Reason Taught Me Selflessness

By Joe E. Holman

I distinctly remember looking at my cell phone. It was 3:04 PM on a Monday afternoon. I was at Walmart, picking up some groceries - some groceries I had to come back to get since I had forgotten them an hour and a half earlier! It was a busy day. I remember sweating and rushing around. I was tired and decided I would grab a quick bite to eat at the MacDonalds store inside before getting in the check-out line. I thought to myself, “Finally, a chance to sit down and just vegetate for about 30 minutes and enjoy a nice cold, double-chocolate milkshake with a Big Mac and super-sized fries!” The thankfully short line at the counter I had to wait in wasn’t that bad. All I wanted was to sit down and rest. My legs were aching, but it wasn’t long until I had my food and was seated comfortably. It was just too good to be true that day. Not a moment after I sat down, I was jolted out of my relaxation by what I saw...

A quaint-looking middle-aged mother with her paraplegic son approached my area of the dining room. Of the relatively few people in the restaurant, not a one of us could look in that direction without shooting off a tiny smile of pity (you know, the kind that severely handicapped people always get, but don’t want?). She wheeled him towards my table and ended up sitting at one of the wheelchair-accessible tables just across from me. I couldn’t help but notice this hideously ugly boy. He was wearing a dirty, light blue, long-sleeved shirt with the whitest albino skin I’d seen in recent memory. His arms were flailing, twisted, and deformed, drawing attention to the rest of his gaunt, crippled body. He couldn’t have been older than 10 or 12. The bones in his pale face were pointed and unnatural looking. His tongue would hang out and his vacant eyes would stare straight ahead and upwards as his misshapen head wobbled repeatedly up and down. He couldn’t keep still. He would squirm so much, he shook those tremendous bags of medical equipment attached to the wheelchair. His mother was feeding him. The patience of that woman was remarkable as she kept on assisting him while massive chunks of food fell out of his mouth, dirtying his stained shirt and the floor all around him.

Now my mind is on my busy day, and when I am trying to complete a task, I am as single-minded and inflexible about it as they come. I don’t want to be bothered. I don’t want to have my down time interrupted. I can’t stand the nasty sight of this boy. I would not have been able to eat had I not positioned my chair to look away from him. The restaurant was small. There was no where else I could sit to avoid seeing or hearing him. But I was hungry, hadn’t eaten all day. I was angry and disturbed, thinking about all the chores I had left to get done by the evening. Then, just when I thought I was going to drop my mind into the proper channel to actually enjoy a bite of the lucious grease burger that sat in front me, it really began, [COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH...etc.] That damn kid was disrupting my meal! The scene became so bad, I pondered just leaving, but remembered I still needed to check out. Oh well, maybe it’ll pass [COUGH, COUGH, etc.]. I was trying to look away, but was compelled to look back at him: spit-up, exactly the color of my milkshake, all over him and his table! I wasn’t going to be able to finish my meal now, I just knew it! Nothing had gone right this day and here I was being deprived of one of my few pleasures in life - eating! When this happened another four or five times, I wasn’t even hungry anymore! I was angry, damn angry! I couldn’t take my mind off his slobbering all over the place! [COUGH, COUGH, etc.] It continued, made me cringe inside! Every time I would try and look away, this palsied pretzel of a handicapped kid would recapture my attention by spilling more soda, regurgitate French fries, and twist and turn with an open mouth full of food. The twitchy movements and spastic tendencies increased, as did those distasteful moans of disability that sounded like a sick, dying cow [MOOOOAN, MOOANNN, MOOOANN, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, SQUIRM, SQUIRM, SQUIRM, SQUIRM, SQUIRM, COUGH, COUGH, REGURGITATE, REGURGITATE, REGURGITATE, etc.] By this time, mom had partially chewed food all over her, but you could tell she was used to it. [MOOOAN, MOOOAN, COUGH, COUGH, etc.]The tension was building and my heart started beating faster. I couldn’t believe causality had selected this particular event to happen here and now. The moans got louder. I started to think of ways to wrap up my food and just carry it around with me till I got home, but in the process, I almost spilled my drink because I couldn’t concentrate due to this pitiable specimen of humanity! I so badly wanted to tell the lady to get that damn kid out of there! Why did it have to be happening when I was eating? Why? Why? [COUGH, COUGH, MOOAN, MOOAN, SQUIRM, SQUIRM, REGURGITATE, REGURGITATE, etc.]. The spark was ignited...

