Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Poison of Selfishness

Insensitivity is no virtue, since love patient kind and is not rude (I Corinthians 13). Being callous to people's pain only hurts them more. Some insensitivity is rather minor: it hurts a soul's feelings or frustrates the one who is not understood. The chronically ill face this repeatedly, since so few of the healthy can put themselves in their place. They lack the moral imagination for it.

Yet in some cases, a lack of empathy can have dire consequences, effectively ruining a human being's life. Consider Jane (not her real name). Jane is extremely and dangerously sensitive to a common household product. If her neighbor uses it, Jane cannot go outside and becomes imprisoned in her own home. Further, her family has had to buy expensive air filters simply for her to survive in her own home.

Jane and her family have kindly asked--not demanded--that the neighbor change brands, even offering to buy a life-time supply of a similar product that Jane is not sensitive to. Instead of believing Jane, the neighbors called the police and put a restraining order on the family, claiming that Jane was lying about it all. One with even modicum of empathy would listen and respond with concern, not wrath.

This kind of selfishness is not merely rude; it is criminal. Yet the law (thus far) has done nothing to stop the ruination of a chemically-sensitive person's life by an emotionally-insensitive and calloused neighbor. Please pray for Jane all those who suffer in a similar way. Also, look into your own heart to see if you, too, may be callous to the suffering of others. I must do the same, day after day.

Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to treat others as we would like to be treated by them. This demands empathy and special concern for "the least of these." Without this, those insensitive to the chronically ill may sentence them to an even more horrible life than what they have previously experienced. We are called to be our brother's keeper, not our brother's enemy.


The Daily Fuel said...

Very thoughtful reminder of the harm that selfishness and insensitivity produce. What I take away from it might be a bit different than what other readers of your blog might take away.

To me, this story underlines a truth about modern America: it is a highly egotistical society, and it is not by accident that it is so.

A good number of folks in this nation have been trained to accept uncritically the notion that freedom is an absolute right (with very few and remarkable restrictions). We cannot expect others to see any limits in their freedom if we don't recognize the (self-imposed) limits in our own.

So it is easy to see, without agreeing with it, how Jane's neighbors should believe that their freedom comes ahead of any other consideration, including the well-being of others. In all likelihood Jane's neighbors determined the inconvenience required in their lives as being greater than Jane's health problems. But it is also easy to imagine that, were the situation reversed, they would be impugning Jane's selfishness. Such is the peril of the self-centered worlds we have tacitly come to construct and accept.

We are losing (have lost?) our sense of community, of being in the same boat, and our sense of empathy. They have been cast aside in favor of unrestrained individualism. We can only appreciate the pain of others when the same pain befalls us.

It is hard for a rich person to understand the predicament of one who struggles to make ends meet. It is, paradoxically, harder for a rich person that started out poor, because s/he will be inclined to say: I pulled out of it on my own (neglecting to acknowledge the many forms of help s/he received on the way). America is all about the celebration of making it on one's own, on keeping everything you make. There are entire news organizations, think tanks, religious institutions preaching that very idea, along with the idea that we should fear socialism, the government (in essence, ourselves), and statism. Freedom is good, every form of social organization that diminishes freedom (a.k.a. unrestrained individualism) is bad.
And your blog, in my opinion, contributes to that view. I am not assailing your intentions here, just the effects of much of what you write here.

Your "brother's keeper appeal" is, of course, ineffective, precisely because religion, like everything else in this world, is used selectively in support of our own wishes and selfishness. We can always pray for forgiveness when we fail, but religion never stopped anyone from failing some of the time. Could the same be said of atheism? Yes, of course, but at least the atheist can find no solace for doing wrong in the arms of an imaginary god.

I hope Jane's situation improves and that her neighbors see the mistake they made and that they find a way to accommodate her illness.

And please forgive me for being a bit preachy.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


Nothing I have ever written on this blog or elsewhere condones or encourages this kind of callousness described in my essay. I support free markets, not moral monster; I support a small state, not selfish individuals. The state is bad at promoting character; that is not really its rightful role. Families and churches do that job much better. Supporting individual rights does not exempt one from responsibilities to others and the community. The freedom to make money without being penalized by excessive taxation (used to support corrupt bureaucracies) can be used for good for ill. That is a matter of character.

The Daily Fuel said...

I have just finished a discussion with Loretta about a friend of hers who's been abandoned by her husband and her children. And I can think of a good friend of mine who went to her first year at Christian college with 8 bucks in her pocket and not one of her relatives offered her to take her on the two-hour drive to get there. So yes, (some) families are good at building character--in spite of themselves. And the same can be said for some churches apparently, since the people I am talking about are all church-going people.

I am not implying that the state does a better job all of the time, some of the time, or any of the time. I am just saying that generalizations like the state is bad, excessive taxation is bad (and exactly how much is excessive?), supporting free markets is better than supporting moral monsters may make sense in theory (do they really?). Practice is a completely different thing.

One last thing: you support a small state. Perhaps, in theory, it would be great to live in a world where the state is small and provides law and order and the defense of the borders, which is pretty much the sort of state you would like to bring about (am I very far off the mark?), with everything else left to churches and the goodness and caring of people for each other, including strangers. Look around. Look at Jane's neighbors. Look at my friend's relatives and Loretta's friend's family, whom I mentioned above. Look everywhere, randomly: Do you really think that we live in a world of brothers' keepers?

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