An analogy I’ve been giving some thought to lately is that of cells in a human body. I think they have something to say about the meaning of selflessness, and how to balance the needs of the individual against that of the whole.
From the beginning, cells are differentiated by function: liver cells, lung cells, heart cells, etc. Each has a role to play, although roles may differ greatly. However, all cells have a significance to the whole. A healthy organism does not part with its living cells if it can avoid it. If someone came at me with a scalpel, there’s really no part I’d want to give away!
Further, although individual cells have their own notion of health and prosperity, this health is meaningless if the entire organism becomes sick or depressed. The health of the body is the health of its cells, but the health of any cell is also, directly or indirectly, dependent on the health of the body. There is a correspondence between the micro and macro, like a single image reflected in countless mirrors.
This notion of identity held by the person, even though he is physically a moving forms of cells, transcends any grouping of those cells. If you take away arms, ears, or feet, a person would still claim that “I” persists. This “I” is not dependent on the cells, even though it is expressed through and affected by them. In this way, the self of the cell is meaningless on its own; its being lies in how it supports the higher self.
Thus the value of a cell lies entirely in how it serves the whole. Even if some cells play a crucial role at times, brain cells, heart cells, every cell is valued for its function, not the mere fact of its individuality. There is no cell we prize in the body over others simply for its uniqueness. Each cell’s distinction lies in service to a being greater than itself.
This is a subtle point between intrinsic and extrinsic value. A single rose has great value in that its existence gives us access to roseness for a while; without it and others, roseness would be inaccessible. So too, individuals manifest the attributes of God in the world; as Christ said, “Ye are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?”
When we play this role, that of manifesting or serving a higher reality, it fulfills our being and grants us extreme value. But this is not an intrinsic merit; it is contingent on our relationship to that greater being. This is what I mean by saying that a cell’s value consists in its function, not its independent reality apart from the body.
When the cell finds its happiness in what it can do to render this service, and measures happiness by the well-being of the whole, I think it has attained to selflessness; not by denying itself, but by shifting its locus of awareness to a higher plane. On that plane, all cells are equal, because their purpose, their joy, their ultimate goal, is equal. In the physical plane they differ by function, but on this higher plane, of the being they support, they differ not at all. I think of this when reading the following Islamic tradition, also quoted by Bahá’u’lláh:
“Manifold and mysterious is My relationship with God. I am He, Himself, and He is I, Myself, except that I am that I am, and He is that He is.” So too, I am my cells, and my cells are I, though we each have our own being, in our own sphere.