“GOD D**NIT, GET THAT F**KING FREAKAZOID KID OUT OF HERE, LADY! HOW COULD YOU BRING THAT MONSTROSITY IN PUBLIC, B**CH! I’M TRYING TO EAT! GET HIM OUT THE F**K OUT, NOWWWWW!!!!”

No...I didn’t actually say those words, but I had to exercise a feat of self-control like few times in my life to keep from saying them! Then I began to cool down...my reason took hold of me, and after a brief mental pause, I began to perspectivize. When I did, it was as though I slapped myself in the face for being a compassionless, selfish prick.

Here was this poor kid, this horrendous mistake of nature, sitting in a wheelchair, absolutely helpless to his circumstances, having to live in a world of shame and misery, and all I could think about is my blasted milkshake!! Here is a pitiable little being, confined to a life of round-the-clock care and all I can focus on is getting to the check out line quickly and scarfing down grub I can come back and get anytime I want!

This deprepid kid! He’ll never know the touch of a beautiful woman, nor the joy of sex. He’ll never know the independence of choosing and buying a house or a shiny new car. He’ll never know what it is like to run down to the local 7-11 corner store and grab a Big Gulp after a hard workout. He won’t even know the carefree fun of getting drunk with his buddies at a late night party. He should never have been subjected to this life. Someone, some people, should have known better and not let it come to this, but that wasn’t his decision to make. A mistake was made, and he was that mistake...a living, breathing mistake.

But not me. My faculties work fine, physically and mentally. Through and through, I’m a normal guy. I’m no Brad Pitt by any means, but when I go out in public, I never have to worry about being pitied as a freak of nature. I will never have to face the sort of mockery he faces. No sir ‘ee! I can go to the store and do whatever my precious self desires to do when I am good and ready!

But damned if I didn’t come within an inch of losing my head and saying something to that poor mother I would have forever regretted.

Here is this unfortunate woman, waiting night and day on this invalid. Her patience could be seen in her eyes. But I wasn’t thinking about either of them, nor the pain and the difficulties they must face everyday. I was only thinking about me and my precious, ordinary life. I was being selfish, totally selfish.

On their way out, this woman glanced at me, and I have a feeling as perceptive as she seemed to be, she might have been noticing how perturbed people were at her for subjecting them to her son. She glanced at me just for a second as she was about to head out the door, and as she did, I smiled at her to let her know that it was OK with me. I’m sure glad I had that chance.

Better late than never, I became unselfish. I became unselfish not by religion, not by Christianity, not by Islam, not by the principles of Tibetan Buddhism, not by the prevalent influence of so-called “Judeo-Christian Values”, and not by self-help books promoted by that crying-crew homefront known as The Oprah Winfry Show, but by the most valuable thing instilled in us all - reason. No deity was shaking his finger at me, telling me to become unselfish when I put myself in her place and made way for my anger to subside. I became selfless when the reason in me combined with my humanity, and when I remembered that old, cherished saying, “Tears are our common lot.”

(JH)

9 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

Reason has helped me a number of times to be selfless and to restrain anger. Let me give a simpler everyday example. I almost never honk my car horn in anger. I use it mainly to say "Hi" to someone, to notify someone I'm there, or to nudge someone to go when he sits while the red light turns green. But anger, road rage, is for the ingorant. It's like Internet rage, too. Angry people will treat anonymous people disrespectfully. The anger comes out because because of circumstances unrelated to the vehicle incidents themselves. But to take my anger, if I have it, out on someone else for something is quite plainly ignorant.

Road rage says that I don't understand why someone made a mistake on the road. I've made many mistakes, so I cut people some slack simply because I know no one is a perfect driver. It says I don't understand why someone entered the road in front of me and made me slow down. Maybe, that was their best chance and they were waiting too long as it was? Maybe they are in a big hurry for something very important?

Road anger cuts no one any slack. It says I'm above making mistakes. Well, reason tells me I'm not. Reason tells me everyone is doing the best they can, even if they infringe on my progress. (Drunken drivers who kill are another story, of course).

