Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Why Selfishness Doesn't Pay

I listened to a deeply depressing radio programme the other day. It was about selfishness.
One man said he had persuaded himself that it was right to buy a Porsche with a legacy which had been left to his wife. His wife was a gifted pianist and she had been given explicit instructions to spend the money on a better piano, but she had agreed that there was nothing much wrong with her existing one, leaving the way open for her husband to buy himself the Porsche, instead. 'Is that selfish?' he asked, 'I don't know.' The depressing thing was that he needed to ask!
Worse still was a woman who described how she had been challenged by her new husband to rethink her own attitude to self. 'Soon after we were married,' she said, 'We found ourselves running along a platform to catch a train. A man with a limp was running to catch it too, and I found I just couldn't overtake him – I had to slow down. My husband got really cross with me and afterwards he told me I would have to decide whose side I was on – was I on the side of the Salvation Army or was I on my own side?'
Of course, if the husband had wanted to be more sophisticated he might have argued that it was selfish of the man with the limp to arrive late for the train, and then try to hold up all the other passengers who had taken the trouble to be on time. Or, he could have argued that a more sensible thing to do would have been to overtake the man and then stand poised, with one foot on the platform and the other inside the carriage, until he caught up. That way all three of them could have caught the train instead of missing it.
Such sophistication would have made the husband seem less unpleasant, but it would have been wasted on his wife. She had immediately seen the good sense – she said – of being on her own side from now on. However, I thought that, given the same choice between taking the side of the Salvation Army or being on my own side, I – for one – would have had to choose the Salvation Army.
The only sensible contribution to the programme came at the end when somebody said, 'Selfish people may get what they want, but it will never be enough.'
The Easter Story affirms that loving self-sacrifice is the ultimate success story. Total unselfishness can triumph, even over death. Thomas [1] finds this so counter-intuitive that he wants to see proof. Very astutely, he realises that it is the marks of his crucifixion which will prove whether the risen Jesus is simply a wish fulfilment or the real thing.
Would any group of sane and balanced people wish that suffering and self-denial might be the gateway to eternal life? Of course not. What the disciples really want is for the whole episode to have been a bad dream. So – if the risen Jesus can show Thomas the nail marks in his hands and the wound from the spear in his side – then the appearances cannot be a case of colourful wish projection.
When Thomas sees the nail marks he knows at once that the crucified and risen Jesus is for real. This is not a 'happy ever after' ending but a promise that, while selfish people are doomed never to find the fulfilment they seek, unselfishness actually works.
[1] John 20.19-31

No comments: