Years ago I found myself in a debate over an organization’s mission statement. At the time it read, “meeting people at their point of need and enabling them to become all God had in mind when God made them” I liked it, but others didn’t. “Too consumeristic” they said, declaring that this kind of mission statement feeds narcissism, with the result that “having my needs met” would become the only thing people would care about. It’s a legitimate concern. The older I become, the more firmly I believe that the end goal of our lives is to become these full containers that are overflowing with compassion, generosity, courage, beauty, and creativity. These things are a far cry from the consumerism that prevails in both the marketplace and churches of today. And yet, the older I get, the more I stand by my statement that having our needs met isn’t just important, it’s foundational. Until we receive, we’re unable to give. Here’s what I mean….
You’re no doubt aware of the Mt. Everest spectacles this year. With overcrowding and unnecessary deaths, the events of this summer hearken back to the 1996 climbing season when eight climbers died on Mount Everest during a storm. It was the worst loss of life ever on the mountain on a single day. Author Jon Krakauer, who himself attempted to climb the peak that year, wrote a best-selling book about the incident, Into Thin Air, which was published in 1997. Anatoli Boukreev, also guiding on Everest that year, also published a book about the events entitled, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest. (The two books offer a fascinating look at how two people, participating in the same events, can recall differently, highlight different things, and interpret the same exact events dramatically differently, attaching totally different motives to a person’s actions. This makes for interesting consideration of how we read the Bible, but that’s a different topic, for a different day)
Boukreev, the Russian guide working for Seattle guide Scott Fisher, had taken his clients to the top earliest in the day. He descended to the nearest camp without his clients, where he brewed tea, fortified himself, and then went back up the mountain to work on rescue operations. Here’s an excerpt from Boukreev’s book explaining the situation:
“I said to Scott that the ascent seemed to be going slowly, and I was concerned that descending climbers could possibly run out of oxygen before their return to Camp IV (at 7,900 m). I explained that I wanted to descend as quickly as possible to Camp IV to warm myself and get a supply of hot drink and oxygen in case I might need to go back up the mountain to assist descending climbers. Scott, as had Rob Hall before him, said ‘OK’ to this plan.”
Some said Boukreev was selfish to go down. But one article describes the value of how his time of rest for what came next:
Six people needed help and only Boukreev was willing to go out. With tea and oxygen he went out three times in the storm and brought back first Sandy Pittman, and then Charlotte Fox and Tim Madsen. He repeatedly asked Sherpas and members of other expeditions to help save Yasuko Namba (Weaters wasn’t there at that point), but no one would.
(One climber), Gammelgaard, remembers seeing Boukreev after he returned with Fox and Madsen: “I woke up at around 5 a.m. and saw Anatoli [Boukreev]. He had returned. It was already light, and he sat without saying a word. He was completely exhausted. There was no energy left in him.
Going down early and resting was… selfish? The debate here is a debate that goes well beyond the climbing world, because it’s really about the role of self-care and service of others in the lives we live. The critics of Boukreev are perhaps rightly wary of an excessive focus on self care because, to be blunt, by almost any standard, most agree that we live in the age of the elevated selfishness.
The danger of being a “lover of self” is obvious in the Bible, and the warnings are there for a reason. There’s something in our nature that is tempted to withdraw from compassion, service, and generosity. When we yield to such tendencies our lives shrink dramatically, even though we have an outer coating of righteousness. We can redefine success as not breaking laws like stealing, killing, committing adultery, paying our taxes, and even add things like going to church, verbally defending the Bible, and perhaps even defending our politics. But this is not, by any stretch of Jesus’ imagination, what following Jesus looks like. This is self absorbed religion, taking in, and in, and in. If you strip the religious veneer off of it, it’s just pure narcissism – living for our own well being and not caring for others. When the warning against being a ‘lover of self’ isn’t heeded, religious people will be the worst kind of self lovers… self righteous self-lovers!
In contrast, God’s clear calling from the beginning is that humans are invited to feast on God’s blessings, but to do so in order that we might actively bless and serve others! Remember Abraham: “blessed to be a blessing”. Remember Micah: “what does God require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God”. Remember Jesus: “if anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink, and from his belly will burst forth rivers of living water”. You get this picture of being filled so that we can pour out!
Which brings me, for a moment, back to Boukreev. Remember that warning when you’re flying. “If you’re flying with children and the oxygen masks appear, put your own mask on first!” None of us will ever know Boukreev’s true motives. We DO know that he had the strength and inner fortitude to rescue three people, above 8000 meters, in an Everest storm. He had to find them, stabilize them, move them. Some were snow blind. Some were refusing to move, preferring instead to die. No matter. He served…and saved… because he was strong enough to do so.
THE POINT OF IT ALL
I’m increasingly convinced that one of the largest barriers to healthy marriages, families, churches, non-profits, businesses, even cities and nations, is the appalling condition of the people in charge. When I go to pastors’ conferences, for example, I hear material that is good, inspiring, and even important – things about casting vision, managing well, staffing and hiring decisions, change management, conflict management, how to think big, etc. Without being dismissive of any of it, my complaint is that if you sweep all of that stuff away, a fundamental truth remains: healthy leaders are the foundational element for creating healthy systems. Healthy individuals who marry create healthy marriages. Healthy couples create healthy families. Healthy pastors help create healthy churches. And so it goes. There are exceptions of course, but this is a deep flowing river of reality.
That’s why Boukreev warmed, rested, and drank tea. That’s why David “strengthened himself in the Lord” prior to his battle. That’s why Jesus went off “early in the morning to the mountains to pray”. Whole people have resources to share, not out pride, or anger, or to create something that will fill ego needs. Their strength of inner resources enable them to serve! That’s the reason things like solitude, silence, moving your body, eating real food, getting enough sleep, enjoying creation, and meditation are important. It isn’t so that you can become a dammed up narcissist. It’s so you can fully bless and serve others.
Paul prays that our spirit, soul, and body, would be made whole! I’m presently developing a curriculum around this theme, and know that one of the first things people will feel is that this is too self-absorbed. My answer: Yes, if you’re warming up, and napping, and drinking tea, just so you can stay comfortable while others die on the mountain, it’s self-absorbed. But if your wholeness leads to service, hospitality, justice, mercy, crossing social divides, and being compassionately present with others in the midst of their suffering, then it’s a different story. That’s the life for which you’re created: receiving fullness, that you might be fully poured out!
I’ll be writing more on this very important subject of wholeness, and starting a podcast soon, around the subject spirit/soul/body wholeness, but the healthy pursuit of wholeness is always toward a particular end: we seek fulness so that we might become people who shine as beacons of light, joy, compassion, hope and generosity in a world overwhelmingly governed by fear, anger, tribalism, and pettiness. I hope you’ll join me on the journey.