Selfless? No Such Thing.

It was dark and the Ninth Ward smelled like mold. I wanted to leave and get some pizza while talking to a friend who works for the Hunger Foundation. We grappled, hemmed, hawed, and never came to a conclusion to this question: do we ever do anything truly selfless? I think I inched closer to an answer today. David brought me downtown to a Russian rite Catholic mass. Under the glare of a gold mosaic and ceilings like scooped out vanilla ice cream, the hour and a half passed quickly, peacefully. Even though I almost slipped walking down the aisle, didn’t know when to stand up, sing, respond, kiss the cross, kiss the man behind me, where to put the crutches, how long to sing the first syllable of the word Amen, which way to do the Russian sign of the cross, or what to do with the extra wine and bread handed out like a snack after communion, the duration felt much more personal and moving than the anonymity I usually settle into during church. Not to mention, there was a feast of baked goods afterwards and better conversation than I had during most of this weekend.

At the Russian mass, each person says their name before receiving the Eucharist, and then the priest says their name and a blessing over them. Each person. I tried to catch each name being whispered a few feet in front of me, and then I started picturing that the priest was picking each person up like a little tile and laying them over the wall mosaic. Then, a woman took her kids’ hands and danced with them during a song about Bethlehem. At one point, her little boy, who looked like my mind’s version of the cherubs referenced in the songs, came tearing across the twenty feet of ample running space in the front of the church, and ran right over my foot. I giggled, and asked David for fake forgiveness. The incense, the sounds, the smallness…it was like a long poem. One that I didn’t totally understand, but maybe all the better.

Of particular note: during the homily, the priest, who is married (not sure how this works, but I think it’s like being grandfathered in or something), said that we only entirely make truth out of experiences when we relate them to ourselves. So when we experience something without processing it internally, we are actually missing out on most of the experience. As I understood him, doing things for charity so we feel like we are doing something is centripetal, not selfish. All that we do should be a reflection of ourselves and reflected within ourselves or we haven’t done it with full integrity.

The priest’s point was a validation of the remarks of an education professor Kate once told me about. A student asked the professor, “Even when we do things for others, aren’t we actually doing them to feel better about ourselves?” The professor responded that this is true—that things like volunteering and serving aren’t "selfless" because we volunteer to fulfill a personal need to make a meaningful difference not just in some stranger’s life, but also in our own. She then provided a clever metaphor for the way self and others coalesce:

Picture drawing a circle around yourself on the ground. Everything you know about yourself is within that circle. But you know things about yourself based on the people who have come into that circle. So working with others is a way of expanding your circle to include others, expanding your circle so that you aren’t just you, on your lonesome, but a bursting product of all those people who have in some way become your definition of yourself.

I love this idea because it's practical rather than idealistic, and it addresses the fact that every act we perform has a little piece of us and a little piece of a lot of other people hidden within it. So maybe we can't be selfless. And maybe we shouldn't be.