The self-centric universe

“We do not exist for ourselves alone” Fr Ross Jones SJ reflects on the growth of individualism in our contemporary society.

I guess I am a bit of a city-slicker – not much one for holidaying in the great outdoors, in a distant country resort, or a quiet beach side getaway. I like the hum of the city. Its busyness. The throng of the people. So, during the holiday break I simply crossed the Bridge from Kirribilli and explored.
One thing intrigued me through that time in the city. I observed all the holidaymakers, especially the overseas visitors. So many of them armed with selfie-sticks. Their mobile phones ever at the ready. Thrusting them in front like the school’s fencers. Not wanting to miss a moment. There they were, in front of the Town Hall, or a Cathedral, the Archibald Fountain or The Queen Victoria Building. And click! A big face, or a twosome, frozen in time, and obscuring most of the beauty behind them.
One young guy I saw in a train, clicking away, shot after shot in the carriage, capturing his face endlessly – this pose, then that. I was walking along Circular Quay another time and a fellow in front of me had his phone pushed out ahead, focussing back at him. He was recording the whole time of his walking. What a great clip it must have been to show the family back at home, I thought. An expressionless face which looked absolutely disengaged, and a senseless sequence of where he had been.
It seemed to me there was no engagement with the present moment in all this. No time to take it in. No space for wonderment. No quiet reflection. No opportunity for appreciation. No sense of the gift. At the end of it all, just a digital device of some sort back home, and “megabytes of me”. The self. Frozen in a reality that was unembraced, unexplored, unsavoured. Just me, myself and I.

When our Jesuit schools first began, mid-1500s, the style we adopted was Renaissance humanism. Education of the whole human person – head, heart and hands. It included faith-formation, of course, and values. But unlike the existing schools of the time, it was never just about intellectual formation and career preparation to secure a good place for me in the world. It had a focus on what the student would later contribute to the common good of the society he would soon enter.

Narcissus, in Greek mythology, an early expression of the cult of the selfie perhaps.

The Roman writer, Cicero, was commonly studied. Not only because his style of writing was considered the best to emulate, but because he wrote about the best life one could lead – a decent life, a generous life, a virtuous life. One of those books of his was called On Civic Duty. There he wrote, “We do not exist for ourselves alone”.
That vision was soon endorsed in all of our schools. We didn’t have mottos then, but if we did, that would have been it. We are not here for ourselves alone. Certainly not trapped in a thousand images on an iPhone. Not all about me. Not self-interest and self-referenced. We are talking here about a social conscience. A greater good. Beyond the limited horizon of myself.
That’s why we have Faith in Service programs here, or Immersions to disadvantaged communities in Australia, or to the Philippines and Cambodia. Or why we have a Benenson Society and a new sustainability group. For you to serve in them and to be shaped by them. St Aloysius’ College looks outward to learn and to be leavened. To move from Me to Us.
In that book, Cicero went on to say that our role in life was the pursuit of justice and right order in society – even if that cost one’s life. Even if that cost one’s life, he said! No half-measures here. Cicero argued that we should learn and then live out self-sacrifice, courage and large-heartedness. He wrote that we ought to pursue “great deeds and ones useful in the highest degree to the common good.” And these were, he said, to be deeds “fraught with danger both to life itself and to many other goods that make life worth living”. That’s a big call. And Cicero lived out what he preached. He himself was killed for speaking out against the self-serving Roman leadership of his day. That is what inspired your fellow Jesuit students four hundred and seventy years ago.
Cicero, in fact, shares Gospel values. Grounded in the value of the human person. An inherent human dignity which stems from each person being loved by God. And when that worth is challenged or cheapened, we respond. Great as it is here, we are not at Aloys for ourselves alone.
So at the beginning of a new year, maybe ask yourself two questions. What is the sort of person I want to become? And What is the thumbprint I want to leave in time on the world for others?
We are not a School for selfies.
Fr Ross Jones SJ
Rector of St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point