SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS AND SELF-FORGETFULNESS

This entry is part of 21 in the series article 27

" He that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life 
for my sake shall find it." MATTHEW x. 39. 

THERE are some words of Jesus Christ that seem 
to mean one special thing; and when we have found 
that meaning in them we seem to have grasped them 
entirely. There are others which are so large that 
we are sure they must mean many things ; and any 
one meaning of them that we find is only one of 
many, one of the multitude of points at which such 
great words must touch human life. I think this 
word of Christ must mean much beside the truth 
that I shall try to draw out from it. I am sure it 
does. To "find one's life," To "lose one's life," 
"life" has so many stages or layers of meaning, as it 
were, that those expressions may well refer to many 
different experiences corresponding to the kind or 
depth of the life which is described as being found or 
lost. On its very surface it reveals itself as a law of 
physical health, and it has in it the soundest prin- 
ciple for the treatment of the life of the body. In 
its profoundest sense, it is the standard of the ever- 
lasting judgment of souls. They are words that may 
stand written at the head of every page in the awful 
book which is to be opened for the settlement of 
the eternal destiny of every one of us, as we gather 
before the throne of Christ the Judge. You will 
understand, then, that I do not try to exhaust the 
meaning of a text so inexhaustible. I only want to 
tell you of one meaning of it which, I am sure, if we 
can take it in, will not fail to commend itself to our 
own experiences and needs. 

"He that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that 
loseth his life for my sake shall find it. " The words 
might suggest several figures, but perhaps all this 
talk about finding and losing most naturally suggests 
the thought of that whose finding and whose loss is, 
in our mercenary world, the subject of our most con- 
tinual anxiety. It make us think of money. Life 
is treated like money. And certain things are true 
of money, which all who have anything to do with 
it understand. Its value is not in itself. It gets its 
value from the things it can accomplish. What it 
will buy is what makes it so precious. The moment 
you separate money from the power of purchase 
that belongs to it, that moment all its worth is gone. 
The most entirely worthless thing that Robinson 
Crusoe saved out of the wreck, and carried on shore, 
was the bag of gold. It could not buy anything, 
could not be traded away, and so it was good for 
nothing. And so if any man wilfully separates 
money from its uses, he really destroys its value, no 
matter how much he may seem to be setting a special 
value on it. The miser who shuts his money up, 
and will not spend it, thereby makes it a worthless 
thing. There is nothing so valueless in all his dingy 
hovel as his chest of gold. The rags in which he 
clothes himself, the candle-end that he lights to 
make the darkness visible, are worth more than all 
his heavy chest contains. His attempt to value 
money for itself has made his money valueless. 

Now, the text suggests that just the same things 
are true of human life. Life is a means for certain 
purposes. Freely given to secure those purposes, 
it is inestimable. The instinctive delight of men as 
they watch a life freely given for a noble end a 
"well -spent life " as they love to call it bears wit- 
ness how inestimable it is. But a life withheld from 
its purposes loses its value. It is like the miser's 
gold, made worthless, and so lost, by the very care 
that is taken not to lose it. Of both money and 
life, can we not see how it is true that he who saves 
them loses them ? But he who loses them for a worthy 
purpose gets their worth "finds " them in the real 
possession of their value. 

There is no difference between men that is more 
striking. One man is always thinking about his life, 
how pleasant and how beautiful it is. He is always 
trying to make it more pleasant. He is always com- 
paring his days with one another to see which was 
the pleasantest. He is like the miser whose joy is 
to dip his arms into the yellow gold, and feel it 
ripple over his delighted hands; who delights in 
counting over and over the treasures the amount of 
which he knows by heart. Another man never im- 
presses you as thinking much about life in itself. 
He never seems to be pondering whether life is 
pleasant or unpleasant, nay, scarcely whether life 
be good or bad, so earnestly, so eagerly his soul is 
set on something that he has to do in life, some 
thing that must be done before death comes to stop 
him. He is like the merchant who scarcely looks 
at the coin or bill he gives away, so intent is he on 
what he is to buy with it, upon the new form in which 
it is to come back to him. The first man cannot 
bear to be distracted from the contemplation of him- 
self. He wants to be saying to himself always, "I 
am happy! How happy I am!" The other man 
does not want to think about himself at all ; he wants 
to see his work going on. The first is always finding 
his life, and yet losing its best result. The other is 
always losing his life, and yet living with an intensity 
that the first never knows. 

