WHAT IS SPIRITUALITY?
3. Self-Transcendence, Self-Criticism, & Altruism
Our human spirits may be observed
in everyday experiences such as the following:
In self-transcendence, we finding ourselves
standing outside of ourselves, looking back.
Spontaneously, we have moments
in which we notice that we are noticing.
In self-criticism, we evaluate what we are doing with our lives
—and what we plan to do.
In altruism, we find ourselves unselfishly caring for others.
WHAT IS SPIRITUALITY?
Self-Transcendence, Self-Criticism, & Altruism
by James Park
Altho Francis Jeanson does not use the word "spirit" in the following quotation,
he highlights several of the capacities we are calling spiritual in this series of cyber-sermons:
transcendence, freedom, self-criticism, reflection, & self-creation:
Man is that "existent"
who lacks common measure with other existents.
Though free, he must liberate himself;
though human, he must humanize himself.
Were a man fully human from birth,
he would simply be an individual case of the human species.
But he is a person, a being we have already seen defining itself
as a perpetual escape from all a priori definition,
continually having to be what it is,
always capable of backing away from itself
in order to write its own history, reflect on its existence,
alter its ways of being, or reaffirm fidelity to it.
[Francis Jeanson Sartre and the Problem of Morality
Tr. Robert W. Stone (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1980) p. 15]
We may recognize our own human spirits
by our capacity to step outside of ourselves and look back.
Usually our consciousness is focused on specific contents:
the projects we happen to be working on at the moment,
the room we are in, the people who share it with us,
our internal fantasies and worries,
listening to what someone else is saying,
watching television, or reading this cyber-sermon.
Such is the stuff of consciousness.
In every waking moment we are conscious of something.
And even when we are semi-conscious in dreaming,
specific scenes still play on the screen of our minds.
But once in a while, consciousness itself comes to our attention.
In such moments we become aware of ourselves, we notice that we exist.
Does a cow ever notice that it exists?
Or is its 'consciousness' entirely occupied by what is sees and feels?
A moment of self-transcendence takes place
when we not only notice the beautiful sky and clouds,
but in addition we notice that we notice.
We discover that we are present in the magnificent scene.
Such 'moments of vision' or transcendence may occur spontaneously,
without any expectation or preparation on our part.
Any element of nature—dramatic or simple—may cause self-transcendence.
Or we human beings might create our own 'moments of vision'.
For instance, art might be an attempt to facilitate self-transcendence.
Something significant has happened to the artist;
and he or she wants to stimulate similar experiences in others.
The artist invites others to step outside of themselves for a moment.
History is cluttered with triviality,
but occasionally something calls us out of ourselves.
Such historically-induced moments of self-transcendence
might be caused either by important public events
(Many who were alive in 1963 remember just where they were
when President John F. Kennedy was shot.)
or by intensely personal and private happenings
(Sex can become a moment of self-transcendence).
As we develop spiritually, we can create 'moments of vision'.
We learn how to open the doors of our being:
We can decide to look deeply into ourselves.
We might actually spend considerable time looking inward.
Such exploration might be either constructive or destructive,
depending on the basic condition of our spirits.
As a result of our capacity to step outside of ourselves,
we can evaluate our selves, look back self-critically.
When we step back for a better view,
we notice qualities we like and qualities we dislike.
We can examine our traits as persons
much as we would examine the character of another person,
except that we have the tremendous advantage
of direct access to our own thoughts and feelings,
whereas we know the thoughts and feelings of others
only indirectly thru what they say and do.
"Self-consciousness" is a related capacity of our spirits.
Usually when we say that we are "self-conscious",
it means we worry too much about what other people think of us.
We might be aware of some genuine faults in our selves,
or we might be exaggerating our 'faults' far out of proportion,
even becoming incapacitated by imagining other people's critical eyes.
But this spiritual capacity for self-criticism also empowers us
to appreciate good dimensions of our beings
—for instance our creativity and our power to make free choices.
