The other day I heard someone say, “The more we are consumed with self-preservation the less attention we give to self-evaluation.” The less attention we give to self-evaluation the more blind, and even calloused, we become to the ways in which our words and actions affect those around us. We begin to rationalize our choices and convince ourselves that we somehow deserve all that we take, either for ourselves or for our children.
Self-preservation is tethered to self-absorption and indulgence. It is our response to the fear of being hurt and going without. We begin to grasp at things in the attempt to silence that fear—money, food and drink, experiences, attention, love—but in the end we find that the more we grasp at those things the harder it is to silence our fears and the more miserable and resentful we become.
In his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton wrote, “The more you try to avoid suffering the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”
I’ve been re-reading the Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis in preparation for a book study I am co-leading in a few weeks. In the book the narrator comes across a Ghost plagued with self-absorption who cannot let go of her fear of what people might think of her if she looks a certain way. The Spirit, tempting to lead her to the mountains where she will find infinite happiness, says to her:
“An hour hence and you will not care. A day hence and you will laugh at it. Don’t you remember on earth—there were things too hot to touch with your finger but you could drink them all right? Shame is like that. If you will accept it—if you will drink the cup to the bottom—you will find it very nourishing: but try to do anything else with it and it scalds.”
Joy isn’t just granted to some and not to others. It doesn’t just happen upon you because you finally have enough money or gained enough respect or look a certain way or found love. Joy is the product of gratitude, gratitude learned in the midst of suffering.