Measure of Selflessness
Question: Do acts of selflessness conflict with reason? What is the measure of agreement we should seek between the two?
Selflessness is when one relinquishes oneself from certain personal desires and aspirations, forgoing certain goals associated with property or wealth, and even values associated with one's self-honor and dignity, all for the sake of lofty aims and noble goals. When a person is able to actualize such renouncements in their life, then that person can be considered to be a selfless person.
For example, when one, either through individual or collective efforts, relentlessly endeavors to exalt faith and spirituality, and in their pursuit builds centers and institutes for learning, establishes schools, or when dormitories and youth centers are built to cater to the needs and demands of the younger generations, when all these are enabled, either through financial support or through one's own voluntary work, then such acts are considered to be sacrifices. Given that the intent behind is purely to serve an exalted aim that is greater than the self, then the only criteria is to make the doer of these acts a selfless person, or a person of sacrifice.
A closer examination will reveal that there is no contradiction between selflessness and reason. In other words, selflessness, or sacrifice, is not a mere emotional expression that is incongruent to reason. In fact, not only does reason justify selflessness, arguably it necessitates it. At an immediate and rather superficial glance, a contradiction between the two may be observed. Let us take, for example the numbers of selfless people who, while working tirelessly in educational institutes and campaigns, make great self sacrifices, although fully aware that none of the fruits of their genuine labor will show immediate results. Yet they devote their entire lives and health to these campaigns. It is as if God has bestowed on them special favors, for their work becomes far more efficient and productive then reason would allow. The cycle continues, as they in turn use these favors for furthering their efforts.
For those onlookers who may view the matter with little reflection, such attitudes can be considered to be apparent contradictions to reason. To selflessly strive for some cause and sacrifice thousands of other truths for the sake of one truth may appear to them to be a sacrifice that unnecessarily conflicts with reason.
However, if the heart has attained enlightenment beyond the discernment of the inner workings of the universe, then the depth in appreciation takes on a different aspect. If one realizes that everything in creation flows towards the Hereafter and if the compelling beauty of The Most Beautiful One is felt within one's conscience, then thousands of years of happiness in this world cannot equate a single minute of life in Paradise and thousands of years of life in Paradise cannot equal a moment's view of the beauty of Almighty God; here then the tradeoff between the fleeting pleasure of this world to that of the unending Hereafter will not be even as precious as the wing of a small insect. A person with such depth and foresight can perfectly exercise reason and will willingly make apparent sacrifices for real returns that will be attained from the transcendent realms.
In our time we have sent out rockets to explore the speculative possibilities of cities in space. Let us take this as a reality and for a moment imagine that such a source of comfort, which is beyond both the sight and hearing of human beings, has actually been discovered; here, life does not resemble our way of living and is beyond our comprehension. Large amounts of funds are spent to transport humanity there. In this process, there is a good probability that some will fail to perceive the possibility and may question the motives for such a prospect; this is because they are unfamiliar with these worlds and the goal may sound unfathomable to them. Objections may be raised with arguments like: “Many people are dying of hunger in Africa, but you are traveling to outer space with shuttles for the sake of adventure and are wasting large amounts of money.”
This approach is the outcome of superficial reasoning. What if, indeed, such a world was discovered? What would happen if one day a happier world outside this contaminated and muddled earthly life was to be found and somehow we could all be moved there, where our lives-with God's grace—could continue happily for years to come? That is, a time will come when everyone will realize that this service has good and valuable implications for all of humanity and is certainly compatible with reason.
The innate ability to fathom far-reaching and multi-dimensional reasoning surely surpasses the limits of our logic; yet, it is clearly conceivable on a logical basis, beyond the influence of five sensory shackles, that every act of sacrifice made to this end is necessary. Therefore, endeavors to achieve greater future benefits cannot be considered to be illogical.
Similarly, a believer's quest can be likened to the above. In order to attain a life of genuine happiness in Paradise and the privilege of meeting with the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and in order to be mesmerized by the beauty of Almighty God Himself, all efforts or selfless acts made in the process only confirm the need for such a logical investment.
Most of the time, the criticisms that are hurled at those people of sacrifice come from no deeper an analysis than the above; they are usually based on shallow reasoning. In fact, such criticisms stem from two streams of different perspectives of the world. Hasan al-Basri once touched on this difference when he profoundly remarked: “If you had seen the Companions of the holy Prophet, you would call them ‘mad.' … and if they had seen you, they would hesitate and ask, ‘are they believers?'”
Today is no different; some people may regard those who are engaged in sacrificial services as “mad” and question “why should you work so hard without any material gain?” This perception is revealing and delineates those who contemplate personal return and benefit in every act. In other words, for those mindsets who carry the proverbial attitude: “what's in it for me?” it is not possible to understand why an elderly or infirm person would want to continue working just like an ordinary person, for example in the construction of a building or campaigning for donations for their good work, or for that matter, allocate all their physical and/or mental efforts towards a cause. Indeed, such mindsets cannot conceive the possibility of making all these sacrifices just to please God. As a result of their failure to grasp this, they will continue with their misguided considerations and false accusations of such selfless work.
On the other hand, for those of us with the insight to see beyond the materiality of things, selfless acts are perfectly normal and the most intelligent person is the one who is prepared to give up everything they own to serve God by serving humanity. If a person with such breadth and depth of heart is not seen to sacrifice all of their wealth all at once, then chances are high that they are most probably cherishing the noble thought: “Let me hold back part of my wealth so that I can invest it to earn more therefore continue to spend in the path to God.”
To sum up, it is clear there is no essential contradiction between selflessness and logic. I can safely and confidently assert that logic entails sacrifice. Whoever can grasp this fine point will use their logic to make more profound sacrifices.
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