When we notice these powers within,
we might resolve to enhance these spiritual capacities.
And even if we get side-tracked from spirit by other concerns,
new spontaneous moments of self-transcendence might occur,
reminding us of spiritual depths temporarily lost in the daily rush.
More often we associate the notion of "self-criticism"
with the discovery of faults we would like to correct.
But as flawed as we might be, we have one thing to our credit
—that we have enough spirit to notice our faults.
If we were completely spiritless, we would never notice our defects.
Self-criticism can uncovers failings we didn't notice before.
And eventually our self-critical capacity might empower us to change.
The most important moments of transition in our lives
were probably shaped by this capacity of spirit—self-criticism.
We looked deeply at our selves as then developed.
We found something profoundly wrong or off-center about what we were doing.
Sometimes without any significant pressures from outside of our selves,
we just decided a different course for our lives:
Self-transcendence empowered us to step beyond our daily concerns.
Self-criticism enabled us to see some basic mis-direction of our lives.
And our freedom allowed us to begin our lives over again.
Unselfish caring for others might also manifest our spirits.
Because we can rise beyond ourselves, transcend our self-interest,
we notice that others have human thoughts and feelings.
When they suffer, we want to help them.
When they are joyful, we want to celebrate with them.
But some people argue that altruism is an illusion,
that we human beings are motivated only by self-interest,
even when we do things that ostensibly benefit others.
Such acts might be the result of long training to be 'compassionate';
we might be striving to gain approval from others;
or we might be motivated by the desire to feel good about ourselves.
However, those who discredit altruism might be dogmatic
(like those who deny the possibility of freedom
—the theme of the next cyber-sermon in this series).
Have they decided ahead of time to interpret all human behavior
(including sometimes their own behavior)
from the point of view of selfishness—"What's in it for me?"
If an altruistic act happened, such observers would not recognize it.
But if we have not made up our minds in advance,
we might notice self-transcendence and altruism even in children:
The Littlest St. Nicholas
This story is about a little boy, 2-1/2 years old, named Nicholas.
It took place in the summer of 1982 on Star Island in Cass Lake
in northern Minnesota, at (Unitarian Universalist) Camp Unistar.
It was the last night of a week-long camp discussing love.
That day Nicholas had fallen from the jungle gym, breaking his leg.
He had been the center of attention during an emergency boat trip
to the nearest hospital to have his whole little leg put in a cast.
That night, as we were singing in the dining hall of the lodge,
little Nicholas, who was the smallest camper that week,
noticed that Araby, a 4-year-old girl, was crying.
(She was tired; and she couldn't read the words of the songs.)
For a few seconds Nicholas observed Araby's tears.
Then, without asking what was wrong or telling her not to cry,
he hobbled over to the wooden bench and struggled up beside her
and put his little arm around her slightly higher shoulder.
And she seemed to be comforted.
Nicholas didn't know what the problem was,
but he knew what tears were.
In the third summer of his life, he spontaneously transcended himself
and responded sympathetically to another suffering human being.
He had empathy, compassion, kindness—signs of the human spirit.
created 4-19-2004; revised a few times, including 8-1-2007; 2-21-2008
Go to the opening page for this series of 8 cyber-sermons:
What Is Spirituality?
"WHAT IS SPIRITUALITY?
3. Self-Transcendence, Self-Criticism, & Altruism"
has been adapted by the author from
Spirituality for Humanists:
Six Capacities of Our Human Spirits
by James Park.
If you click this title, the complete Table of Contents will appear.
If you would like to own a printed copy of
Spirituality for Humanists,
click printed copy .
Several others books on Existential Spirituality
are reviewed on the Existential Spirituality Bibliography .
Return to the Existential Spirituality page.
Go to other cyber-sermons by James Park,
organized into 9 subject-areas.
Go to the opening page for this website:
An Existential Philosopher's Museum .