For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.
Western culture is characterized by the cult of the self. Since the 1970s popular psychologists have told us that before we can love anyone else, we must love ourselves. Read just about any popular book on love or relationships and it will begin with the mantra, "learn to love yourself and all will be well."
This emphasis is not new and has its roots at the very beginning of modernity when Adam Smith in the eighteenth century told the world that "enlightened self-interest is what makes the world go round" (my very rough paraphrase of The Wealth of Nations). It takes a while for the ideas of the great and the good to filter down to the rest of us. Some of their ideas get stuck in books; this one—the cult of the self—has become so pervasive that it is now common sense. Question self-love and people will look at you as if you belong to another realm.
Jesus did belong to another realm—the realm of God. Like all the great wisdom teachers, Jesus told a different story. Lose yourself to find yourself. Be non-attached to your self and your self-interests.
That mortification is best which results in the elimination of self-will, self-interest, self-centered thinking, wishing and imagining.
How uncomfortable does that make us feel! (It is Lent after all, and we are meant to be taken out of our comfort zones.)
Mortification is the old term for self-denial. And self-denial has been taken to extremes in all religious traditions. If self-denial is seen as an end in itself, then it is simply one more religious error leading is down one more rabbit trail.
To lose the self is a means to another end. That end is Love. The most wise speak of non-attachment to self in the context of love
Iris Murdoch called it "un-selfing." Aldous Huxley called it "self-naughting." To lose the self is for the sake of the Other. Jesus said it, "Those who lose their life for my sake ... Those who lose their life for the gospel's sake." What is the gospel? The way of love.
Loss of self and loving the Other may sound counterintuitive, but there is a deep connection.
Love is a movement from the self toward the Other. We have been fooled into thinking that love is merely about what I get from the Other, how the Other meets my needs, how my desires are satisfied. If that is the case, then love is preoccupation with the self par excellence. St. Augustine told us that love is always motion. Love is movement away from the self toward the object of love. The lover loses herself in the preoccupation with the Other. Love and beauty are closely associated. Gaze on the beauty of a sunset, find yourself lost in the sight of the first heavy snowfall when all is a white winter wonderland, look into the eyes of a newborn baby—the last thing on your mind is your self. In the encapturing of beauty you lose your self. It is why animal companions are such a gift. Your little pooch draws you out of your self toward her. In love is the loss of individuality, the melding of individuation into the One, into Love-itself.
Pre-modern cultures had a clearer sense that loss of the self was a good. Yet, the zeal to lose the self through mortification took many wrong turns. In order to lose the self, to find non-attachment to self-interests, ascetics dreamt up all kinds of self-tortures. But self-flagelation misses the point. You learn to lose yourself in everyday relationships when you make the Other first and not yourself. You practice non-attachment not in a lonely mountain shack, nor in a dessert cave, but in the office where you work, in the check-out line at the store, as you sit in the doctor's surgery, as you wait the results of a test.
Self-denial should take the form, not of showy acts of would-be humility, but of control of the tongue and the moods—in refraining from saying anything uncharitable or merely frivolous (which means, in practice, refraining from about fifty percent of ordinary conversation), and in behaving calmly and with quiet cheerfulness when external circumstances or the state of our bodies predisposes us to anxiety, gloom or an excessive elation.
I give the final word to the fifteenth-century Indian mystic Kabir
The devout seeker is he who mingles in his heart the double currents of love and detachment, like the mingling of the streams of Ganges and Jumna.