A student comes to me visibly hurt. She explains the unrest she has been experiencing over the past few weeks. For her, the pain is a symptom of her “selfishness” which acts as an abrasive agent to the wound. You see, the young student is striving to saturate every dimension of her life with the Gospel, including relationships. She recognizes in the core of her being that genuine relationships must exclude “using” the other for one’s own pleasure. In “using” someone, one treats the other like a consumer product which goes against the dignity of every person. We all experience free-will which is part of our human nature. When someone treats another person merely as a means to an end, the person using the other denies the other person’s freedom by “enslaving” him or her to their desires! Human experience ratifies this claim over and over through the experience of shame that arises when a person is the recipient of objectification. We are never meant to be merely a satisfaction to someone else’s pleasures; we are so much more than this!
It may seem good to conclude that this particular student has a mature grasp of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how it ought to influence relationships. If that is true, why the unsettled soul and visibly manifested hurt? She has correctly turned away from the hedonistic lifestyle, so we must look at exactly what she has turned toward to understand the source of her pain.
I was most interested in her self-evaluation of being “selfish.” When I asked her to comment on her feelings she responded she was having a difficult time disregarding her own needs/wants for the sake of “the good of the other.” When I asked her to give an example, she immediately spoke about a particular friend who was constantly “needing help” but that this friend would never be there for her in times of need. Instead of talking to her friend about this, she simply suppressed the “negative feelings” calling them selfish and sinful since a Christian “ought to give without asking for return.” It was at this moment that I discovered the source of her pain. The source of pain was not due to the Gospel being lived out in her life, but rather from living a distorted view of the Gospel commonly referred to as radical altruism.
Radical altruism is a belief that one ought to deny one’s own values and pleasures for the sake of the good of the other. While this sounds Christian at first glance, it is as deadly of a belief as hedonism. All one needs to do is look to Peter Singer, an “ethicist” at Princeton University, to recognize this danger. For Mr. Singer, the idea that an individual would push his or her own personal value systems and beliefs on to a suffering person is outlandish. For Singer, the solution is simple: sometimes you should kill the suffering person and end their misery and don’t worry about what you think about it.
While Peter Singer may be an extreme example of radical altruism, it is an example nonetheless and it illustrates the pitfalls of such a belief. Thankfully the young student had not taken her radical altruism that far. Rather, the source of her pain came from allowing herself to be used by others. The irony of it all was that she established relationships with others that expressed the very thing she denied: that no person may be an object of use … except for herself apparently!
If hedonism and radical altruism both lead to the same grave end (a person being used), then is there any alternative? The answer is yes! The wisdom of the Church has maintained a philosophy that has given birth to the most passionate people in the world and the most giving people in the world. We typically call these people saints. They neither live a life of hedonism nor feel compelled to suppress the desires of their heart for the sake of the good of the other.
The late John Paul II has given this philosophy of life a name: The Personalistic Norm. In short, this norm speaks of the need for each relationship to subordinate the value of ones own pleasures to the value of the person you are in relationship with. John Paul is adamant to note that this does not mean to eradicate ones own pleasure, but to subordinate them. In other words, while the value of pleasure is real and good, those pleasure should not exceed (in value) the value of the actual person in front of you. Once that happens, the relationship risks turning into a relationship of utility (or mutual utility).
This is precisely what Christ speaks of when He speaks of the life He is about to offer for the sins of world. He does not offer His life merely for the good of the world, but rather He offers his life to the world feely and in accordance with the desires of His own heart (cf. Jn 10.17-18). How often do we ignore our own desires for the “sake of the good of the other” or how many times do we listen to our own desires over that of the needs of the others? Both experiences are twisted and in need of redemption.
How often do we, like the student I spoke with, give to the point where we are on the verge of breaking? This is a sign of a life lived in radical altruism. How often do we consume to the point that we feel like we no longer have control over our own life? This is a sign of a life lived in hedonism. Ideally we are called to seek the good of the other in such a way that it is always in accordance with the desires of our own heart. Such an integrated life is rarely perfectly expressed but we must always strive to at least appreciate the value of the person more so than our own pleasures. Only through a life submitted to Christ and His Holy Church will we be able to experience the life we were created to live; a life that perfectly integrates our passions and our love and respect for every person we meet. May God be Praised!