In a sermon recently, I spoke about different ways we may understand ourselves as a person. The smallest definition of self is made up purely of ego. This definition is essentially self-centeredness, seeing oneself as a separate, individualistic entity. That’s the kind of self that is encouraged by our consumer culture, which sets us against each other to compete with each other and compare ourselves with each other with regard to our material possessions, our careers, our success, our appearance, and our status. This consumer ethic of chasing after personal advantage creates a small definition of self.
But the concept of a separate self, a discrete entity separate from other people and the world, is only one way of viewing the self. There is a larger and deeper sense of self when we realize our widening circles of belonging. When we are young, we typically feel independent and free to follow our own desires, but we can also feel very alone and lacking in a meaningful sense of purpose. Getting married enlarges our sense of self to include the desires, feelings, and aspirations of a life partner. Having children enlarges our sense of self to include a family, the next generation, and a future that will outlive us. Having friends enlarges our sense of self to include the joys and disappointments of others who are similar to but also different from us. Working with colleagues at the office enlarges our sense of self to include a shared goal. Getting involved in our community and feeling patriotic, especially during wartime, enlarges our sense of self to include a national identity.
It’s hard to find much good to say about this pandemic that is isolating us from each other, disrupting our plans and routines, and shutting down our economy. But one silver lining I see in this cloud is that it is enlarging our sense of self. We are seeing more clearly as a nation than we have probably seen since the Second World War that we are all in this together, that you and I together are vulnerable to this virus, and that you and I together can “flatten the curve” by making sacrifices together. Just when it seemed we could not be more politically polarized into rival tribes, this virus has brought us together in a national unity of vulnerability and sacrifice for the well-being of the country.
Yes, this pandemic and the resulting shutdown is a pain in the neck. But whenever I’m out walking and see neighbors cross the street to practice “social distancing,” whenever I see fellow grocery shoppers wearing their masks and gloves, too, whenever I speak to a camera in our sanctuary on Sunday morning instead of a room full of church members, and whenever I see and talk with you on a Zoom screen instead of meeting in person, it warms my heart to know that we are all making sacrifices, big and small, for the safety of each other and ourselves. And I am reminded that this is what caring people do when they live in a caring community.