“Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.” –J.M. Barrie.

Okay, so I’ve been thinking about the question of good deeds. I will admit that this idea stemmed from an episode of “Friends”. I realize that it is superficial, and that there are loads of holes in their arguments, but see for yourself.

Here we go: Are all good deeds selfish? Is there such a thing as a selfless good deed? I’ve been thinking about examples for a really long time, and I can’t come up with a really solid one. I’ve been doing service for several years, and even if I don’t always want to, I console myself with the fact that I’m helping someone, so I feel better. I used to volunteer as a dance teacher for preschoolers every Monday. Some days, I would have tons of homework, or I’d be really tired or having a bad day, but my mom would make me go anyway. And I always felt better afterwards. I always felt that I had given those little girls something of myself, and because they were happy that I showed up, I was happy I showed up. This past semester was the same thing. I worked with a group of children who had Autism or Asperger’s, and the days I didn’t want to go but went anyway were the most rewarding.

Consider this clip from “Friends” later on in the same episode. Now, I hate yard work. Except for mowing the grass or planting flowers. I especially hate raking leaves. I mean, I really, really hate raking leaves. But in March, a group of friends went to do yard work for the Sisters of Providence. Of course, one of my jobs was raking leaves. And even though I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the work, they fed us afterwards. One of them even baked us cookies. So I’m very confused. I always thought service was completely selfless. Is it still selfless if you, also, get something out of it? What is the definition of selfless service?

Am I taking this way out of context? Probably. But let’s go about this logically. According to my high school’s mission statement, AHS “enjoys a tradition of academic excellence and development of Christian leaders who are committed to the values of compassion toward all and service to those in need.” So, I did service in high school (a) because it was required; (b) because I like helping people; (c) because I was promoting “the Christian attitudes of care and compassion for all people”. Okay then. That makes sense. I can get on board with that. But somewhere in there, service made me feel good about myself, as well as helping and bringing joy to others. Which brings me to my next question: If one is required to do service, does this lessen the selfless effects? Does this make the person selfless if they are doing it simply because they need the credit? The Bible calls us to “act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). By doing service, I’m attempting to fulfill this instruction.

Even when I was doing required service, I tried to pick something I enjoyed. This way, I could get something out of it as well as giving something to those I was serving. Is this so wrong? Is this selfish? Or was I simply embracing the old adage that the more you put into something, the more you’ll get out of it? I’m torn on this point. So, I’m going to turn to wiser people than myself. Albert Einstein said, “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” So, if I live my life serving others, I will have a rewarding life. Selfless and yet, I’m getting something out of it. Confucius agrees with Einstein, saying “He who wishes to secure the good of others, has already secured his own.” Either way, if you do something for others, you do something for yourself. Pro: You are doing something good. Second Pro: You feel good. Question: Does feeling good about it take away from the selflessness of the act?

After a quick Google search, it turns out that this is actual a philosophical problem. Let me sum up. It involves the relationship between psychological egoism and ethical egoism. The former states that human actions are always motivated by self-interest, even if these actions seem to provide for the welfare of others. The latter states that humans ought to act in their own self-interest no matter what. The opposite of these is altruism, which states that humans are obligated to help others. Of course, psychological and ethical egoism only consider how things are, rather than how they should be. So, all good deeds should be selfless, but they usually end up being selfish. Therefore, it is up to humans to decide whether they should act from ego or from altruism to truly do anything good in the world.

I’m rambling. My head hurts. And I still feel as if I am no closer to figuring it out. I’m not going to stop doing service, but I’m getting the sense that the question of selfless service is purely ontological. It’s one of the massive ethical questions that are put on earth to mess with my mind. And also teach me. I guess I’m just supposed to figure it out and then apply it to my life. In this upcoming year of service, I hope to push myself beyond my comfort level, even though I’m working with the same agency. The more I push my comfort level, the more growth. I’m never going to get to 5’4”, but my neurons are certainly firing. Feedback definitely appreciated.

Rhetorically yours,

S.

“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

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4 thoughts on ““Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.” –J.M. Barrie.

  1. I remember that episode! I actually thought of it right before I saw the link. But my thoughts on this matter is that you don’t have to be miserable while doing service in order to make it selfless, you can enjoy it too I think. I mean, look at Mother Theresa. Dedicated her life to service and I have a feeling she loved doing what she did, but I don’t think anyone would call her selfish. I suppose it just depends on what viewpoint you decide to take. I suppose I sometimes feel selfish about these situations too, but I guess like you said it just becomes ontological.

    If you want to get a good laugh though to keep your head from hurting, read about my weekend. And just picture it. You’ll know what I’m talking about.

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