When I was a senior in high school I had a Humanities teacher who decided to have some fun with us one day by arguing that there is no such thing as selflessness. Everything we do is selfish in some way, unless we’re a slave or a prisoner. For those of us who are free, we’re always doing what we choose to do. Therefore what we do is always selfish, no matter how noble it might be.
Most of the students felt there was something wrong with that, but no one did well saying why. That bastard didn’t let us off the hook by showing us how to defeat his argument. Maybe he didn’t know. Maybe he actually believed it. Teachers can be so subversive.
It wouldn’t be hard for me to defeat this idea today. I spent a career helping people. I still help people in my retirement as a volunteer, something I started when my time was still valued in money. It’s true that there always has been something for me in that, but often that is much less than what I give up, what I endure, even what I suffer sometimes for the sake of others.
Then I’m also better able to recognize a logical fallacy now than I was in high school. Ah, once again here is the old problem of black and white thinking! This time is the version of that which says things can have only one reason or only one thing can be going on at a time. No, selflessness can coexist with some selfishness. It’s true of sex, of friendship, of many things everyone experiences, even if many of us limit our selflessness to a few select friends and family. Selflessness doesn’t have to be absolute.
I would have acted much differently in my career as a physician if it had been all for me. I’d have spent more time doing the most lucrative thing I did, being an expert for lawyers. I’d even gone on and be something more lucrative, being a whore for lawyers, saying whatever the highest bidder wanted said. Of course there was something selfish in my not doing that to my self-image, but not being a whore left me time and the inclination to be selfless in some ways. Someone has to try quite hard to be nothing but selfish in one’s life.
Only someone with little experience at selflessness would believe our self-preservation or self-sufficiency negates being selfless at the same time. Experience is the only way I learned that I can choose to be selfless for reasons that aren’t entirely selfish. I didn’t start off to be selfless for anyone. I grew up in an angry home where everyone needed to watch what they did and said for their own sake. That doesn’t teach someone to do anything extra. I was going to be a researcher because I loved the orderliness and beauty of science, the way it transformed the world into something more intimate, and because I was good at learning science. I wasn’t good at research, though. I had trouble making equipment work right. I’d wander into some dead end and stayed with it instead of moving on to something productive.
So if I’d stayed in physics, maybe I would have been a theoretician. I got the highest grade in the class in some courses where math was key. But I tired of physics. For one thing there aren’t many women in it. So I already had shifted into biomedical research, then medical school. That gave me a different alternative to not being good at research. I could help people. Unexpectedly I was good at that. In turns out that growing up in an abusive home can train someone to read other people well. People who know they need help are even easier to read than people who lie about themselves in big ways. There is this threshold where people give up being self-sufficient and only tell little lies. They open up, hoping someone will in fact help them, even somewhat magically.
Today when I help needy people, I know the one thing I do that alleviates suffering the most is to act in a way that helps people with their anxiety and shame about being needy. That’s often worse than someone’s material deficiencies. No magic is needed to help anxiety and shame, just knowledge about how there’s almost always something to do that helps someone’s fears and an attitude that there’s nothing real about shame. Everyone fails. How easily someone fails or how deeply that person fails rarely relates to our society’s myths about that, that people who work hard do well, that people who are talented do well, that good people do well. Life has ways of chewing up almost anyone. People are lucky if they avoid unemployment, substance abuse, mental or physical illness, family strife, legal problems, and being a victim of crime or natural disaster, even if they don’t know how lucky they are. Many of my clients today have more than one problem from that list. They all feel some shame. They don’t need to.
I didn’t know that in my twenties. Only a few people feel shame about being ill. People generally don’t believe that disease comes from sin any more. So few people I helped in my twenties had shame. They had anxiety. They needed someone to tell them how they didn’t need to be afraid. So I usually could do that. Why did I? I seemed to be good at it, so that was good for my self-image. But there was always something else. It feels good in me when someone else relaxes. I’ve trusted that feeling a lot more than verbal expressions of gratitude, some of which are not credible. I’m glad that most people express gratitude rather than not, but it’s seeing someone be better from something I did, even just temporarily, that was so seductive in teaching me selflessness.