I'm just smarter than that. And I don't need the whispers of God to do this, either. Reason keeps me from losing my head. It keeps my head cool. Just last night some guy in the bar said I'm always smiling. Well, for the most part if I'm unhappy, it's mainly my own fault.

He should never have been subjected to this life. Someone, some people, should have known better and not let it come to this, but that wasn’t his decision to make. A mistake was made, and he was that mistake...a living, breathing mistake.

Joe, didn't you know that this was Adam's fault? God is never to be blamed for anything. Rather than question the existence of a loving, caring father-creator God because of human suffering, Christians prefer to exonerate God from all blame. Why? Because they believe more strongly that their God exists than they do that God could do anything about the amount of human suffering in the world. However, I could probably think of thousands of things God could do to alleviate the suffering in the world--things which would be good for us (not bad) and which would draw more people to him. What I can't understand is why Christians want to accept this suffering at the hands of a triune personal all-knowing all-powerful creator God, who has existed for all eternity as a fully formed being who alwyas and forever existed like this with no incremental growth and will always and forever exist like this without any incremental loss. It's just simpler to give up this belief in God as making no sense. Not only can his existence not be sufficiemtly explained, but neither can human suffering be sufficiently explained if he does exist.

Andrew Hay said...

Interesting blog, good to read. But, what would be the benefit in life, especially after hating the mentally challenged child, and the situation in which you found yourself, to be unselfish? It is far more easy to be "unselfish" when you reason yourself to it...but in actuality, is't reason and attaining certain goals by your own self-will selfish in itself? Just a thought. Also, why be unselfish if there is no point nor any "reason" to be? To whose benefit is it? The mentally challenged boy certainly did not see these actions or benefits from your becoming unselfish. Anyway, good thought provoking stuff, though I would not be in the same category as you, seeing that I believe in Jesus Christ and his unselfish sacrifice.

However, have a good day.

relievedebtor said...

As one of those foolish Christians, of course I find this site painful to read. But because I am guilty (as many Christians are) of insulating myself from non-Christians, I think it is good for me to see what else is out there, to remind myself of what many in our culture think about God, or Jesus Christ. So thanks for indulging me, and I hope to be as respectful towards your site.

I have lots of questions, but primarily, I was curious as to how you knew definitively that your reason led you to be selfless? Can you reasonably disprove that this was not something of a spiritual nature, or do you have something definitive that proves your reason, and your reason alone, brought about your selfless smile/lack of complaining?

I say this because many Christians understand God to be at work in the world in ways that respect us as free-thinking people. (Some Christians don't, mainly the ones who insist on putting God in a box.) Out of this respect, God nudges, pushes and prods, but rarely yells, screams or hammers. Because Christians feel that God has not left us to our own devices, our charity towards others, whether we acknowledge it or now, could very well be the work of God within us. This, of course, cannot be proven, but I would submit neither can the "reason made me do it" argument.

Finally, while you observe that the boy is "hideously ugly", it is worth mentioning that Christ would never see the boy that way. The New Testament speaks over and over of the compassion Jesus had on those who are what we might call disabled. What is that worth? I know you are defining the boy by the world's standard's of beauty, something Christians and non-Christians alike can mourn. But Christianity has wonderfully rich teachings towards accepting people that are different, and does not in any way ignore suffering. Who could say that Jesus did not suffer? Thank you for your consideration.

Joe E. Holman said...

Hello Andrew,

I do not normally answer blog comments. I don't have the time to read them that often. But I felt compelled to respond to your thoughtful and logical comments here.

I never hated the mentally challenged child, but as can be seen in all humans at times, we think only about ourselves when we are not pre-disposed to think of others. I feel very sorry for the child. That should be obvious, but the fact remains he was a defective human unit, one that your "creator" is to be blamed for making (See Exodus 4:11).

You asked, "but in actuality, isn't reason and attaining certain goals by your own self-will selfish in itself? Just a thought." Yes, it is selfish. Even you are selfish in this respect. We all think of ourselves first and then others. You think of saving YOUR soul to get YOUR reward in heaven. That is selfish. Humanity and the forces that made it (surival of the fittest) are selfish processes, but a certain amount of this is necessary for life.

