Adapted from the preface to Thomas Merton's book, No Man Is An Island.
Every human being ultimately seeks their own salvation and the salvation of those whom they live with. This salvation is the “good life”, not found in the realization of the “american dream”, but in the fulfillment of each individual’s God-given powers, in the love of others and of God. This fulfillment cannot come through one’s own ability, but each person must be found in and through others. These three Scriptures are fulfilled in this: “If any man would save his life, he must lose it”; and, “Love one another as I have loved you”; and “We are all members of one another.”
Some would say that salvation, then is discovered in the setting aside of ourselves. On the contrary, the discovery of Christ is never genuine if it is nothing but a flight from ourselves. Our salvation cannot be an escape. It must be a fulfillment. I cannot discover God—the power that raised Christ from the dead—unless I have the courage to face myself exactly as I am—a poor, limited perplexed soul.
Thus, salvation is a terrible tangle of paradoxes. We become ourselves by dying to ourselves. We gain only what we give up, and if we give up everything we gain everything. We cannot find ourselves within ourselves, but only in others, yet at the same time before we can go out to others we must first find ourselves. The best way to love ourselves is to love others, yet we cannot love others unless we love ourselves since it is written, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” But if we love ourselves in the wrong way, we become incapable of loving anyone else.
There are many errors in achieving a balance between loving others and oneself:
Giving for oneself
There is a spiritual selfishness which even poisons the good act of giving to another. It is possible for me to love selfishly in the very act of depriving myself of material things for the benefit of another. If my gift is intended to bind him to me, to put him under an obligation, then in loving him I am really loving myself. And this is a greater selfishness, since it traffics not in flesh and blood, but in other person’s souls. This says that in loving another we simply seek the most effective way to love ourselves.
Loving one other
We might be tempted to the hedonism of romantic love. In this, we deny ourselves just enough to share with one another the pleasures of life. We admit a certain selfishness, and feel that in doing so we are being realistic. Our self denial is just sufficient to provide us with a healthy increase in our mutual satisfactions. In a bourgeois world, romantic love knows how to mask as Christian agape. This limits love to only one, no other.
There is the temptation to destroy ourselves for the love of the other. The only value is love of the other. Self-sacrifice is an absolute value in itself. And the desire of the other is an absolute value. No matter what the other desires, we will give up our life or our soul to please the other. This is a false love, which makes it a point of honor to follow the beloved even into hell. This says we must only love others.
Another temptation is to go the other extreme and say, “Hell is other people.” In that case love itself becomes the great temptation and the great sin. Because it is an inescapable sin, it is also hell. But this is simply the love of self in solitude. It is the love that is mortally wounded by its own incapacity to love another, and flies from others in order to not to have to give itself to them. This says we must only love ourselves.
All these answers are insufficient. The true answer, which is supernatural, tells us that we must love ourselves in order that we would be able to love others, and that we find ourselves by giving ourselves to them. True love is the gift of ourselves—cared for and fully functional—for others.
This is not merely a helpful suggestion, it is the fundamental law of human existence. Man is divided against himself and against God by his own selfishness, which divides him against his brother. This division cannot be healed by a love that places itself only on one side of the rift. Love must reach over to both sides and draw them together. We cannot love ourselves unless we love others, and our love of others is incomplete without loving ourselves. And a selfish love of ourselves makes us incapable of loving others.
This truth never becomes clear as long as we assume that each one of us, individually, is the center of the universe. We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it is only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others.
What do I mean by loving ourselves properly? I mean, first of all, desiring to live, accepting life as a very great gift and a great good, not because of what it gives us, but because of what it enables us to give to others. We have what is called a “death instinct.” It is the power of a self-love that has turned into self-hatred and which, in adoring itself, adores the monster by which it is consumed. It is therefore of supreme importance that we consent to live not for ourselves, but for others.
We will only be able to do this when we face our own limitations. As long as we secretly adore ourselves, our own deficiencies will remain to torture us with an apparent defilement. But if we live for others, we will gradually discover that no one expects us to be “as gods.” We will see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a most important part in all our lives. It is because of them that we need others and others need us. We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in himself for the lack in another.
Only when we see ourselves in our true human context, as members of a race which is intended to be one organism and “one body,” we will begin to understand the positive importance not only of the successes but of the failures in our lives. My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others. Nor are my failures my own. They may spring from the failure of another, but they are also compensated for by another’s achievement.
Every other man is a piece of myself, for I am a part and a member of mankind. Every Christian is a part of my body, because we are members in Christ. What I do is also done for them and with them and by them. What they do is done by me and for me.
Only when this truth is absolutely central do other teachings fit into their proper context. Humility, self-denial, action and contemplation, service, giving and community—none of these make sense except in relation to the central reality which is God’s love living and acting in those whom he has incorporated his Christ. Nothing at all makes sense unless we admit, with John Donne, that “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.”
To love others is to make a gift of oneself.