Egocentricity is natural, normal. We’re self-concerned and self absorbed from the first moments of our birth. Birth is inherently a separation. We become separated from what was once the very source of our life and nurture. Many define sin as separation from the source of life. So, in a very real sense we are all born in this original or fundamental sin.
Before we were born, we lived in a paradise of sorts. For most of us, it was a place where all our needs were met. (Unfortunately, there are tragic exceptions to this scenario.) But we were not conscious at this point. So, we couldn’t really know the place. Nor could we possibly comprehend how different the world we’d be thrust into would be.
We necessarily enter the world concerned. For one thing, we’re helpless. And we’re utterly dependent, too. We simply can’t fend for ourselves. And we’re at the mercy of others. So, right from the beginning, we concern ourselves with survival. And we start learning some important things about the nature of our environment. For example, we get a sense of whether the world is safe or not and whether we can trust. The things we learn help shape our growth. And the more impoverished, neglectful, or traumatic our environment is, the more adversely our growth is affected.
The Task of a Lifetime
Overcoming our inherent egocentricity is the task of a lifetime. It’s a task critical to our emotional, psychological, and character growth. It’s also a key aspect of our spiritual growth. Whether we realize it our not we are all connected. We’re connected to each other, and we’re all a part of something much bigger than we can imagine. But a deep-level awareness of creation and our relationship to it eludes most of us for much of our lives. The cosmos is far too vast and complex to wrap our minds around. That’s why our spiritual disciplines evolved – to help us understand the ineffable.
The metaphysical writer and clergyman John Donne famously sought to convey this profound spiritual reality poetically:
No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know
for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.
Now, Donne’s musings are much more than a reflection on social interdependence. As a mystic, he was trying to convey an insight almost impossible to fully grasp let alone put into words. He goes to the heart of true spirituality. That’s all about coming to a deep realization of the inherent interconnection between all aspects of creation. It’s about awareness of the vast realm of the divine. And it’s about consciously reconnecting to the source.
How Things Go Awry
Our inherent egocentricity is hard to overcome and to outgrow. Too many things can arrest this aspect of our psychological and spiritual development. For example, if our earliest experience is one of deprivation, we can easily become overly focused on our needs. We can become selfish, even greedy. But the same can happen if we’re overly indulged. As a longtime therapist, I’ve witnessed many struggle with egocentricity. Some folks, it seems, simply had to focus on themselves because no one else paid them sufficient attention. Others experienced attention that was so negative, rejecting, or abusively painful that they withdrew into themselves. Still others were so used to being the very center of attention from the beginning that they became self-absorbed. In our world, it’s easy to become overly self-focused. Awakening to the larger reality of existence and the interconnection of all created things is quite the challenge for the self-centered.
The First “Commandment”
Forging sound character demands that we outgrow our innate egocentricity. This is both an emotional and psychological enterprise. But it’s also a profound spiritual undertaking. We are inherently part of something really big. And becoming aware of that is really important. But it’s just the first step. The next step is even more crucial. It’s about appreciating the interconnectedness of all. Every movement in the universe has impact. And every action any of us takes affects something else. Being of solid character requires we be mindful of that. Hence, the first commandment (in expanded form):
You are not the center of the universe. Rather, you’re a part of a greater reality more vast, complex, and wondrous than you can possibly imagine. You inhabit space with many other persons, creatures, and objects of creation. So, be mindful of how you, your urges and desires, and most especially your behavior impact everyone and everything else that exists. And conduct yourself with both caution and concern for the consequences of your very presence.
First, we have to see the big picture. Then we have to appreciate how everything belongs. Finally, we need to mindfully discern our place in the grand scheme of things. That partly involves assessing our gifts and how to best use them for the greater good. The spiritually awake assume an active partnership in the ongoing work of creation.
I’ll have more to say on this next week. And you can find more on the “commandments” in my book Character Disturbance.
On Monday, several of us will embark on a second mission to Puerto Rico. This United States possession has experienced many difficulties over the years. And a fair number of those difficulties stemmed directly from the second-class status the that commonwealth has enjoyed. Back-to-back hurricanes, one catastrophic, dealt the island, its inhabitants, and its economy a major blow. But its people refuse to have their spirits broken.
Our ongoing mission is not merely geared toward helping a ravaged place rebuild. Forward-thinkers at the grassroots level are already doing that. They are transforming things in ways inconceivable years ago. So, we go to only to assist in their efforts.
You can expect to find some interesting reflections in next week’s post. We know our experience will help teach us more about the interconnectedness of all things and the difference each of us has the potential to make in the world.