“If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love – You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.
The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.”-CS Lewis
We’re often asked, especially if you’re still in school or building your life, what we aspire to be, and how we are striving, at an individual level, to achieve those things. Even if what you aspire towards is part of a a larger, grander, and positive social project, to get there you probably have been taught to at least consider what honors and accolades will trace to you on your way there. It’s an imperfect system, but it’s what that we exist in, even if we don’t love the underlying ethics of it.
In times like this, though, there is no reward for us to do what is good and right for our communities, or at least according to an achieving mindset, there isn’t. There’s nothing enjoyable or seemingly important about me sitting at my desk instead of at my favorite coffee shop. Nothing besides sacrifice for an abstraction about how disease spreads is motivating people to stay home this St. Patrick’s Day Weekend. Seniors missing their last days together or missing their one and only high school prom or first trip abroad aren’t readily given a reason to feel good about these actions, because doing these things don’t fit with our cultures idea of what makes a good life. Our culture, at the moment, doesn’t have an expansive vocabulary or narrative to help us choose these things for the good of everyone, unless you count fear and shame (which can help people do the right thing, but not feel connected to others).
In our social media & perfectionism culture, it can seem that unless something is absolutely right or has an absolutely massive impact, it doesn’t seem to matter. This is the underlying narrative, and we know it couldn’t be further from the truth when we examine our own lives. The words of love that have been spoken at a time when we felt broken, the action of service when we were ill, the gratitude for something small that we were able to provide for others. These small, unknown strings that web us together in community are those which are played on in every emotional superbowl commercial—you know, the ones that make you weep from some deep place of what it is to be fully human even though you were only watching a Doritos commercial.
The world right now may seem too big, too out of control, too unpredictable.
What we are used to aiming for and doing in our everyday life seems odd and unreachable right now—the goals we used to believe would make us important and worthy not only are not feasible right now, but staggeringly insignificant.
What we are called to right now is something much larger, deeper, and much more beautiful than those trips, or bar crawls, or anything else that truly is and has felt hard to lose in our loss of normalcy over the last few days. In this moment in history, we are called to stand in love with our neighbors of all sorts, and to show the kind of human goodness and creativity in loving that is the true mark of our evolution as a species. Any animal can respond with stress, can respond with defense, can respond with running away. Humans have the opportunity to choose a different instinct. You’ve already witnessed this instinct come alive under these difficult circumstances. You have seen it when you’ve watched the videos of humans continue to be human in Italy. We have seen it in the people looking out for everyone who lives and works in their communities, and expanding in love instead of shrinking away and hoarding in fear. You have seen it in Spain, where from their quarantined homes, people reach out to express gratitude for those who are out on the front lines.
When you stay home to avoid spreading the disease because it would devastate someone else, it is love.
When you call or reach out to someone who you normally wouldn’t because you’re thinking of them, it is love.
When you act towards togetherness and towards being with each other in community, even while separated by walls and masks, it is love.
This is a fearful, uncertain moment in history, but it is an extraordinary time in which people are proving that love, not division, is the mark of what it means to be a human being who is fully alive.