One of my favourite expressions, which Google finds to be of disputed provenance, is "Be hard on yourself, but easy on others."
Most of us naturally tend toward the opposite.
In my case, I give myself unlimited hall passes for things much worse than I condemn others for. I have done this all my life, I’m frightfully good at it, and I doubt I will ever stop.
This comes to mind because 2017 has been the worst year of my life. Four people very close to me died within a few months of each other (the last two, 10 days apart), with a fifth passing away just before Christmas 2016.
As one does at times like these, I cast about for guidance and inspiration, which brought me to the works of 18th century spiritualist Emmanuel Swedenborg.
During his later years, Swedenborg claimed to have visited the afterlife, including both Heaven and Hell, and wrote prolifically about what he saw there.
This may seem bizarre, but Swedenborg’s books are profound and detailed, with many concepts worthy of consideration, even if the entire canon were the product of delusion.
In my nascent Swedenborg study, I have found that some Christians consider him to be a heretic, even an occultist.
Whether Swedenborg offered a legitimate interpretation of Scripture or was a doctrinal arsonist and, as his contemporary John Wesley is said to have described him, "one of the most ingenious, lively, and entertaining madmen that ever set pen to paper," his prevailing message is clear.
To wit, everything we do and are, and the whole of existence, including this life and the next, is based on love.
The task for us as humans is to decide which sort of love will rule our natures: love for ourselves, or love for God and our fellow man?
In practical terms, this translates to the good things we do for others and, crucially, our reasons for doing them.
Consequently, we must judge ourselves fearlessly on what we do and why.
Personally, I do nuthin' for nobody and, the few times I actually do help my fellow man, I practically give myself a medal in my mind.
Self-interest is crafty and conniving, a master of disguise, and it adapts like a virus.
Let's say you give money to a homeless man on the street. Why are you doing it? Is it so you will be seen doing so, or even just to get him away from your car?
Are you giving to him so you yourself will experience the warm gladness of having helped someone else?
Perhaps most challenging, if you have faith in God, by giving money to that homeless man, do you believe you are increasing your chances of getting into Heaven, and adding to the treasure that awaits you there?
To the extent any of these motivations is true, you will notice what is missing: giving out of a genuine love for that other person.
Even (or especially) those last two motivations – the warm fuzzies and/or jumping the queue to Heaven – are ultimately about you.
Why, even, have I published this column? Is it (as I like to believe) because I have alighted upon something worthwhile that will benefit others?
Or is it so people will think well of me, or consider me erudite for the Dickensian reference in my bio at the bottom, and because I use words like "erudite" and "Dickensian" when I could just as easily have said "smart" and "Scrooge"?
The reason the Golden Rule is to treat others as you would like to be treated, and Christ instructs us to love others as we love ourselves (the starter kit to loving God above all things), is that this is motivation to which people can relate.
We all love ourselves first and foremost. Our assignment is to take that abiding self-love that is in the heart of every human and, so far as we are able, redirect it toward other people.
At this time of year, when crummy gifts are given (e.g., socks, fruity soaps, donations to the Human Fund), they are often ameliorated by saying, “It’s the thought that counts.”
How true that is.
Swedenborg has a particular observation pertinent to the Christmas story, which I must paraphrase (Swedenborg was Swedish and writing in Latin, so gimme a break):
The reason the wise men traveled to see the baby Jesus and laid precious gifts before him is that true wisdom bows down to the supremacy of love – in Jesus’ case, love personified.
We all like to think of ourselves as wise. I don’t know you, but you’re probably smarter than I am.
But all the wisdom in the world amounts to foolishness if it is not informed by love. Similarly, two people doing the same good deed may look identical, but the only one truly doing good is the one motivated by selfless love.
And so, my unsolicited and borrowed advice this Christmas is this: Judge yourself as thoroughly as you are able, even (and especially) when you are being easy on others.
Theo Caldwell should have made mankind his business. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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