What comes first, myself or others?

The tribe comes first, before one man,
And the village, before the clan,
Forsake the village for the nation,
But, for yourself, the whole creation.
-Narayana

What is the meaning of this riddle? The first three lines constitute a heirarchy with the nation at the top, followed by the city, the family, and finally, at the lowest position, the individual. The fourth line then flips this heirarchy upside down (or makes it cyclical) by placing you at the top. But not only that, your own existence is to be valued more than the entire universe.

I love this riddle because it captures the truth of both objectivity and subjectivity. On the one hand, relative to the group the individual is insignificant. I might be a great asset to my organization, but it would be megalomania for me to think the group wouldn’t succeed without me. Likewise, if I go on a family vacation and am in a bad mood, oozing anger and self-pity, it’s not the family’s duty to make me feel better, but my duty to harmonize with the family.

On the other hand, my being is all that I have. If I cease to exist, the universe ceases to exist (for me). No matter what the group demands of me, no matter how important its imperative is compared to mine, what matters to me is my own well-being, growth, and survival. This becomes most clear when I am sick. I stop answering phone calls, keeping appointments, and doing things for others by necessity. If I do not, I become more sick (and even less able to fulfill my duties).

I think it would be wrong to interpret this riddle as saying at the end of the day the individual is the most important thing. The heirarchy isn’t inverted, it’s transformed into a circle. The point is that it’s relative: the individual is both the least and most important, depending on your perspective. None of us are the center of the universe (the world doesn’t revolve around me). At the same time each of us are- from our own perspective- the center of the universe (the world does revolve around me). But it also revolves around you, and him, and her, and it, etc.

There’s not a single center to the universe, but many.

How can we practice this knowledge? The Buddhists call it ‘being alone in order to connect’, or ‘practicing solitude with and for others’. This seems like a paradox, and probably is, but not impossible to resolve.

I think there are two benefits of solitude that we need daily. One is physical. Being alone allows my nervous system to relax. For as long as I’m alone, I’m not worried about appearing to others as a sane and compassionate person (I am, I think, but it’s the APPEARING sane and compassionate that’s really exhausting). This is most easy to notice by observing your face when you’re alone. 95% of any social interaction is spent mirroring the face of other people. When you’re alone, you can let your jaw go slack and your face go neutral. You quit smiling, and ideally, quit clenching your jaw. In a social setting, this would make you look like a bored yokel or worse. But it’s really relaxing and resorative! The other benefit is pyschological, and here I’m going to be auto-biographical, assuming you’ve experienced something similar.

I grew up with an ethical imperative to be nice to other people. While this imbued in me good habits, it’s not good “pure and simple”. That’s because often the reason I was being nice to somebody was because I was afraid- afraid of not being liked, afraid of getting in trouble for bad behavior, afraid of disappointing or making God angry, afraid of being alone if people saw how I really felt.

Part of my growth has involved a rejection of “being nice” because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the wrong thing to do if it’s motivated by guilt or a sense of duty, and not an honest expression of love.

Part of my continuing growth has been to reintroduce kindness with the knowledge that it needs to come from an authentic place. Enter: solitude. I need solitude so that I am not overwhelmed by other people, so that I have a chance to crawl inside myself and see what’s there. When I do that for myself- it usually only takes an hour or two- I can then rejoin my fellows with a good attitude. I can be kind because I welcome, rather than resent, their presence.

I still haven’t made a strong case for helping others. Maybe some of you could help, by commenting below. I know most of my readers volunteer in some shape or form. At the very least, I can say the following: that giving yourself to other people frees you from your own worries, that being concerned with the welfare of others makes you less concerned with satisfying your own pleasure- which itself is an ephemeral type of joy, that working with others feeds the spirit in a way a self-seeking society would rather have us not believe possible, and that why not, I mean, we’re all visitors on this planet farting around until we die, we might as well do something other than ensure our survival- hold that thought, my stomache is growling.

  1. #1 by Workplace Wonders: "Work and Life Inquiries." on April 21, 2013 - 11:21 pm

    Good one. I really like ” that giving yourself to other people frees you from your own worries, that being concerned with the welfare of others makes you less concerned with satisfying your own pleasure- which itself is an ephemeral type of joy, that working with others feeds the spirit in a way a self-seeking society would rather have us not believe possible.”

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