THE ILLUSION OF SELF-SUFFICIENCY
A number of years ago, I attended the funeral of a man who died at the age of ninety. From every indication, he had been a good man, solidly religious, the father of a large family, a man respected in the community, and a man with a generous heart. However, he had also been a strong man, a gifted man, a natural leader, someone to whom a group would naturally look to take the reins and lead. Hence, he held a number of prominent positions in the community. He was a man very much in charge.
One of his sons, a Catholic priest, gave the homily at his funeral. He began with these words: Scripture tells us that the sum of a man’s life is seventy years, eighty for those who are strong. Now our dad lived for ninety years. Why the extra twenty years? Well, it’s no mystery. He was too strong and too much in charge of things to die at seventy or eighty. It took God an extra twenty years to mellow him out. And it worked. The last ten years his life were years of massive diminishment. His wife died, and he never got over that. He had a stroke which put him into assisted living and that was a massive blow to him. Then he spent the last years of his life with others having to help him take care of his basic bodily needs. For a man like him, that was humbling.
But this was the effect of all that. It mellowed him. In those last years, whenever you visited him, he would take your hand and say, “help me”. He hadn’t been able to say those words since he was five years old and able to tie his own shoelaces. By the time he died, he was ready. When he met Jesus and Saint Peter on the other side, I’m sure he simply reached for a hand and said, “help me”. Ten and twenty years ago, he would, I’m sure, have given Jesus and Peter some advice as to how they might run the pearly gates more efficiently.
That’s a parable that speaks deeply and directly about a place we must all eventually come to, either through proactive choice or by submission to circumstance; we all must eventually come to a place where we accept that we are not self-sufficient, that we need help, that we need others, that we need community, that we need grace, that we need God.
Why is that so important? Because we are not God and we become wise and more loving when we realize and accept that. Classical Christian theologians defined God as self-sufficient being, and highlight that onlyGod is self-sufficient. God alone has no need of anything beyond Himself. Everything else, everything that is not God, is defined as contingent, as not self-sufficient, as needing something beyond itself to bring it into existence and to keep it in existence every second of its being.
That can sound like abstract theology, but ironically it’s little children who get it, who have an awareness of this. Thy know that they cannot provide for themselves and that all comes to us as gift. They know they need help. However, not long after they learn to tie our own shoelaces this awareness begins to fade and as they grow into adolescence and then adulthood, particularly if they are healthy, strong, and successful, they begin to live with the illusion of self-sufficiency. I provide for myself!
And, that in fact serves them well in terms of making their way in this world. But it doesn’t serve truth, community, love, or the soul. It’s an illusion, the greatest of all illusions. None of us will enter deeply into community as long as we nurse the illusion of self-sufficiency, when we are still saying, I don’t need others! I choose who and what I let into my life!
G.K. Chesterton once wrote that familiarity is the greatest of all illusions. He’s right, and what we are most familiar with is taking care of ourselves and believing that we are sufficient onto ourselves. As we know, this serves us well in terms of getting ahead in this life. However, fortunate for us, though painful, God and nature are always conspiring together to teach us that we are not self-sufficient. The process of maturing, aging, and eventually dying is calibrated to teach us, whether we welcome the lesson or not, that we are not in charge, that self-sufficiency is an illusion. Eventually for all of us there will come a day when, as it was with us before we could tie our own shoelaces, we will have to reach out for a hand and say, “help me”.
The philosopher Eric Mascall has an axiom that says we are neither wise nor mature as long as we take life for granted. We become wise and mature precisely when we take it as granted – by God, by others, by love.