Two people can perform an act of kindness, the exact same one in fact, and for one of them the act is selfless and the other it is selfish. How can that be true? Well, it seems to me that it all comes down to motive. It is the why behind our actions; the true reason we do something, anything, especially for someone else.
As I have been on my journey of self discovery that the universe has so kindly ushered me into (thank you universe!), one of the things I have uncovered in my own life is the realization that I have not always done things with the purest of motives in mind. Ugh, I hate admitting this to you or to myself! That isn’t to say that everything I have done has been a scheme either, but I can see where I have rationalized decisions and actions with a superficial nod to the greater good, when I was aware at some level that I would benefit from doing so. And while I am certain every human does this to some degree, it is nevertheless something I must put to self examination. Why do I do what I do? Is it ultimately to serve me, even if it is wrapped nicely in an act of kindness or generosity? Or do I genuinely have others at heart regardless of the benefit to me?
This is a scary question to address. If you ask my most recent ex-wife, she would tell you that I am the most self absorbed narcissistic human to ever come into existence. In fact, she told me that quite often in the years leading to our eventual demise. Ultimately I came to believe her. It was a brainwashing of sorts. It was actually a very effective control mechanism. She new that I was sensitive about appearing arrogant, conceited or selfish, because I never wanted to be. But in accusing me of that very thing she played into my fears and insecurities. As such, I was always checking my motives. “Am I doing the dishes because I really want to be helpful? Or, am I doing them to curry favor with the wife?” Or even more insidious… “Am I doing them to appear like I want to be helpful?” A sociopath would use every action to affect an outcome that would benefit them. “Shit! Am I a sociopath?” Well, as I am working through my me discovery, I am beginning to unwind the truth about all of that.
Needless to say, I was always on an eggshell carpet around her. I tried triply hard to please her, and all the while making sure I was doing it for the right reasons. But the thing is, the way it was setup, it was impossible to be altruistic in my motives because I was always trying to protect my ass! It was all looping in on itself. I would want to do something to please her, but I also HAD to do things to please her in order to keep her from playing the selfish narcissist card. As you can see, this was not a healthy relationship, and I am thankful beyond words that I am out of it.
If you are a woman I wonder how many times you have heard the phrase “You don’t appreciate a single thing I do!”? As a man, I wonder, how many times have you said that phrase and meant it to your core? Well, I think appreciation, motive, giving and taking are all tied together tightly in a Gordian knot, and the only way to untie it is to slice through it. So let’s.
The truth is very few people are utterly selfless. We all expect something in return for what we give. In fact, our economy would collapse if we didn’t participate in trade. In reality, that is what we do in life. We trade. I will love you, and if I do, you will love me in return. If there is no reciprocation in a relationship, then we will all eventually lose energy and give up. Even in many religious systems the notion of doing something good for others results in “treasures in heaven” for you. Hmm, maybe Mother Theresa was a selfish sociopathic narcissist? Okay, so maybe you get my point. We are all aware that we might benefit from acts of kindness that we perform. Frankly, if there was never the hope of that benefit, there would be many less acts of kindness in the world, and that would be scary indeed.
But is it possible to have good intentions along side the awareness that we also might benefit? Here is our salvation in this mess. Not just yes, but HELL YES! This is what I have recently figured out. Yes, I did things to keep peace, and to keep her happy, and to curry favor, but I wanted to. You see? I wanted to. In my heart, I knew that giving fuels others regardless of the benefit to me. Yes I would likely benefit, but that’s okay! Let me explain. I know a woman that is from the WWII generation. She honestly believes that if you love your job, it isn’t honest work. So in her mind work and enjoyment are mutually exclusive. One cannot co-exist with the other. That’s insane! But that is what I was up against. As it turns out, that was my ex-mother in law. That type of thinking was passed on to her daughter.
Now I get it. My ex-wife believed unless I was feeling tortured in doing selfless things, and if there was even a shred of a chance that I might benefit from the act I was performing, my efforts were purely selfish! In her economy of thinking, nothing I ever did that could potentially benefit me counted. So guess what? Nothing ever counted. Ever.
In reality I love to give. I love it. I love to do things for others and see them enriched for my efforts. The truth is, the thing I receive the most from doing things for others is the look on their face. That smile of gratitude. You don’t need to reciprocate with me. That smile is enough, and that was what I wanted in return all along…