where we were so unashamed of ourselves that we could walk around naked without even knowing it, to a place where we were acutely aware and felt the need to hide and cover up.
And we’re still living with that reality today. Something big must have shifted.
For most people, I’m guessing, the only time we feel completely comfortable being naked is when we’re with someone who, often over years, has earned our trust. Someone has loved, affirmed and valued us and given us reason to believe that we can be fully ourselves in front of them because they will continue to love us no matter what they see.
It’s that kind of relationship, that kind of love and affirmation that enables us to be hardly self-aware.
And in the absence of that love, we cover up.
It’s like Moses is telling us that Adam and Eve experienced that kind of relationship and connection with God. And because of it they hardly noticed themselves. They got their sense of value, identity and security from this relationship. It was their life-source.
And what happens when that relationship gets broken? When intimacy is lost and they get disconnected?
They feel shame. They cover up.
And we do the same.
It’s frustrating, but it would appear that no matter how hard I try I can’t just look in the mirror and tell myself I’m ok and be done with it. I can stare ’til I’m blue in the face and reassure myself that I’m valuable, treasured, here on purpose, loved… but it doesn’t make me feel alright. It might help me get by for a day or two, but I’m not entirely convinced by my own affirmation. I need more than just my words. I need to hear it from someone or something else.
Could it be that we were wired and designed so that something outside of ourselves tells us who we are and gives us value? That we’re not capable of doing so ourselves?
It would explain a lot.
And I suppose that story works out ok for us at first, because in the beginning I’m fully connected to this Being of great power and authority telling me that I matter, I’m here on purpose, I’m OK, they love me,over and over again.
But then all of a sudden I get cut off from it and it leaves a great big gaping hole in me, a big vast chasm that really needs to be filled by someone else’s voice.
And so, inevitably, I start looking to you to fill the gap.
I start looking to you and the rest of the world to try to figure out my identity and understand how valuable I am. I need you to tell me that I’m likeable and that I matter because if you don’t then I feel like I’m not. And I know there’s a price to pay if I’m not.
I’m going to start to seek redemption from a jury of my peers.
So the pressure is on.
And what is it that this jury or peers will measure? Good looks, intelligence, wealth, career, rightness?
And what happens if I don’t fit into our culture’s socially constructed idea of beauty? What if I’m not all that smart or don’t have much money or a successful career? What if I keep getting things wrong?
It’s like we instinctively know that there’s a penalty for not being ok, and while many of us aren’t entirely sure what it is, it terrifies us.
A primary school teacher set her class a challenge:
“If there were a lifeboat adrift at sea, and in the lifeboat were a male lawyer, a female doctor, a crippled child, a stay-at-home mum, and a garbageman, and one person had to be thrown overboard to save the others, which person would you choose?
Conversations start quickly. The class doesn’t hesitate in deciding who has value and who doesn’t. Everyone’s throwing in their arguments and opinions.
The idea that all people are equal doesn’t come up. Even our teachers want us to know that our value is defined by what we will make of ourselves.
Hearing the story made me wonder what a conversation would sound like in a lifeboat—what it would feel like to be desperately explaining to everyone why you deserve to stick around and not get thrown overboard. I wonder if the emotions you’d feel more acutely there are pretty much the same as the emotions we feel everyday as we stumble through life, continually trying to assert and remind people of our value so that they don’t dismiss us?
I think school felt a bit like a lifeboat. It’s like we were all lined up in the hall one morning and the teacher said, “ok, for the next 7 years I want you line up from least important to most important…GO!” So we spent the rest of our school days doing exactly that, ranking each other and comparing ourselves to other “groups” to determine our value; from the cool kids to the geeks and everything in between. And everyone is trying to move up the scale, trying to be at the top so they don’t get chucked off the lifeboat.
It’s why when Fulham win a football game I gleefully exclaim “We won! We won!” and when it doesn’t go so well, it’s very clearly, “THEY lost”. We associate with winners and disassociate with losers. Because losers get chucked off the lifeboat.
We’re still lining up. We’re still competing with each other for the affirmation of the world.
And it doesn’t fuel love.
It fuels a sense of self-preservation and selfishness. And I want rid of it. I want out of the lifeboat.
If I’ve started looking to you to tell me who I am and give me value…and you tell me that I’m no good, then I’m going to get angry and defensive and stop liking you. I’m going to try and knock you down, discredit your opinion and devalue you. You’ve threatened my place in the lifeboat and that’s serious business. You’ve made me feel like I’m not valuable, and it’s crucial that you think I am. My identity and security lie in your assessment of me.
Sometimes, when I’m driving in my car, some moron cuts in front of me when I clearly have right of way. It makes me irrationally angry. Why? Or you know that feeling when someone speaks over you or leaves you out of a plan? It hurts, right? Are we really worried about the few seconds we were delayed, the idea that didn’t get shared or the experience we missed out on, or does it speak to a deeper fear in us that we might not be important, and we’re sure there’s a penalty for not being important?
Insults and cut-offs tell you, “you’re down the list”. And people who are down the list get chucked off the lifeboat.
So how on earth do we do life without living in a lifeboat, without ranking and comparing each other? How do we stop playing this broken game?
We allow God to be enough. We look to Him for our identity so that we don’t rely on each other to define and secure and value. We sit in His grace and live in His freedom so that we can be released to start loving others for who they are rather than what they can do for us.
I really want to move into that space. I want that to be my reality.
Don puts it so well…
“What we really need is somebody who loves us unconditionally, loves us so much we don’t worry about death, about our hair thinning, about people pulling out in front of us on the road, about whether people are good-looking or ugly. We need this; we need this so that we can love other people purely and not for selfish gain, we need this so we can see everybody as equals, we need this so our relationships can be sincere, we need this so we can stop kicking ourselves around, we need this so we can lose all self-awareness and find ourselves for the first time, not by realising some dream, but by being told who we are by the one and only Being who has the authority to know, and by that I mean the creator.”
When we’re in that story–when we’re connected to the heart of God and understand our identity in Him–we’re free to truly love one another. Feelings like jealousy, pride, distrust and embarrassment would be foreign to us in that story. They would have no place.
And that’s the kind of story I want.