Confessions of a She-Geek

August 10, 2013

So What’s the Point?

As can be gathered from my posts, a recurring theme in The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself is praying and service to God regardless of what you might get out of it. While Teresa never denies that God does reward and bless those who serve him, she emphasizes that this should not be the prime motivator.

I’ve been wrestling with this concept for the past several days, trying to wrap my mind around what that really means for day-to-day existence. What is the point of serving God, really? The obvious response is that we serve because serving God is pleasing to Him, and pleasing God is A Good Thing.

Then I got to thinking, but what does serving God really mean? What form does it take? Prayer and worship, yes – but also providing assistance and comfort to our fellow human beings. Yet the act of helping other people helps us feel better about ourselves and the world in general. And prayer and worship help calm and center us, contributing to our sense of well-being. So while these things are pleasing to God, it seems inevitable that we will benefit as well – whether we plan to or not. We’re blessed despite ourselves, regardless of our intentions.

Yesterday one of my brothers and I were having an e-mail conversation and somehow got on the topic of It’s a Wonderful Life. My brother hates this movie. He sees it as the story of a good man engaged in a life-long struggle to do the right thing and help other people, only to be sucked dry and beaten down in the process. There’s no retribution for the bad guy, and the good guy gets nothing but trouble for his efforts.

I can see where he’s coming from, but since It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite movies of all time, I felt compelled to mount a defense. As I composed my reply, it occurred to me that I’d never really examined my fondness for this film. In trying to articulate my thoughts to my brother, I discovered something surprising.

This film which I’ve cherished for years explores the same theme that I’ve been mulling over: serve God (which much of the time manifests as serving others), and there’s a good chance that you will reap some benefits in the process. Don’t do it for the benefits themselves, but enjoy them.

When the movie opens, we see George Bailey growing up in a small town, wanting nothing more than to get out of what he sees as a confining, stifling environment. He dreams of traveling the world, then going to college and becoming a world-famous architect. Due to events beyond George’s control, he never gets to do these things.

Instead of becoming an architect, George winds up running the savings and loan that his father started. This wasn’t what George wanted, but he did it to honor his father’s wishes. The savings and loan stays because George recognizes that it’s something the townspeople need, even though George would rather be doing something else. Understandably, George isn’t seeing much benefit to himself in all this; he has little to show for all the hard work.

But the benefits are there. They take the form of the loyalty, friendship, and love from the people around George. He doesn’t recognize these benefits, possibly because he’s too close to them, or maybe because they’re not easily seen and measured. But when George is at his darkest time, his friends and loved ones rally around him. They’ve got his back, even though George didn’t realize it. When he needed help, it was there – and likely wouldn’t have been if George hadn’t spent his life helping the people around him. George’s service was rooted in wanting to honor his father’s wishes and to help others. But ultimately the good that George did came back to him.

In thinking this through I can’t help wondering if true altruism is really possible. We seem hard-wired to feel better about ourselves when we help other people, which encourages us to give more help, which adds to the sense of well-being, and so on. It’s an upward spiral. And really, where’s the down side of this? That we feel good about ourselves and help the people around us?

It seems to me that such an arrangement would be very pleasing to God – even a form of service, by building His Kingdom on Earth. Serve God, by helping others, which makes us feel good about ourselves, which encourages us to help others more, which increases the service to God. I’m not sure it matters where in the cycle you start, because in serving others you can’t help but serve God, and in serving God and others, you can’t help but feel good about yourself.

So the initial motivation becomes a moot point, because it’s all going to happen anyway. “Do it because I said so” leads to “hey, this feels pretty good”, which leads to more doing. Oh, that’s tricky.

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