Yesterday, after breakfast, this thought came to me in regards to how we perceive one another and how we come into relationship with one another.
It seems to be worth holding front of me within me in an intelligent and sensitive way as I begin the day today.
When I come into relationship with other people, there’s always an element that seems to want to acquire something for myself. We have fairly simple and straightforward words for this, such as egoism and selfishness, but they tend to oversimplify and mask the core experience.
These forces in me have a disrespectful insistence in regard to others, and they’re always trying to dictate the terms of relationship. They are living forces, with a subtle animation to them that undermines any attempt to live honestly and with compassion towards others. If one wanted to view them in mythological or metaphysical terms, one might call them the roots of evil. But perhaps we don’t need to go anywhere so grand in order to see the simple matters, such as the fact that they want to acquire from others.
This use of relationship with others as a means of acquisition is a habit rooted in the fear that I can’t ever have enough, and that I need to protect myself by getting more. So personal transactions become, in a subtle and insidious way, a means of mining and extracting other beings for intellectual, emotional, and physical gratifications. I think a little self-examination will reveal, in anyone, a drift towards this tendency.
How different life would be if it emanated from a sense of offertory — of offering what I have to others. Without expectations, without insistence — just laying out a table of inward abundance and offering it to others, presuming that I have enough and can simply just give. Now, an abstract conception of this isn’t going to help me much, but if I’m connected to something more alive and intelligent in me, it's possible to understand the idea of offertory. After all, it’s entirely built into every system of prayer and worship; and although it always seems to point towards God and “go there,” it’s easy to be unmindful and forget that it starts here.
This idea of sacrifice in relationship is equally important. If I understand relationship in terms of sacrifice, I see that I not only offer — I am also willing to give up for someone else. That is, I not only undertake an inward work of generosity and compassion in regard to them, but I also suffer on their behalf — inwardly, in terms of what our relationship costs — for the challenges they face themselves, their own inadequacies, the struggle they have to engage in. So I agree, and sacrifice, to shoulder the burden of others as well as myself.
This isn’t something that can be undertaken outwardly. It’s not the same as helping someone else get a bowl of rice or pay their bills. Those can be good things, such acts of charity — yet an act of charity that reconfigures my inner understanding is more powerful, and can serve as a foundation for everything else that I do.
It’s true these concepts set a high standard, one that I will certainly fail at. But keeping the ideas alive in me can at least help me to engage with my own contradictions and question exactly what I’m up to when I enter a relationship with other people, no matter how trivial the transaction seems to be.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.