Now it’s easy to say that’s something selfish in me, that it’s a matter of my pride in being able to do something that helps people. It was at first, but then I knew quite well that I had some talent for this. The next thousand people I helped after that weren’t necessary for me to reassure myself of my talent. So then there is this vicarious joy in seeing someone else feel better. Is that selfish? One might say so. I’d have a lot harder time helping people if it made me feel disgust each time. Yet I could get a similar joy much more easily in other ways. There are so many other experiences where I don’t have to work at all to get a similar joy, such as eating, listening to music, or watching TV. Those truly are selfish. No one else feels anything with my doing those things. I may even feel good in sympathy with a TV character that doesn’t exist. There’s some waste in that.
It’s different to feel joy in sympathy with a real person, even if that person just moves on from one suffering I can help to another where I’m impotent. Now that I’m a volunteer, the selflessness is clearer, not just because I’m not being paid, but because the burden on me is clearer than it once was. The needy are not easy to help. There’s little money in it. If there were there wouldn’t be so many needy. Some with illnesses suffer more than my average client, but there are many resources for someone with the right health insurance. To some degree all my clients on are their own. They can get limited help, but no one cares for them the way a physician is responsible for a patient.
Intellectually I can write for a very long time about the value of helping people, yet that’s not why I do it. That’s an excuse that makes me more comfortable about surrendering to the real reason. It’s like when I read Bertrand Russell in my youth reasoning his way toward saying the ultimate good things are benevolence and knowledge. He would have said “love and truth” like many religions say, but he was emphasizing that love needs to be an active love and truth needs to be practical. I agreed with him. It’s comforting to see someone write what I want to hear.
I want to be doing the right thing, for myself as well as for whatever there is greater than me. I don’t have to do that. I could rebel against my conscience. I can use slogans and theories to excuse myself from my conscience, but in me my conscience is too compelling for me to do that or maybe my self is too weak to resist. My conscience is like my body. It’s something attached to me, but it’s not me. I know it’s some combination of biology, culture and God. Others would make that simpler, but I’ve read what people say about this from many directions, and they’re all narrowed-minded on the subject, trying to be an advocate of atheism or a theism that has God alone doing everything. It’s more than any such oversimplification.
I don’t help people because of the vicarious joy that tells me when I’ve done something to help them, no matter how small or transient that help might be. That’s far too little to keep me at it. I help because I wandered into a life of helping people, and my conscience kept me at that more than I would have without it. I can write about surrendering to my conscience, first little by little, then in a big way. I can write about that as surrendering to God, and it’s the same story. Whoever and whatever God is, it’s the same story, even if God is more than my conscience, as I suspect, and my conscience is more than just God’s creation, as I also suspect.
There are several things about helping people that are giving up part of me. It’s nothing new. Matthew 25: 31-46 is a compelling direction about helping people, even if many Bible-believing Christians ignore it. They ignore God in the process. At the same time to give up to my conscience and/or to God helps me. I wish differing views of religion didn’t obscure that so much. So many people want to say that they run their lives rationally, not some conscience of mysterious origin or our rebellion against that conscience. It’s not true. I’ve yet to see any human being who is purely rational.
So whom do we trust? I’ve trusted myself at times. I don’t think I’m that good at running my life. That’s what drove me to prayer in my thirties. There is something greater than me. I at least have a conscience as an expression of that greatness, maybe some communication that is more spiritual as well. I don’t see how to utilize either fully without selflessness. It’s tricky to learn to give up control of oneself. There are people masquerading as something greater who aren’t that at all. It takes time. For one thing there is an element of reinventing the wheel in this as our cultural role models aren’t very good at balancing selflessness and what I need to be healthy.
There is such a thing as selflessness, and it’s a very good thing. Give me that high school teacher back to be my student for a year, and maybe I could teach him that despite all his cynicism. What an afterlife that would be, but if God wanted me to do that, I’d trust Him. I’ve learned to trust Him for deciding what is worth doing.