There are, then, these three kinds of men: the 
spendthrifts of life, or those who value neither life 
nor its purposes; the misers of life, or those who 
value life for itself, apart from all its purposes, and 
so lose the real value out of life itself; and the mer- 
chants of life, who value life for what it will do, and 
so get the best out of life without ever seeking it. 

Perhaps we can understand it better if we change 
our figure. Think of life as a voyage. The truest 
liver of the truest life is like a voyager who, as he 
sails, is not indifferent to all the beauty of the sea 
around him. The morning and the evening sun, 
the moonlight and the starlight, the endless change 
of the vast water that he floats on, the passing back 
and forth of other ships between him and the sky, 
the incidents and company on his own vessel, all 
these are pleasant to him ; but their pleasure is 
borne up by and woven in with his interest in the 
purpose for which he undertook the voyage. That 
lies beyond and that lies under the voyage all the 
while. He is not sailing just for the sake of sailing. 
He never would have undertaken the voyage for its 
own sake. Another man, who has no purpose be- 
yond the voyage, is vexed and uneasy. He is so 
afraid of not getting the best out of it that he loses 
its best. The spots and imperfections in its pleasure 
worry him. Those are the differences of the ways 
in which men live. One man forgets his own life in 
the purposes for which his life is lived, and he is the 
man whose life grows richest and brightest. An- 
other man is always thinking about himself, and so 
never gets beyond himself into those purposes of 
living out of which all the fulness of personal life 
may flow back to him. 

It is just as true in separate regions of life as in 
the whole. In every occupation it is true. A clerk 
in a store does his work well and benefits himself 
the most when he thinks about his work, and not 
about himself. If he is always asking questions 
about himself: "Am I as happy as I ought to be? 
Am I appreciated? Am I getting on as fast as I de- 
serve? " if he does that you know how continually 
his work is hampered. If his work interests him 
thoroughly, and he throws himself into it with his 
whole soul, simply anxious to see it done as well as 
he can do it ; then the work grows, and he grows, 
and both to their best. 

So it is also with the scholar at his books. If he 
asks whether he is growing learned, he never really 
gets the soul of the learning that he seeks. If he can 
forget himself and study for the pure love of truth, 
or to bring up some pearl of usefulness out of the 
deep sea of knowledge, then his learning ripens and 
mellows day by day. This is the real difference be- 
tween the mere pedant and dilettante and the true 
scholar always. 

But perhaps we see it clearest of all when we think 
of man merely as a physical creature, man in his 
bodily conditions. Certainly the best use of the 
body is not got by the most anxious care of the 
body. There is a miserliness of health which is 
mere invalidism. There are people so careful of 
their physical force, so afraid of exposing it or wast- 
ing it, so afraid of catching cold or getting tired, that 
they never in all their lives use their physical force 
for one brave outburst of action. If you could 
make such people just forget their health entirely, 
and eagerly plunge into some of the multitudinous 
work that is waiting to be done, you are sure, not 
merely that more work would be accomplished, but 
that their health would be stronger than it is now. 

Everywhere, then, self-forgetfulness is necessary 
for a man to get the best advantage of himself. If 
we require a name for that continual remembrance 
of one's self which is a hindrance to every effort, 
we must take that word which people are rather 
fond of using nowadays self-consciousness. It is 
almost one of the can't words of our time among 
certain classes of people. Many people talk about it 
who have very little idea of what self-consciousness 
really is; but, if it is really what I have been try- 
ing to describe, if it be such a thinking about 
one's self, in living one's life or doing one's work, 
that the life is not lived nor the work done at its 
best, if this is self-consciousness, then it certainly 
is not a mere fancy, it is a real thing, really hamper- 
ing and injuring very many people, and really need- 
ing to be got rid of if it possibly can be. It is not 
to be spoken of with contempt, but seriously. 