Then you said, "Also, why be unselfish if there is no point nor any "reason" to be? To whose benefit is it? The mentally challenged boy certainly did not see these actions or benefits from your becoming unselfish." But there was a reason for me to be unselfish, my humanity could not allow me to hurt that woman. She (the mother) knew, she understood the pain, as did I. I could have overridden my compassion and said what I wanted to say, but that would cause pain, which would affect me. I don't want a fellow member of my species to suffer needlessly, so there is motivation to be unselfish.

Finally, you said, "Anyway, good thought provoking stuff, though I would not be in the same category as you, seeing that I believe in Jesus Christ and his unselfish sacrifice." Friend, your logic is good at times, but incomplete. Do you not realize that contending that atheism means needless selflessness and then saying God was unselfish in the sacrifice of his son only begs the question of why God (an atheist himself) would have motivation to be unselfish? Your God is an atheist, like it or not. He doesn't worship, pray to, or believe in anyone higher than himself, just like me and my fellow bloggers here, so what motivation would he have to be selfless? He could do what he wants and we wouldn't know the difference. And besides, how is a god selfless??? Can't be. He makes all the rules and nothing can happen outside of his will and knowledge. Gods have always been about their own will. They cannot be selfless because they cannot be deprived of anything anyway. Your logic here is strained. God allowed the sin problem to come about, and in that sense, he condoned it. By sending a sacrifice to redeem man, your god is simply showing us that he essentially allowed a problem to be created earlier to be solved later and then decided to claim the glory for it. Please think about the basis upon which your God's "unselfishness" is built.

(JH)

Steve said...

I’ve been following this blog for some time now and although I’m ‘not within a stone’s throw’ of the philosophical capabilities of those who haunt, I find that most of the Team Member’s arguments establish the idea of God from a materialist point of view. That is, He has to follow time, and the natural laws we are limited to. If indeed there is a God then He is not confined to anything. I know this is a position that you have heard before, but how can you determine any of God’s motives if you don’t know what will happen tomorrow, let alone the next millennium?

JH “And besides, how is a god selfless??? Can't be. He makes all the rules and nothing can happen outside of his will and knowledge. Gods have always been about their own will. They cannot be selfless because they cannot be deprived of anything anyway.”

If God doesn’t need anything than He is the only being that can be selfless. How can He be selfish if He cannot better His position? How can you know what His will is, and how it plays out till the end of time? How do you know that anything He “does” or “doesn’t” is not somehow somewhere beneficial?

JH “God allowed the sin problem to come about, and in that sense, he condoned it.”

God allowed the sin by his selfless determination to allow free will. I’m sure it was extremely disturbing to Him then, and continues to be now.

Whether or not God exists has been and always will be a matter of perspective. Believers and unbelievers see the world through separate filters. Politics/issues are much the same thing also.

All in all I like the blog and I hope to continue to learn as I read, and sometimes struggle to comprehend the context of the conversations.

rebecca page said...

Consider this paradigm shift: WE ARE NOT HUMAN BEINGS HAVING A SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE, WE ARE SPIRITUAL BEINGS HAVING A HUMAN EXPERIENCE.

Consider this: I have long-lasting, powerful orgasms in my dreams without any physical stimulation. I usually wake while in the midst of them. That boy is also capable of such sexual experiences - perhaps superior sexual experiences to those of a reasonable man in NEED of the touch of a beautiful woman.

Perhaps: That living-breathing mistake of a boy was purposefully spitting out that food-impersonating-crap your resonable self considered to be such a treat.

Perhaps: That mother considers her son to be the greatest gift God ever gave her. She does not consider herself unfortunate nor does she consider it a burden to care for her son.

Perhaps: We were created to serve others.

I've only read this one blog entry of yours, but I am curious to know: 1. how old are you? 2. what life-experiences have shaped your spirituality (not books that you've read or theology you've pondered), but what have you done thus far in your life? 3. are you generally happy to be alive? 4. why is reason the most valuable thing instilled in us all? 5. do you think most people would have similar thoughts to yours in such a situation?

Bruce said...

3. are you generally happy to be alive?

