Think you’re number one? Who doesn’t? Are you a narcissist? Hey, who isn’t? After all, our interior world is most vivid to ourselves. Who could possibly know and care for our well-being and happiness better than ourselves? A tidy amount of Me-Centrism is desirable (we Americans prefer to call it self-esteem), but in sloppy-sized doses, it turns into self-absorption. Result: lack of interest in, and lack of concern for others. Not you, you say? When was the last time you stepped out of the internal monologue a-buzzing in your head or the fatigue from a long day‘s work to look the checkout clerk at Dominick’s in the eye? You know, like he was a real person worthy of your attention (which, of course, he is)? And did you say, “Hello, how are you today?” And were really interested in the answer? Or did you look away before he finished telling you?
A little thing, sure, this saying hello, how are you. But imagine how different our every-day would be if we stepped out of our heads and shook off our tiredness just long enough to treat each other like each one of us mattered. Imagine the ordinary wonderfulness of a simple “after you” as we stepped onto the bus or walked into the elevator. Or letting a car (or two) merge ahead of us on a clogged freeway, or smiling at the stranger on the street for no good reason, or paying our frenenmy an unsolicited compliment, or turning off our cell phone to give a friend our full attention. With all that free-flowing kindness, especially in these hard economic times, who knows what we could achieve? Our quest for meaning could literally end. We would all find peace of mind. Messianism would have come to pass.
The great religious faith traditions ask their followers, at some point during the year, to step-out of their daily routines and orient themselves toward something greater. To demonstrate that they mean it and are 100% committed to the exercise, these followers are asked to sacrifice something—in other words, to give up something they value, like a cow, or money, or food. The act of having given up something serves as a prod of sorts, a powerful reminder (lest one slack off) to reflect on one’s relationship with the divine. This giving-up takes place in community so that one gets swept up in a great shift of life-as-usual. The new normal is a common life focused on God. Whether one is taking part in the one-day fast of Yom Kippur or the month-long fast of Ramadan or the surrendering of something of one’s choosing for the forty days of Lent, the giving-up has a definite time-table with well-advertised and ritually-marked start and end dates.
But what about those who aren’t followers of such traditions but want to engage in a similar kind of spiritual exercise (exercise in the sense of an intentional and disciplined activity)? Yow! That’s harder. After all, you’ll give up something without any kind of communal or ritual help. That’s like deciding to give up cigarettes without a support group and without nicotine patches. Still, for those who are up to the challenge, it could be even more rewarding.
So let’s dare to give up something for Lent. How about Me-Centrism? Give up Me-Centrism until April 12 and orient yourself toward God. The phenomenologist and ethicist, Emmanuel Levinas, taught that we might, in the act of treating others as human beings instead of objects, discover a passageway to the extraordinary, the infinite, the transcendent. No promises though. Hopefully, even if you don’t find that passageway, the gift of a simple human interaction is gift enough. And should the checkout clerk or the passenger on the bus respond to your friendly gaze by looking at you like you’re crazy, or looking past you like you don’t exist—well, you’ll know you did your part. And no one can ask more than that.
Reference: Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, intro. and trans. Annette Aronowicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).