Your Life Is Not Just About You

One of the unfortunate consequences of the COVID pandemic and its related lockdowns has been that people have forgotten how to drive.  By this I mean, I keep finding people stopped in the middle of the road as though no one else existed in the world but them.

There are many areas of life these days where you’ll find people who seem convinced that there is no one else in the world but themselves.  They talk loudly on their cell phones in public or they have awkward private conversations that everyone can hear in public places. People watch movies on their computers that everyone else can hear; they play loud music when others want some peace and quiet.

I like to play music in my car when I drive. (I hate driving, and music makes it a little less tiresome.)  But does everyone else in the neighborhood want to hear my selection of music?  Why would everyone not want to hear Neil Young and Crazy Horse blasting at 90 decibels?  Are they barbarians?  Maybe.  But perhaps their taste in music is somewhat different.  Perhaps they prefer Mozart. Or Dua Lipa.  (If you don’t know who Dua Lipa is, you’re probably not a teen girl.)

Many people seem to have lost the sense that there is a difference between the behavior appropriate in public areas and the kind appropriate in private, not realizing that there are many things you can do in private that you just shouldn’t do in public.  It’s not necessarily a “judgment” on you or your lifestyle or choices.  It’s just that you’re not the only one there.  If you don’t want to look at or listen to the odd things others take a liking to – try getting the disco fans and rap boys together in the same room with their music blaring – so just respect others the way you would want to be respected.

So too, for example, there is something beautiful about a flag, but also something potentially divisive.  If you put a certain flag in your office or out your window, you are making a public statement, and you should at least recognize that fact.  So if you put a Palestinian flag out your window, you should not be surprised (or scandalized) if a dozen people put Israeli flags out their windows, having noticed your flag.  Perhaps we should keep our flag-waving for other countries and various causes to a discrete level, at least in public.

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Have you ever had the experience of standing in a long line waiting to get up to the counter, but then having someone in front of you decide that, as soon as he gets to the front, everyone else behind him disappears and he can spend all day taking the time of the clerk at the counter?  Or have you stood in line at a fast-food place and had someone in front of you stand and puzzle and hem and haw about what to order?  Did you ever say to yourself:  “Do you not see this long line of people behind you? Would you please just hurry up?”

How about those people who trudge across the street as slowly as possible, forcing everyone driving to slow down to a crawl or stop in the middle of the road?

Most of us have had these annoying experiences and many of us would react to these descriptions with an angry “Oh yes, I hate that.” But here’s the important follow-up question: Are you one of those people? Not one of the people annoyed, but one of the people who does things thoughtlessly in public, not caring whether it bothers anyone else?  Do you, in fact, get very self-righteous about being left alone to “just do your thing”?

There is this little piece of advice one finds in the Bible (some even think of it as a kind of a basic rule) that goes like this:  “Do unto others what you would want done to you.  And don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you.”  So if you call yourself “Christian,” and you make it your business to violate that basic rule, or you just can’t be bothered to think much about it, then you should at least realize that this is like calling yourself a great hockey player when you don’t have skates, don’t know how to skate, and don’t want to know.

The underlying idea here is that your life isn’t only about you; you owe something to others.  So, if I may, one last, little reflection.  I am not as a general rule in favor of universal government regulations, especially in situations where prudential judgments about specific conditions would be better. But this isn’t about the government; it’s about you. If you don’t want to get vaccinated for whatever reason, fine. That’s your judgment.

But then the question you must still ask yourself is: “What do I owe others?  How do I intend to help protect others?” If your response is:  “I am an autonomous individual; I just want to do what I want to do; my body and my life are entirely my own, and no one has any business trying to restrict me or make me take special care for others,” then please understand that these are exactly the arguments abortion advocates make. Self-proclaimed “conservative,” “traditional” Catholics have at times shown themselves more “libertarian” than “conservative,” and more devoted to “modern autonomous individualism” than traditional Catholic moral theology.

Do I like masks?  No, I hate them.  With a passion.  Do I wear one every day?  No.  Am I worried about the intrusive powers of government?  Yes. But would I put on a mask to protect others who might be at risk?  I darn well better.  Because, as far as Catholicism and the Gospel go, if I refuse, I would be like a self-proclaimed “hockey player” who has no interest in skating.

 

*Image: Echo and Narcissus by Nicholas Poussin, c. 1630-37 [Louvre, Paris]

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek’s Love and Truth

James Matthew Wilson’s On the Slow Decay of Things

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners and Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary (2021). His website is: randallbsmith.com.