Just a nit-pick and completely off topic, but why does it always seem that this question ultimately gets asked of atheists? I'm assuming the assumption is that atheists can't be as happy as theists. Quite contraire. Almost all of the atheists I have known (including myself) have been extremely happy people. Besides, we don't have some imaginary father figure breathing over our shoulder every moment of the day, so we have much more freedom in what we choose to do. And we get to use our intellects to make decisions for ourselves, which is much more liberating than resorting to some book.

4. why is reason the most valuable thing instilled in us all?

Without reason, we would never be able to make sense of our environment. Thus we would never be able to make predictions about what will happen or make decisions about what to do. Every action you take would be a flip of a coin. If you think you would enjoy living in such a world, I suggest you pay a visit to your local psych ward for a few days.

Andrew Hay said...

JH-

Thank you for your response, it was good to read your words. In a couple of ways I can see where you are coming from, I respect it, but I do not agree. First, you said, "I don't want a fellow member of my species to suffer needlessly, so there is motivation to be unselfish." The very motivation to be selfless is of no significance if there is no reason for it. Again, to what end is there and to what benefit (beyond your own self-benefit) is there for anyone else? If I did not believe that there is a loving God, who sacrificed on my behalf, then what is the point of being selfless? I agree, it is hard to see a person suffer, whether it be physically or mentally, but to sit back and desire to be selfless, just for the fact, is not the goal at all. On the contrary, the very fact of suffering is, in the very deepest part, the very reason why Christ came, lived, died, and rose for our sufferings so that we need not. There was no sitting back and seeing us spill our "food" all over ourselves in a vain attempt to live. He stepped out, without hesitation, sold all He had so that we might be redeemed with this, so called "atheistic" God, who loves us deeply. "For He bore our sins in His body on the cross...for by His wounds we are healed." You might say, "what of the child that was in such agony, or appeared so gastly in public." My reply would be that I believe the Lord loves Him as anyother and will give Him healing to his body and an eternal place. Just because an outward appearance and struggle may be uncomfortable to us, does not mean that there are far more dangerous and painful events reeling in our own hearts and minds.

So if we sit back and say, it is easy to reason myself to being selfless, and then I can go write and tell everyone about how selfless I am because I sat accross from a mentally challenged child, then we are not selfless. We just want to look better, feel better, look right, and be in control. I believe we can become selfless in many respects, but that can only come from an outside agent, One who was selfless to the end...that certainly isn't me! I know that help has to come from beyond our own reasoning skills because the best thing that reason can possibly do is "puff" somebody up with information for the temporary. The only lasting, eternal change is found in Jesus Christ. Do you know how I know this? Because it happened to me when i recieved the Holy Spirit.
"so what motivation would he have to be selfless?" Why, because I believe that God is very jealous about anything that is contrary to being with Him. I believe He loves us with a just and right love and that He eagerly calls and beckons to us, though He does not poke and force. I think that no matter how far off the path we reside (and I have been far off it) that He always calls, in a very practical way. But, I think that if you are applying "unselfishness" to God, I think you must look at the example of Christ who is the exact representation of the Father (whether you are a believer or not). "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Sorry that was long, but I believe that we can talk all we want about selflessness, and reasoning our way to something good, but in the end there is no righteousness apart from Christ. And nothing can be added nor taken away from His work, which gives us satisfaction and belonging, and identity.
Anyway, I did not mean to attack you. I just wanted to let you know where I am coming from. And I think you are a former minister and have heard these things, but I just wanted to let you know that I enjoy reading your posts and such. Have a great day and I'm (earnestly and happily) praying for you.

Andrew

Bruce said...

The very motivation to be selfless is of no significance if there is no reason for it. Again, to what end is there and to what benefit (beyond your own self-benefit) is there for anyone else?

Evolutionaryily speaking, selflessness and altruism play a vital role in the survival of the species. Most people realize that helping others also helps themselves and society as a whole, which makes the world a better place for everyone.

If I did not believe that there is a loving God, who sacrificed on my behalf, then what is the point of being selfless?

If you can't see the value in selflessness for its own benefit, not only to yourself but to everyone, then I worry about your moral character. If you need to believe in a god to force yourself to be selfless, then please, for the sake of humanity, keep believing. I find it ironic however that while Christians continue to insist that atheists are somehow morally deficient, it is the atheist who can see the value of such things for their own worth without having to be coerced.