Today my mum wrote a post on altruism, which triggered something old and familiar hiding away in the back of my mind. As she noted in her post, it simply feels good to do good; yet is reaping personal gains from one’s altruistic acts a perversion of the spirit of altruism? Now I will drop my story into the pot to add to her contribution.
Some number of years ago when I was 16 and the very same ruminator that I have always been, I voluntarily paid a visit to the school counsellor to talk about an internal conflict I was struggling with.
She welcomed me in. I sat down on the sofa. She asked me what I wanted to talk about. So I outlined what had been on my mind:
“I’ve been thinking about doing good things to help other people. I’ve always had this strong feeling that I want to do things to help people, that I want my job to be one that is about helping people. It’s been a drive that has always been there. I never used to think there was anything amiss with that, I mean I don’t know where it comes from… I once came up with the rationale that it was because there was nothing else I needed in life… That I had already got so much that there was really nothing else for me but to help other people to have as much luck as I have had. To help them know freedom and happiness and opportunity as much as possible, just for themselves, just because everyone should have this experience of life. I’ve felt this desire since childhood. But even if I don’t quite know why this has been such a strong feeling, I used to think ‘Well… wanting to help people, make their life easier or happier, that shouldn’t be anything to worry about right?’
But lately I’ve been thinking about what is underneath the desire to help people. What is the basic reason, the thought from which there is no exit? And what it comes down to, personally, is that it feels good when I’ve helped someone. To see them feeling good, to know that I’ve made something easier for them… It makes me feel happy, more than happy, like there is something glowing deep in my chest, and like I could sail through the next days without any need for food.
So then I realised. Self-interest is the root of altruism. That’s what it comes down to. We do it because it makes us feel good. So even if you think you’re doing a good deed because you want to help the other person… that’s not true is it, you’re doing the good deed because you want to make yourself feel good. Even if you think you’re interested in the other person, ultimately what you’re interested in is yourself. Everything returns to selfishness.
Everything returns to selfishness. We can never really think of another? Even when we’re trying to share and work for another’s benefit… When it comes down to it we can never step outside of ourselves. We are always alone, stuck in ourselves, doing only for ourselves, thinking only for ourselves. Is this all there is? Is that it for being human, this limited existence?”
Cue the teary eyes and crestfallen face. At the heart of it.. I was feeling that… there was something lonely about that. It seemed somehow that human existence was fundamentally lonely. This made me really, really sad.
What did the counsellor say?
“Well I don’t know what to say to that. I don’t know what to tell you,” she said as she gave me kind eyes and a tissue. “But…….” she started with a burgeoning smile, “I hope you’ll come back and talk to me again. You’re a very interesting person!”
My mind did a double-take in response. ‘Huh? You’re a counsellor! You’re supposed to have answers! I’m an interesting person?? What can I do with that? How does that help? Tell me what to do…………………?’
Of course I was aware it would have been childish to reply like that so instead I sat there and sniffled and wiped my eyes.
I did go back to see her once or twice after that, to talk about something else on my mind, because in all honesty she was good to talk to. Non-judgemental, reasonable, wise, well-meaning. Although I desperately wanted her to tell me what to do, she never did. What she provided with her airy, quiet office was an open space for my thoughts when the rest of the school was clearly not the place for them.
It took a few more years of thinking and living before I could move on from that depressing conclusion. At some point I realised that this singularity of experience and understanding does make sense, it is simply a condition of having life as this discrete human identity. Yes, we each have this one body and can only be ourselves. Even if we all had the same brains and the same genes if we each have a physical body in a non-uniform physical space, then we would still all experience different things because we can not stand in the same spot at the same time. Beside me is not where I am. And yes, we have to care about our own selves and survive. That is the deal. There is nothing wrong with that, and it can’t be helped.
I also figured out later on that if your intention is to help someone for their sake, then that is genuinely your intention. It is a great thing that helping others can make us feel so good. But just because that does happen, that it’s parallel or inevitable or a side-effect, however you want to put it, it doesn’t mean you that were acting expressly out of selfishness. You weren’t picturing yourself when you were thinking about helping this other person. It’s a symbiotic relationship that exists between living according to what you care about and the happiness that comes from such active caring. They are wrapped up in each other. And that’s nothing but a good thing 🙂 You’re not a bad person because doing something good for someone else happens to make you feel good. You’re lucky.
Le voila, that is roughly where I am today. I’m also less concerned with the loneliness issue because although we are still all essentially, necessarily separate, I think that there are at least moments when we share things, or inhabit some shared mindspace or understanding that is more than what we are on our own. I don’t think we meet in an already established place of togetherness, I think it’s something we create anew together. I could be perfectly deluded in this thinking, it sounds like a nice fantasy 😀 Whatever the case, I keep believing in it.