We sometimes fancy that the hindrance of self- 
consciousness must be most common in times like 
ours, times of elaborate civilization and of a great 
deal that encourages subjective life and the ponder- 
ing over one's self. We fancy some ruder age and 
country, where the life should be all fresh and ex- 
ternal, where the new-born sons of the soil should 
live their bright, objective life, too busy in doing the 
tasks that an unploughed and unplanted earth held 
out to them to stop to think about themselves, and 
so getting the best out of life unconsciously. There 
is certainly some truth in such a fancy. The disease 
of self-consciousness does especially haunt the places 
and periods of elaborate culture, where there is more 
of necessary idleness, and where the work that is 
done is less immediately and manifestly connected 
with its results than in more primitive circumstances ; 
but still it is so human that it must have prevailed 
wherever men have lived to suffer from it. Every- 
where some souls must have been hindered and 
made unhappy by it. 

When we look at self-consciousness, it is evident 
that it has certain traceable stages or degrees. It 
busies itself with the question of happiness, or the 
question of reputation, or the question of goodness. 
One man is hindered in doing the work that the 
Lord has given him by continually asking himself, 
"Am I getting the happiness that I ought to have 
out of the doing of my work? " Another is impeded 
by always asking, "Am I doing myself credit in this 
work of mine? " And yet another is always inquir- 
ing for the evidence of growing goodness and holi- 
ness, with a minuteness of self-inspection that 
prevents the very fruits from growing which he is 
always trying to discover. This last is a far nobler 
self-consciousness than the others. It cannot grow 
so morbid that there shall not be something noble 
in it. It always will be sublime to see any man, in 
however strange and fruitless fashion, anxious over 
his own inner life, and eager to know whether the 
activities in which he is engaged are making him 
better. That will always be sublime, and never will 
be very common. But sublime and rare as it may 
be, still it is evident enough that it very soon reaches 
a degree in which it is not good. Sure it is that 
those deeds which have been done in this world, the 
deeds which most blessed at once the world and the 
doer, have been those that were done under such a 
supreme compulsion of the deeds themselves as left 
no room for any self-questioning of the men who 
did them. David, St. Paul, Luther, they did not 
ask whether what they were going to do would help 
them, even in their best and highest natures. It was 
the righteousness of the thing itself, the fascination 
and compulsion of its righteousness, that made them 
do it ; and then the blessing fell on them almost as 
much to their surprise as to that of others. 

And does not your own experience miniature and 
confirm David's and St. Paul s? Must not you, too, 
say, "The things that have made me better have 
not been the things that I did by any set purpose 
of self-culture, but the things which attracted me and 
commanded me? I have always found the richest 
gold, not when I was hunting for it, but when I was 
ploughing the field for the harvest it was made to 
bear." 

We can have no idea how much the real effective- 
ness of our life is hindered by our self-consciousness, 
by our considering, that is, the effect of our acts 
upon ourselves, as well as their accomplishment of 
their own purposes. If we could get rid of self- 
consciousness, we could do our work so much more 
easily. With one thing, and only one, to think of 
"How can I do this task as well as it is possible 
for me to do it?" not asking anything about our 
being happy in doing it, or about what people will 
think of the way we do it, or even about whether we 
shall be made better by doing it, with such sim- 
plicity everywhere, how easy all our work would be ! 
And then again, how much more work we should do ! 
How often our hand is held back from something 
that evidently ought to be done, the first healthy 
impulse to go and do it being restrained and checked 
by some question that rises about our happiness, or 
credit, or culture. All the men who have done 
enormous amounts of work have been characterized 
by this, that they forgot themselves in their work. 

