What does it mean to ‘live for others’?

The great Albert Schweitzer (apparently) once said, “”Life becomes harder for us when we live for others, but it also becomes richer and happier.”

The concept of ‘living for others’ is a major tenant of most spiritual practices in today’s world. One can find this concept in just about every major religion from the East to the West. Jesus and Buddha taught it alike, and it is often used as a solution to the 21st century individual’s problem of depression and hopelessness.

Many people have found meaning in serving others — in taking on causes bigger than themselves that are of this earth. They have attempted to put aside their own needs — at least in a relative sense — for those of others. They have eschewed riches, fame, and fortune in some cases because of the contradiction. They have written books on how best to serve others and how best to be happy in the process. They have given speeches, made YouTube videos, etc. There is seemingly no end to this realm of thinking in today’s world. The proponents of it seem to all suggest that it’s simply a matter of putting aside selfishness and individualism while finding the area where one is best suited to serve others. It could be through charitable giving, education, health care, writing, and so on. This is the meaning of life, according to many, even if they don’t always call it that.

The question is: can an individual logically live for others? Is it possible? Can an individual be empathetic and understanding enough to even truly KNOW what another individual needs? Or is it simply a matter of asking and doing what is asked? This would seem obvious. However, if ‘living for others’ means simply obeying their wishes, isn’t this a form of servitude? Conversely, if ‘living for others’ means giving others what you think they need for your own sake, isn’t that just living for yourself THROUGH others?

This is the paradox of this spiritual canard: how does one live for others without losing himself or herself in the process? The individual ceases to exist if this is taken to extremes. If everyone ‘lived for others,’ then our society would resemble Huxley’s Brave New World, where “everyone belongs to everyone else.” In this type of world, a person is deemed selfish or unorthodox if they so much as prefer one sexual partner over another because “everyone belongs to everyone else.”

Of course, a dystopian society is not what the proponents of ‘living for others’ are suggesting. The point is that it is not so obvious how an individual keeps his individuality while ‘living for others,’ and if the counter to this is that the individual should lose his individuality, then there are no ‘others’ to live for. It’s a murky, abstract concept that needs definition.

I confess that I have been trying to ‘live for others’ for much of my life — but I do not know what it means.

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