Thursday, July 2, 2009

Separation, Rational Self-Interest, and Love

The Mustard Seed is a novel, not a philosophical treatise – a story about people, not a tract about ideology – and therefore some of the components of “Spiritual Rationalism” were not fully explored to my satisfaction. One of those ideas is that “according to reason, ‘rational self-interest’ is the best ethical system for human beings; the best way to go live our lives on a moment-to-moment basis with all of the choices and decisions that come with it.” As I explained in a Dec. 2008 blog post

“Why is ‘rational self-interest’ the best system? Because Reality is a condition of separation. Every human being is separate from one another. No human mind can truly connect with another mind, at least in any meaningful sense of the word. And yet, strangely, the universe seems to work quite well this way – with each individual acting, well, as an individual. Think about it: The person who knows the most about you is you. The person who knows the most about your physical and emotional needs is you. The person who is most trustworthy to handle those needs, and to take care of those needs, is you. In a very real sense, the world works best when people put themselves first and foremost – and follow the path of rational self-interest.”

Let me expand on this paragraph.

First, I assert that “the universe is truly a place of separation.” Personally, I don’t think that should be controversial – at least among people who bother to think about it for more than 15 seconds. When I touch the burning stove in my kitchen, I feel pain, but nobody else does. No one else is affected. When I feel angry about losing my car keys, that anger begins and ends with yours truly. When I learn the capital of Moldova, that knowledge doesn’t automatically get downloaded into the brains of other people. To repeat: we live in a world of separation.

The controversy lies in the idea that “the universe seems to work quite well this way” – the way of separation. For the average person, it is fine to observe that human beings are “separate” –– but it’s almost scandalous to assert that “the world works best” that way – that it is a “good thing” for us to be separated – and thus, we should be comfortable putting our own needs above the needs of others. Why do I say that? Especially when later on, I write about the importance of love…

In Chapter 9, Heather Manning says, “Love is the language of God – inspiring us to craft the highest vision of ourselves, and to shape the world in that image.”

When talking about her niece, Heather says: “As I spent more time with Elizabeth, I could see how my love enriched her life – increasing her knowledge, steering her moral compass, and nurturing her happiness. Seeing my values reflected in her – and enabling her success – increased my own happiness, as well.”

Later on, Heather summarizes her philosophy in 3 words: “Reason. Faith. Love.”

If love is so powerful – and such a strong catalyst of happiness - why do I spend so much time talking about “rational self-interest?” Why do I apparently endorse a “universe of separation?” Shouldn’t we destroy that universe? Shouldn’t we strive to overcome it?

Well, first of all, let’s back up. I do not believe that “love” is the purpose of life. Rather, I believe that happiness should be the purpose of life. Love isn’t “good” for its own sake; it’s “good” because it is a driver of happiness – the happiness of the individual. The feeling of love is a feeling of self-empowerment – the feeling of “leaving the physical limits of my body to recreate a part of me inside another person’s soul.”

Since love is an “expansion” of the individual – an expression of our values, projected outward into the world – it is an inherently selfish act (or to put it more delicately, a “self-interested” act). But yes, the product of that love (the benefit of other people – whether it’s experienced by a spouse, friend, or child, or anyone) does serve the purpose of tearing down the walls of separation in life. So there is a paradox – at least seemingly. The world “works best” when “people put themselves first” but through that very action, they also benefit the lives of others. Needless to say, however, I don’t view that as a paradox. As other people before me have pointed out, “good things tend to go together.” We shouldn’t be surprised that what is "good” for me (and I mean truly “good”) is also “good” for others.

But back to our main point…happiness (not love) is the point of life…happiness is found in the feeling of self-empowerment…a feeling that is expressed through the act of creation…the God-like act of taking a paintbrush to the world and redesigning it in the colors of our own image…that feeling is a product of the mind – the rational mind – which interprets and masters the Reality of Separation, and through that understanding, discovers who we truly are, decides who we wish to be, and judges the best path to get there. If we condemn the universe of separation, bypass it completely, and focus totally on love, love, love – we miss out on the bliss of self-ownership, the joy of being the author of our own lives, and indeed, we cripple our ability to give love and receive love.

To quote Heather Manning: “There is no ‘I love you’ without 'I.' 'I' comes first."

One final note: This is a work in progress. I may need to elaborate more on these points. And I certainly welcome the feedback of other people who think I missed a piece in the chain of logic, or used the wrong piece, or perhaps I’m just hopelessly wrong period!


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