Modern saints and scoundrels

If there is any sentence in the world a person can utter these days to prove they are thoroughly modern and enlightened it is “be true to yourself”.

It’s the sort of thing that we say to our children as we teach them how to navigate the tricky waters of life. It’s the kind of thing that ends up in news articles about people who escaped old lives they didn’t like. It’s the particular sentiment that gets drizzled through novels and movies as a means of adding a touch of philosophy.

We’ve even invented an icon for the idea, known as the “selfie”. It involves people taking photographs of themselves, instead of the scenery or others like we used to. The idea, of course, is that the thing which matters most in life is ourselves.

Indeed, it’s rather difficult to see how we haven’t turned it all into a bit of a religion, and made the chief commandment of our age “love Thyself”.

So deep does our faith run that the very thought of breaking that commandment makes us feel queasy, as if something quite evil were being suggested. We can hardly conceive of looking lovingly at our children when they come to us to talk about the difficulties of deciding anything in life, and uttering “whatever you do, just make sure you are true to everyone else, dear.”

And we would have a strong sense of cynicism about the woman who advised her best friend to be true to her fiancé and stop thinking so much of herself.

Such sentences are blasphemous, and our souls recoil at the very thought of them.

Which is a bit of a shame, really.

Because from what I can tell the more a person loves themselves, the less lovable they are.

After all, the people who are the very best at loving themselves, who do exactly as they please without a shred of empathy or love, thinking only of their own ends, desires and pleasures, are the people we call narcissists. And we all know that they are the least pleasant people to be around. In fact, they are downright scoundrels.

And that brings us to the modern saints. All of them, from what I can see, are loved and admired because they were martyrs as far as loving themselves went.

Think of Nelson Mandela, for example. He wasn’t famous for being true to himself in the slightest. Nor, for that matter was Mother Teresa. Mohandas Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. also agreed that the commandment would have to be broken for anything to really work.

Instead, all of these people chose the sacrilegious alternative; they chose to be true to other people. So true, in fact, that they were willing to sacrifice themselves.

The results of this irreligion are plain for all to see. Other people’s lives were changed for the better, the laws that governed their lands were altered, and history was taken by the hand and led down another path.

I’m yet to see how scoundrels make society a better place for us all.

And that is why I think we need to throw off the shackles of our religion and smash the great commandment of our age. There are better things to love, and better thing to be true to, than only ourselves. There are other people, for instance. There are our husbands or wives, our children or parents, our bosses or employees to whom we could also be true, honest and fair.

It’s not very modern or enlightened to say “love thy neighbour”, I know. But the truth is we’re not really worth loving until we love someone else first.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

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