Living unselfishly

Burris Hall, Virginia Tech

Burris Hall, Virginia Tech

FEBRUARY 2008. It was Saturday morning on the campus of Virginia Tech, an overcast 35 degrees with a chilling wind blowing across the drill field toward Burris Hall. Less than a year earlier, the field was the scene of a tribute by thousands of Hokie students, faculty and administrators as they remembered their 32 friends who, a few days earlier, had been killed by a gunman, one of their own, in the most tragic college shooting ever.

But this Saturday the drill field was empty. A colleague and I parked our Ford Explorer nearby, several blocks from the place where we’d soon be speaking to engineering students but only a few feet from the semi-circular memorial honoring VT’s slain students and faculty.

As we walked down the gently sloping path to the memorial, I couldn’t help but reflect on how honorably the 32 Hokie Stones, as they’re called, marked the lives of such diverse people. And, if there’s a blessing in the tragedy, it may be that Hokie students and alums are more steadfast in their love for their school and what it stands for—a place to “invent the future” as they call it.

Sadly, only two weeks earlier, another tragic college shooting took place when a gunman killed five Huskie students on the campus of Northern Illinois University. Trying to make sense of the shootings at Virginia Tech and NIU is difficult, if not impossible. A friend of mine, writing in a blog a few days ago, called it “an extreme form of selfishness.” An apt description, that’s for sure.

But as my colleague and I stood at the memorial, numbed by the moment and the cold wind, I told her of my friend’s description of selfishness. She paused for a moment and said, “You know, it’s also an extreme form of loneliness. The killers in these cases were all alone with no friends to listen or talk to. Or at least that’s what they thought.”

It made me wonder if selfishness, when taken to an extreme, is really an inability to see how we fit together in a sort of inter-dependent universe, one in which no one stands alone? Could it be that selfishness is nothing more than a trick that obscures how we are really all part of a great big “whole?”

I realized that the healing of selfishness occurs when we “operationalize love” by both knowing that God is Love and by living a life of loving one another through inclusion and compassion. Such living would not only help change loneliness into inclusiveness but selfishness into concern for others.

Our talk later that afternoon to 25 engineering students would be about preparing themselves for the world of work by choosing to make a difference in the world. We used an idea from the movie “Pay It Forward” in which a social studies teacher challenges his students to come up with an idea to change the world. One of them decides he will do something good for three other people. They cannot return the favor to him, but must “pay it forward” to three others who, in turn, must pay it forward to three more. (If you do the math, the number of people who are touched grows very quickly!)

As we talked about this idea with the engineering students they laughed about the fact that the size of the act wasn’t important, it was the act itself. One person told me later, “Good doesn’t come in sizes—good just is.”

The idea of paying it forward can make a huge difference in the lives of people who are lonely and hurting. Even the act of selflessly listening to others can break the spell of loneliness. Such acts of love help clear the dark of loneliness with the light of inclusion; they extinguish the trick of selfishness with the truth of unity and oneness.

We may never know the results of paying good forward as it’s almost impossible to know if doing so prevents bad acts—however minor or extreme—from happening. That’s the wonder of it. We may never know how we’ve made a difference. We just need to remember that we have.

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