And yet again, how much more telling our work 
would be upon other people! There is nothing 
that so destroys the influence of any act or speech 
as to feel that the actor or speaker is thinking about 
himself. There is nothing that puts such force into 
each, as to know that the actor or speaker has for- 
gotten himself in what he is doing and saying. It 
seems so simple, and it is so hard. God comes and 
puts a tool into our hand and says, "Go, do that 
work; go, dig that ditch, or build that wall"; 
and we cannot go frankly and do it, and let our 
happiness, our credit, and our character take care 
of themselves, or, rather, be taken care of by 
Him who knew what He was about when He 
gave us the work. But how truly it is the no- 
blest way, is seen by the admiration with which 
men look upon one who really accomplishes it, 
upon a brave man full of love for his work and free 
from self-consciousness a servant of God forgetful 
of himself. 

The life of Jesus Christ is the pattern of this lofty 
self-forgetfulness. Yet even in that pattern hu- 
manity, it seems to me, we can sometimes see the 
first slight movement of those dispositions which, 
in almost all of us, grow into morbid self-conscious- 
ness. When He talks about the foxes having holes 
and the birds of the air having nests, while He 
has nowhere to lay His head, He is certainly aware 
that what He is doing is cutting Him off from the 
ordinary comforts and happinesses of mankind. 
When He asks His disciples what the world says 
about Him, and then what they, His most confiden- 
tial friends, believe about Him, there is an evident 
yearning of the human spirit for that appreciation 
which it always covets for its highest works. And 
when, in those unalterably sweet and sacred words 
at the last supper, He tells His Father that He has 
finished the work that had been given Him, and, 
like a tired child begging to be taken home, prays 
that He may be glorified " back again into the 
glory which He had "before the world was," surely 
His mind was on that development of His own 
marvellous nature which had been going on along 
with His work, and which He now felt just on the 
brink of its completion. All this there certainly 
was in His life. And these are just the elements 
that, in our lives, grow into hindering self-conscious- 
ness. But who that reads Jesus Christ's story thinks 
for a single moment that He lived in order to be 
happy, or in order to be appreciated, or even in 
order that His own nature might ripen to its fullest? 
No! that work of His that work which He loved 
so, and before which He seemed to stand sometimes 
so touchingly in awe, that work which He began to 
do even in His babyhood, which haunted his boy- 
hood, which filled every moment of His working 
years, to finish which He died at last, that was the 
thing He lived for. That was His meat and drink. 
In His doing of that everything else came to Him; 
happiness such as our hearts have never dreamed 
of; appreciation which has bent all the world's 
knees at His name; and growth which it bewilders 
us to think about. He sought the kingdom of God 
and His righteousness, and so all other things were 
added to Him. So it shall be to us if we can really 
forget ourselves, and live and die as He did in doing 
the work of God. 

I have said enough to show you where, I think, 
lies the true secret of escape from the power of self- 
consciousness that cripples and enfeebles us. Evi- 
dently we must have some great purpose in life, 
strong enough to command us out of ourselves. 
We must have some great work to do, so imperative 
and important that we shall not have time to think 
of ourselves in doing it. We see this wherever any 
great work does claim a man. The citizen who is 
wondering whether he is happy enough, whether he 
is appreciated enough, whether he is getting culture 
enough, suddenly hears the blast of the trumpet 
that tells him his country is in danger, and leaps to 
his feet and rushes to the field, and forgets them all 
in the devoted doing of a soldier's duty ; and happi- 
ness, credit, culture, come to him there as they 
would not come while he sat at home and called 
them. He gave up seeking them and they flew to 
him. He lost his life, and then he found it. The 
multitude followed Jesus from Bethsaida, and left 
their dinners on the other side of the lake ; and by 
and by they were sitting on the grass by fifties, eat- 
ing to the fill of bread and fish which His hands had 
blessed and multiplied. 

