Recently I wrote a piece on self-forgetfulness. This idea came to me from reading one of Thomas Merton’s latest pieces, The Springs of Contemplation. Essentially Merton says that progress on the spiritual journey requires that we become self-forgetful. Unless and until we begin to become self-forgetful, our “self” will be front and center. Another way of putting it is to recognize that our ego will be the driver of our attention and actions. To be guided by our ego is not bad, but ultimately it is not spiritual.
To be guided by our ego is to be centered on ourselves. In a word, we will be egocentric. Again that is not bad; it is spiritually shortsighted. Unless and until we are able to put God in the center, we will make little or no spiritual progress. The Lord’s Prayer from the lips of Jesus put it very simply: “Thy will be done…” One cannot be egocentric and pray that prayer, “Thy will be done…”
That is why the idea of self-forgetfulness appealed to me. It strikes me as an important building block to the spiritual journey. In saying this I realize we cannot pull this off in one easy step. We cannot immediately decide to become self-forgetful and, voilà, it is done! It will take small steps and grow incrementally. Another point Merton made helps me see how this process can be facilitated.
Merton talks about self-justification. I know this concept all too well. I can recount too many instances where I know that I did something and then offered my own justification for doing it. Basically, self-justification is our way of saying, “Don’t blame me!” Self-justification is our way of taking ourselves off the hook. Most of us have experience in this matter.
Merton is helpful to me because he offers insight into the relationship of self-forgetfulness and self-justification. Merton rightly observes that we cannot be self-forgetting if we are self-justifying. That seems profound to me. It is the kind of thing I want to keep in the front of my mind in order to gage my spiritual development. Let’s listen to Merton’s words. He says, “You can’t forget yourself if you are constantly trying to justify your relations with other people.” (95)
At that point Merton takes a creative turn. He links the concepts of self-justification and love. Hear his words: “Self-justification is really a matter of not wanting to believe you are loved.” In effect Merton tells us that if we do not believe we are loved, then our ego---me---is all I have. If no one else loves me, then I am on my own. I have to justify myself. This seems so true to me.
Then Merton adds to his insight. He declares, “If I do not believe I am loved, I’m going to want to be justified.” This intrigues me. Merton is not saying that I am not loved; in fact, I might be loved. But if I believe that I am not loved, then I will move into self-justification. Behind this statement is the assumption that if I believe I am loved, I do not need any self-justification. This is profound. It means that love is justifying! If I am loved, I already am justified---justified by the lover.
Without love, I move into self-justification in order to assert my own being. If I do not believe I am loved, then I have to justify myself. In my own way I have to assert my being and, perhaps, my importance. Effectively, I am saying, if no one else will do it, then I have to do it myself!
Merton puts it well when he says, “If no one else justifies me, I will justify myself, usually by trying to dominate everyone else.” With these words from Merton, we can see the potential destructiveness of self-justification. Without love, I am tempted to move into some form of domination in order to prove my right and my might.
So far, this might not sound very spiritual. But I would argue that any time we are talking about love, we are implicating spirituality. In this reflection on self-justification, we point to the importance of love. Obviously, it is nice if we know there are others in our life who love us. That already takes us off the self-justifiying hook---or, at least, should take us off the hook. With other humans who love us, however, my experience is we are not taken of the hook.
Too often we are loved by others, but we don’t believe it---or don’t trust it. So we continue to perform---trying to earn that love. Or we become self-justifying---trying to prove we deserve that love.
Ultimately, there is one super solution, namely, God. My own spirituality affirms the biblical notion that there is God and that God is love. This means by definition there is a Lover of us all. There is One who loves us individually and as a whole. That may sound theoretical. The key is to actualize that Divine Love into actual experience. When that happens, we know deeply that we matter and that we are supremely important. When this happens, we have no need for self-justifying. And if I know this, forgetting myself is easy.