A Rabbi was once asked to describe the difference between heaven and hell. By a wave of the hand he manifested a vision of hell; a group of hungry, emaciated men sitting at the dining table eagerly awaiting their lunch. The bowls of soup appeared. Problem was, their hands were shaped like unusually long spoons – as they attempted to eat they just couldn’t get the food into their mouth. It was agony! Nobody could eat. The rabbi then waved his other arm and manifested a vision of heaven. Interestingly, it was the same dinner table, the same cuisine and the same long spoon-shaped arms. In heaven, however, everyone seemed happy and healthy. As they began their meal, the secret was revealed. In heaven, everyone utilised their long spoons to feed the person opposite, and they were being fed in return. Perfect cooperation! He had graphically revealed the lesson: selflessness versus selfishness – that’s the difference between heaven and hell.
In the urban jungle, survival of the fittest is the name of the game. Our happiness is often founded upon the exploitation, mistreatment and detriment of others. If we are winning, it usually means someone else is losing. Spiritual communities of bygone ages, however, were based upon diametrically opposed ideals. Cooperation, respect and genuine concern for others were the cardinal principles underpinning social intercourse. Sharing, after all, is caring. Wisdom teachers explain how one can decipher the degradation of such community: first you will have to buy food, then you will have to buy water, then you will have to buy air! Previously, these commodities were freely exchanged amongst everyone. Nowadays people make a small fortune from them.
Selflessness even makes sense on a practical level. If every person in a community of 50 people is thinking about themselves, then everyone has one person looking after them. If we selflessly focus on others, however, then everyone has 49 caretakers! It may sound idealistic and utopian, but it really does work – for individual relationships, families, organisations and entire communities. The depth and quality of any interaction is based on the degree of selflessness employed. Until we change the ‘me’ to the ‘we,’ genuine relationships, inner fulfilment and deep spiritual experience will remain elusive. At every moment we are challenged to chip away at miserly selfishness, and become kind, open-hearted and generous souls.