For those of us who are truly trying to grow spiritually, the question of “who am I to love and how?”—and its inverse, “who am I not to love or not to give my attention and care to and why?”—is likely at the core of how we manifest our spirituality in daily life.
When it comes to how we engage other human beings, the Buddhist ideal and the Christian ideal do not seem to be at odds.
“The biggest problem in the world today is that we draw the circle of our family too small. We need to draw it larger every day.” – Mother Teresa
“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nations, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.” – Charles Darwin, “The Descent of Man”
“As a mother watches over her child, willing to risk her own life to protect her only child, so too with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings, suffusing the whole world with unobstructed loving-kindness.” – Buddha, Metta Sutta
A lawyer stood up and put Jesus to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
And Jesus said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?”
The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and with all your soul; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”
But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied to him, “A man was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’
“Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?”
And the lawyer said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
“WHO is my neighbor?”
This is one of the most difficult concepts of Christianity and Buddhism to get right.
The more serious we become about our Christianity or our Buddhism or our spiritual practice it seems the more we keep coming up against the notion that just about EVERYONE—if not literally everyone—on this planet is supposed to be our neighbor!
And so more tangibly that means not just those who have it together, who think happy positive thoughts, those who have happy stories, those who are seemingly without “ego” and thus are easy to love, but those with the painful, heart-wrenching stories, those who seem lost, those who may seem to be starving for attention—they too are our neighbor, and perhaps even more so, but certainly not less so.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did unto one of the least of least of these my brethren, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do unto one of the least of these my brethren, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
(Matthew 25: 31-46)
Yet it is so human and so understandable to want to shut down or turn away when we’re feeling put off by someone else, by their negativity, their tough-mindedness, or their weakness, their apparent “neediness.” It is very human and understandable to want to shut down and self-protect because we’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed by other people’s suffering, especially when we feel it threatening to drag us down or to be draining us of our own happiness or enthusiasm, or when we feel others’ suffering so deeply that we feel it as if it were our own and we feel even worse because we feel helpless to do anything about it to relieve it.
But this is just what truly being a Christian or a Buddhist or being on a truly spiritual path is all about . . . not allowing ourselves to join in the turning away, not automatically going there and indulging that part of ourselves that wants to stay comfortable, have an easy life, not be bothered, stick to a path of least resistance, and not get involved in anything too messy or unpleasant or taxing.
But a truly spiritual path is about combating that part of ourselves.
We are each called to take on our own self-preservative tendencies and not let them get the better of us.
We are each meant to preserve ourselves just long enough and well enough to continue being able to give ourselves away—and to continue making sure that we have something useful and good to give away—especially to those who most need it—to those who are difficult and unpleasant or otherwise hard to love.
We come into this life with nothing and we will go out of this life the same way. And all we can do in between is to continue giving of ourselves as freely and courageously as possible.
The question for us each then—for those of us who are truly on a truly spiritual path—is “Who is not my neighbor?”
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.” – Thomas Merton
“It is those farther away who must pay for your love of your neighbor; and even if five of you are together, there is always a sixth who must die.” – Nietzsche
“All evil and suffering need in order to exist is for good men and women to do nothing.”
“[T]he great ideals of the past [have] failed not by being outlived (which must mean being over-lived) but by not being lived enough. . . . The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” – G. K. Chesterton, “What’s Wrong with the World Today,” pg. 39
“If you will stop here and ask yourselves why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you, that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it.” – William Law, “A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life,” pg. 17
“There are two things that are always the will of God and almost always dangerous: telling the truth and loving needy people.
“In fact, if following Jesus does not feel dangerous, I should probably pause and check to see if it is Jesus I’m following. . . .
[L]oving needy people . . . is what following Jesus is about. Jesus said all the teaching of the law and the prophets is summed up in the dual command to love God and love our neighbor—especially neighbors in need. In fact, 1 John 4:20 makes it clear that I can’t claim to love God, whom I cannot see, if I don’t love neighbors that I do see. If they are in need and I do not respond, the love if God simply isn’t in me. . . . [F]ollowing Jesus is about loving people in need.
“It’s not safe to love people in need. In fact, I generally try to keep neediness away. Think about those in your family who are most needy, those in your church fellowship who are hurting most, those on the other side of the city (or the world) who are most vulnerable. Being with them, serving them and loving them is uncomfortable. It’s messy, untidy, unsafe, and even dangerous.
“And yet, paradoxically, Jesus tells us this is where the deepest joy is found.” – Gary A. Haugen, “Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian,” pp. 115-116
“The Christianity of the majority consists roughly of these two notions, which might be called the two most doubtful extremities of Christianity: first of all they saying about “the little child”— that one becomes a Christian by being like a little child, that such is the kingdom of heaven; and the second is that of the thief on the cross.
“People live by virtue of the former, and in death hope to reconcile themselves with the example of the latter.
“That is the sum of most people’s lives and Christianity, and properly understood it is a mixture of childishness and crime.” – Kierkegaard, in “The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard,” pp. 222-3.