By The Revd Canon James Mustard
Currently, I’m reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Klara and the Sun.’ It is the story of Klara, a robot in a department store who, day-by-day, stands in the window waiting to be bought. She exists only to serve and please others, notably her shop-floor manager and her future owners. She is notable for her curiosity and empathy, both toward her fellow domestic robots and humans. She loves standing in the shop window, both because she is curious about the world outside and because she, like all her kind, is powered by solar energy and she thrives in the sunlight.
This is a sci-fi novel in the best tradition of the genre: taking something fantastical, though not entirely unimaginable, and using it as a device to explore our human nature. In this case, how we learn to be empathetic through observation and experience, and our hard-wired need to be needed.
Reflection upon the need to be needed runs very deeply in Christian thought and tradition. On the one hand, God, the creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible, needs nothing and no-one. Indeed, most misrepresentations of God begin with the incorrect assumption that God somehow needs us, needs our prayers, needs our loyalty, or even needs protecting.
On the other hand, in Jesus, God is one of us. In Jesus, God experiences human life and shows us what Divine love looks like: it looks like the Cross. What Jesus shows us is that the most God-like and transformative thing we can do is to serve others. That truly serving others can be very costly. But the more we serve, the greater the transforming effect we have.
The need to be needed can, therefore, be something of immense benefit if it turns us away from ourselves and towards others, towards communities, towards service, towards finding ourselves as part of a wider group. Indeed, it can be Christ-like.
But we also risk losing ourselves in trying to satisfy our need to be needed. There is only one Jesus. No one else can bear all the burdens of the world. We need to be realistic about our need to care for ourselves as well as others, and to know the limits of what we can do for others.
Klara knows no such limits. She is created only to serve, not to be cherished in her own right. She is a commodity. Indeed, Klara lives with the terrible knowledge that she will, at some point, be superseded by the next, upgraded model of companion robot. Her desire to please will no doubt lead to her being exploited and rejected. Klara and her kind, in common with other forms of indenture and slavery, allow humans to divorce themselves from empathy and being needed. Klara enables her owners to engage only with their wants and needs. The irony therefore is that Klara may be more fully-human than her owners.
‘That’s not very Christian!’ is a common complaint. Usually when someone does not get what they want. Sometimes, Christians are expected to be like Klara, acting entirely without self-interest, meeting the wants and needs of others. This distances the accuser from his or her own need to be needed. Sometimes, therefore, the most Christian response is ‘no.’