A Scholar’s Parrot

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through [. . .]
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love—a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek—
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

The above excerpt is from a poem by C.S. Lewis called “As the Ruin Falls.” Now, it’s no great poetic feat, at least by literary standards (calm down, Wheaton; I love Lewis too, but there’s a reason he’s known for The Chronicles of Narnia and not as a poet). Nevertheless, it is a beautiful and sophisticated expression of an ultimately human frustration: the impossibility of selflessness. With the unique comparison between a parrot’s linguistic abilities and his own capacity to love, Lewis makes a provocative assertion. Do we, as humans, really just fake sentiments such as selfless love in the same way parrots babble with no true understanding behind their speech?

Just thinking about the word “selfless” for a few seconds reveals what a contradiction it is to our every instinct. Self-less. Without self. What a novel idea. For we have been created as beings, physically embodied, and with hearts, souls, and minds to boot. How then can we be selfless? I would argue we cannot. We are, as Lewis writes, “self-imprisoned” inside our “proper skin,” and have no way of extracting ourselves from . . . ourselves. Even linguistically, we are going around in circles. Like the parrot in the poem, we may sound intelligent enough—until we run out of vocabulary.

When we describe a person as selfless, then, we really mean to say that they are acting selflessly. If we are unable to literally be “without self,” perhaps we can at least display the virtue externally. Yet when we explore this possibility, we find it to be a catch-22 once again. Truly selfless decisions aren’t decisions that just put others’ interests above our own (though, certainly, they are that as well). Selfless decisions, by definition, are those we make without even taking ourselves into account. I don’t think I’ve ever actually acted in such a manner. In my experience, there is no such thing as an unmixed motive. I resonate deeply with the second line of Lewis’s poem: “I never had a selfless thought since I was born.” The verse in Isaiah (64:6) comparing our righteous acts to filthy rags suddenly makes more sense. Even our very best efforts stem from impure motives.

Perhaps some of you would protest this allegation. You are sure you have done something selfless at some point in your life; if not you, then someone you know, or some¬one you heard about on the news or read about in a history textbook. Jesus called us to be selfless, you might argue. Why would he give such a command if we are unable to follow it? Allow me to make a suggestion. Go to a concordance and look up the word “selfless.” Whether you check the NIV, ESV, KJV, NLT, or NASB, you will not find a single entry in any of the major translations. Surprised? So was I. Why is the concept of selflessness so ingrained in the Christian worldview when the word doesn’t appear in the Bible once?

What we do find in Scripture are verses like Philippians 2:4, which commands, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also the interests of others” (ESV, emphasis added). Here we see Paul instructing the Church to consider others, not in place of, but in addition to ourselves. Or take Luke 6:35, smack dab in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus charges his followers to “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High.” Christ requires us to love, not without regard to ourselves, but in the knowledge that we will gain a great reward. There’s a reason why Jesus didn’t just tell us to “love your neighbor.” He had to add the qualifier “as yourself.” The concept of loving someone just to love them is, tragically, something foreign to the human race. We may love because we are loved in return, or even because it’s “what good Christians do,” but never solely just to love them. Not only do we have to be commanded to love others, but the very command has to be explained in terms of self.

This seems to be a fairly dismal view of humanity. If even our purest acts are born out of mixed motivations, what are we left with? Maybe in the purest sense of the word, selflessness is unattainable. Perhaps the best we can do, as fallen people, is not to eradicate selfishness completely, but rather to ignore it—to be like the scholar’s parrot and pretend we “talk Greek.” In other words, to do “selfless” acts in the full knowledge that the quotation marks are absolutely necessary. God is perfectly capable of redeeming our tainted motives.

In a way, it means more that we must forego our own desires for the sake of others. If we were able to completely remove ourselves from the equation, we would, in doing so, also remove the element of sacrifice. By comparison, the word “sacrifice” shows up somewhere in the vicinity of 300 times in Scripture, depending on what translation you look at. The writer of Hebrews instructs his readers, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16). This verse says nothing about doing good or sharing selflessly; it tells us to do these things sacrificially.

Christ demonstrates this concept in the Garden of Gethsemane. He, being fully man, felt the selfish impulse to escape pain and death. He prayed that the Father might “let this cup pass from me.” Then he added, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). And then he went to the cross, and bled, and died. His sacrifice was not selfless in the sense that he gave no thought to himself, but was full and complete because he chose to subject his will to the will of the Father. So we are commanded in Ephesians 5:2, “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

When all is said and done, perhaps we are all like the scholar’s parrot. As the parrot seems to be able to talk coherently, in Greek nonetheless, so we seem to be capable of selflessness. As we have seen, however, in neither case do appearances reflect reality. But if we really are parroting through life, let us parrot the greatest “scholar” we could choose—our Lord himself. As he gave himself up for us, so we also are called, not to eradicate selfishness, but to sacrificially overcome it. Let us not cripple ourselves by constantly questioning our motives. Instead, selved as we are, let us be fragrant offerings and sacrifices to God.

Linnea Peckham is a senior English literature major from Milford, PA. She knew Charlie Kwak before he played the guitar.


Thumbnail: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, by Dale M McDonald.

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