I know the answer that will come at once: "There 
is precisely my trouble. If some great task would 
call me, I could leave myself and follow it. I do 
not think it strange that Jesus Christ, with a world 
to save, could forget Himself. But I, with this 
small life; I, with these petty cares, what can I do 
to shake myself free from myself?  What is there left 
for me but self-consciousness? The ship that has 
its freight to carry to the Indies may well hurry on 
its way, and think only of the harbor it is bound to ; 
but the little boat tied to the wharf, and only rising 
and falling with the sluggish tide, what can it do 
but keep account of the decay of its slowly rotting 
planks, and listen to its own sides rubbing and 
wearing against the piers? " 

This is all natural. But the man who says it has 
lost the whole spirit of his Christianity. He is not 
talking like a Christian. The Christian is the man 
redeemed by Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ died for 
him, that he might have eternal life. My dear 
friends, that means something so much deeper than 
you think. Jesus Christ died for you, to show you 
that you were a child of God, and that God loved 
you. He claimed you by His death out of all low 
slaveries into His service. He showed you that you 
were capable of serving Him, and that He wanted 
you. If you can mount up to that idea, and believe 
that God wants you to do something for Him, will 
not that be your salvation from self-consciousness? 
Will you not easily forget yourself, as you stand in 
His ranks, waiting and listening to hear what He 
wants you to do? Will not that set you free? Oh, 
how St. Paul felt this! "You are not your own," 
he said; "not your own masters, nor your own 
slaves. You are not your own, you are bought with 
a price!* And again, "He died for all, that they 
which live should not henceforth live unto them- 
selves, but unto Him who died for them and rose 
again." That is the Salvation. 

And when, to a soul thus waiting, God comes and 
gives just the familiar homely duties that belong to 
all of us the house to keep, the bread to earn, the 
school to teach is it not enough? When will we 
Christians learn that not new and strange tasks, but 
new and strange solemnity and holiness in our old 
tasks, is what we are to expect by our conversion ! 
I do not see how any servant in the King's House 
can think his labor menial or poor, since he ministers 
in some way to that life by which the kingdom lives. 
And there is no task of God's giving that is too 
slight and low for a man to fling his whole soul into 
it, and by it escape the dangers of self-consciousness, 
if only he really believes that the task was really 
given him by God. 

The great transcendent truth of man's redemp- 
tion, and the petty duties of our daily life, stand in 
a very true and beautiful relationship to one another. 
They belong together. The truth of redemption 
would grow too vague and shadowy, if it were not 
fastened to familiar duties. The duties would grow 
mean and sordid, if they might not be glorified by 
being done in thankfulness for the redemption. Our 
daily duties are like the nails that hold the golden 
plates upon the walls of the temple. The golden 
plates would fall but for the nails that hold them ; 
and the nails would only worry and break and blot 
the wall if it were not for the golden plates they 
hold. 

And so, as the cure of all morbid self-conscious- 
ness, I preach to you the power of faithful and de- 
voted work: Do your duty and forget yourself. 
But I do not preach the dreary gospel of mere Busy- 
ness. Not simply by being busy do men escape 
from their own haunting selves; but by being God's 
servants men cease to be their own slaves. By a 
deep experience of sin and pardon you must learn 
how Christ bought you with His blood ; and then, 
overrunning with gratitude and longing to do any- 
thing for Him, nothing that you can do for Him 
will seem small. Any duty will be strong enough to 
break your chains and set you free. 

It is possible for a man to be so taken up with 
serving God, whether in great or little tasks, that he 
never stops to ask for his own happiness or credit or 
culture ; but as he goes on he is happy, though he 
never thinks of it ; and men give him thanks which 
are more sweet than praises ; and Christ is slowly 
formed within him day by day. So, as he forgets 
himself, his true self prospers. So, as he loses his 
life, he finds it where it is hid with Christ in God. 

With such a life possible, is it not strange that we 
can live the lives we do?
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