I remember exactly the first time I lied to be thought virtuous. It was a school test. It had general questions. One question was this: Do you help your mother around the house regularly? I’ll ignore the assumption that only “mothers” are supposed to work around the house for now. I wrote “Yes” as the answer.
Now I did help around the house. Sometimes. When I felt like it. It wasn’t a compulsion or a duty or anything. If I was asked to do something, I did it sometimes, sometimes I refused saying I was doing important things like playing. It wasn’t a big deal. So the true answer would have been “Sometimes”. But we were asked to answer in just Yes or No.
I wrote Yes because of two reasons. One was to account for the “Sometimes”; I didn’t think it was fair to ignore all of the work that I did in the face of the times that I didn’t. The second reason brings us to today’s topic: I wanted the teacher to think that I was good.
What does being good mean exactly?
A simple definition would be to be kind, generous, helpful to the people around you. But these words themselves are pretty vague as far as their own definitions are concerned. What does being kind mean? What is the line between being generous and being taken advantage of? What constitutes help and where do we stop it?
Being selfless combines all of the above if we look at it simplistically. And selflessness?
Altruism: the quality of unselfish concern for the welfare of others.
To be unselfish?
A selfish person is one “lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.”
I refuse to believe that anybody is completely selfless. All of us are selfish in varying degrees. And all of us know it deep down. And it’s not such a bad thing. Why then, this need to be considered “selfless” by others?
I think I’m considerate enough towards people as a general rule. I think I help them reasonably; not doing their entire work, of course, but as much as is genuinely needed. If had to choose a path that benefits everyone, I would choose it over the one that benefits just me. I would try and avoid the path that hinders others. But if there was a choice between a path benefits somebody else but harms me in any way, I don’t think I’m selfless enough or virtuous enough to choose it. I don’t think I can let anyone matter more than me.
It sounds harsh when I say this perhaps. But I don’t think I’m wrong. There’s a difference between being good and being taken for granted. I have no qualms in doing something for another being; I can take a little bit of trouble for it. Because it makes me feel good. I have to admit that it is about me even then. It is always about me.
And yet, we have this inherent need to be considered good by others, especially when we are young and in school. Hence, I have to tell my teacher that I’m “helpful” and “obedient” in my house. I have to share that last bit of cake with my classmates even though it is my favourite and I don’t want anybody else to eat it. But I have to share because I’m good and “generous”. I have to help people with their homework because I’m a “kind” person, and it doesn’t matter that they gave some superficial excuse not to do it. Otherwise, I shall be considered “selfish”. It’s okay if I’m not actually good inside my head, with my thoughts, as long as I’m being considered good by the world.
It has become easier to think for myself first and then others as I’ve grown older. But as a society, we continue to expect people to confirm to these behaviours. Don’t get me wrong. The children have to be taught these things, even if it doesn’t come naturally to them at first. But what about teaching them about that fine line of difference? What about when they grow older? Do we still expect them to be just as “virtuous”?
All of this does not mean that one should always keep oneself above others at all times. But real kindness, generosity or helpfulness is, in fact, completely selfish.
To be selfless is completely selfish.
It is in our own selfish interest of feeling good that we help somebody. And that, right there, is goodness.
What do you consider to be good? How do you learn what is the right sort of kindness/helpfulness/generosity? Is it easy to teach children about being good rather than just being considered good?