What would life be like if we used “I” less often? “I am,” “I want,” “I will,” “I like,” and “I should.” What would our lives be like if we spent less time planning our next big vacation? less time thinking of the next big toy purchase? less time defending ourselves? less time proving we are better? less time worrying about the future and regretting the past? less time being angry? less time complaining? less time correcting others? less time trying to avoid discomfort and inconvenience? less time seeking pleasure? less time insisting others love us? If we spend less time thinking of ourselves, we may have more time to think of others. If we spend less time seeking our own happiness, we may actually end up finding it.
In John 12: 24, Jesus said, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” One of life’s greatest contradictions is that we have to deny ourselves to find happiness. There are so many rich and famous people who are constantly seeking more with their wealth and influence to find contentment, and it continues to elude them. Comedian and actor, Jim Carrey, was on point when he said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.” Many of us are fixated on looking out for our self-interests in an act of self-preservation and promotion only to find ourselves chasing our tails. We are thirsty, but we are looking for the kind of water that does not quench our thirst. We continue to yearn for satisfaction, but our eyes are directed inwards and we miss the mark.
Imagine being by the lake and focused on your reflection on the still water. You were so concerned about how you look that you did not get to appreciate the beauty of the trees, the warmth of the sun, and the cool breeze. The image on the water is a mere reflection; it is not reality. It cannot give us joy and it will not satisfy us. We need to look beyond ourselves and admire the splendor that surrounds us. We need to let nature amaze us and teach us how to keep giving without asking for anything in return. If our goal in life is to delight ourselves with all the worldly pleasures we can get our hands on, secure for ourselves the distinction of being the best in everything, and make it known to everyone around that we are always right, we will be constantly longing for more. Preoccupation with ourselves and gratification of our desires without regard for others is like craving for ice cream. After we finish eating the first cone, we want another one. We are thrilled to get the second one, even though we know we do not need it. We eat it anyway, only to feel sick because we had too much. True contentment can only be attained if we put the needs of others before our own. Being self-centered does not satisfy, but we continue doing it hoping one day it will. Unfortunately, the more we indulge in this behavior, the unhappier we get.
If we choose not to do what our natural self is inclined to do because it is not right, that is self-control. If we give away what we have when there is only enough for ourselves, that is self-sacrifice. If we allow others to think they won the argument, even if we believe otherwise, that is magnanimity. If we do not seek recognition for our good works, need a reason to apologize for the sake of peace, or require justification for overlooking someone’s fault, that is humility. If we put aside our concerns about our own problems and forget our comfort as we seek to help others, that is self-denial. We live in a culture where many ask, “What’s in it for me?” It is the quid pro quo ethos. Because of this, people are skeptical of others’ good deeds. In fact, an often-repeated advice by some is to presume that everyone is looking out only for their own interests. We have to submit ourselves to God and let our old selves die. The self that thinks too much of himself or herself and believes that his or her needs are above everybody else. As we have more of God’s nature in us, there will be less of ourselves manifesting in our thoughts, words, and actions. As a result, self-control, self-sacrifice, magnanimity, humility, and self-denial become second nature to us. To die to self is the path to peace, contentment, satisfaction, and happiness.
The people who are genuinely happy and content with their lives have mastered themselves. They have learned to control their tendencies and can deny the beckoning of their flesh at will. The world no longer holds them hostage because they are detached from it. These people are truly free. Even when they are falsely maligned by others, they see no need to defend themselves. The confidence their conscience gives them negates the need to seek the approval of others. Even when no one gives them recognition or praise, they see no need to prop themselves up or prove they are better than the rest. They have accepted themselves for who they are and are happy with life as is. Besides, there will always be someone better or less than them, and they are wise enough not to compare. The lure of the material world does not appeal to them. They recognize that nothing in this world lasts, and everything eventually breaks. Indulging in worldly goods and desires feeds the body and does nothing for the spirit. The flesh is fickle and continues to decay daily. What is sufficient or fulfilling today may not be the same tomorrow. The threshold to satisfy keeps increasing. We develop tolerance and require continuous escalation of the stimulus to satisfy. So, why even chase it? They have also learned the futility of seeking to control others and letting the behavior of others bother them; their focus is on improving themselves. These enlightened people do not need the world to bow to them. They forgive whenever it is called for and live in peace with others. They do not insist that others love them. Their happiness is not controlled by what others give or withhold. They gladly accept what is given to them and demand nothing. Those who live a life of self-denial have developed the faith to face sufferings in life. They have the awareness that life is not meant to be a bed of roses and find value in the lessons that suffering teaches. It is all about improving themselves and not simply pleasing. Furthermore, they are detached from the past as well as the future. There is so much they are called to do in the present and they do not have time to give in to the temptation of self-pity and worry. Mastery of self can save us from unnecessary pain and suffering when we are able to avoid choosing to do what we desire when it is clear that what is on the other side of the decision is not as enticing as what we see at face value. To be selfless is to think of ourselves less. It is being less concerned over how we feel, what we desire, or what we need. To achieve this, we need to be motivated and inspired by something beyond and higher than ourselves; something that has eternal value. Pleasing God is the most durable motivation that will sustain us until we become the person that we desire. It takes practice in developing the right habits to help us get there. Since we become like the person we spend the most time with, I believe this ambitious and formidable goal can be achieved by making time to know God more in prayer, meditation, and reading the scriptures. Repetition and consistency are the key. The action step is to make the decision to do it and commit to it. Making a commitment is recognizing at the outset that this is not going to be easy and there will be ups and downs, but we are going to keep running this race until the finish line.
This world will continue to exist without us. We are not the reason the world came to be. We are not entitled to anything. Life is not all about us. The purpose of our existence is not to live for ourselves, but to honor God by serving others. St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, Oh Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” We need to starve our ego and awaken to the awareness that selfishness does not satisfy. We need to look beyond ourselves to find true happiness.