The Myth Of Selflessness
I remember one time when I was maybe fourteen or so, coming to the conclusion that there was no such thing as altruism. I didn’t know the word “altruism” at the time, I don’t think, so when I walked into my dad’s office to challenge him with the idea, I phrased it something like this: “Everything that anybody ever does is selfish.”
“What do you mean?” he said.
“Well.” I had been thinking about this for a while. “People control their own actions. We choose what we do. And even when we do something nice for someone else, we get something in return. We’re rewarded for doing the nice thing. And that’s why we do it. Even if the reward is just a thank you. That makes us feel better about ourselves, so that’s why we do it. Even if the person you help doesn’t say thank you, you still get a reward. Even it’s just a smile. Or even if it’s not a smile. Even if it’s nothing you can see. Just knowing you helped someone can be the reward. It feels good to help someone. When I do something nice for someone, something that makes someone else happy, or feel better or something, that makes me happy. It makes me feel better about myself. I know this and that’s why I ever do anything nice for someone. To make myself feel good. I choose to do it, to get something, this good feeling, for myself. So it’s really totally selfish in the end.”
He considered it for a minute and then disagreed. “No, I can think of times where I do something totally for someone else,” he said. “For you. And your sister. There are times where I do things for you not because it makes me happy to do it, but just because it makes you happy.”
“But making me happy makes you happy,” I said. “Otherwise you wouldn’t do it. I mean, you choose to do it.”
“No, there’s a difference. And I don’t expect you to necessarily be able to understand it. But there are times when I do something that I really don’t want to do, just because it makes you happy. But not because it makes me happy to see you happy. It’s something else.” He cited giving me money to buy expensive clothes. It was the ’80s, and I’d developed a taste for Polo by Ralph Lauren. “It doesn’t make me happy to see you happy about something like clothes. But I do it anyway. It’s hard to explain. It has to do with being your parent.”
I didn’t like this answer at all. I didn’t like him making a claim to some mysterious secret knowledge that I didn’t have access to.
Thirty-five years later, with a kid of my own, I found myself thinking about this recently when my kid told me that he didn’t have to listen to me or his mother or his teachers. “I listen to my brain,” he said. “My brain tells me what to do.” Great, I thought. But I couldn’t very well disagree, and resigned myself to years of what is so often the futile system of reward and punishment we use to get the human lab-rats around us to do what we want.
But I think I understand more of what my father was talking about now. I think he was talking about the difference between seeking happiness and fulfilling parental obligation—and I agree there’s a difference, and one I could not have known about before my kid was born. As I’ve written here before, the feeling of living more for the kid than for myself was a revelation I experienced upon first looking at him in the delivery room. It’s held up to a large degree, and like my dad had said, it is not always happy-making. I can’t cite anything as concrete as buying the kid something even though I find the joy he finds in it distasteful—that seems like a more advanced parent-to-teenager type of misery than I’ve yet discovered in these first five and a half years. The most selfless obligation I can think of is probably more like carrying the kid up three flights of stairs and the two blocks home from the subway just because he’s fallen asleep on the train. I’ve done this a number of times, and not because me happy. In fact, it makes my back hurt. And it’s not for pleasure I might get out of making the kid happy. It doesn’t make the kid happy; he’s asleep and doesn’t know any difference. Is it the pleasure I get in the avoidance of making him unhappy? Like, it’s easier to carry him than deal with his crankiness upon waking. That would be a form of seeking happiness, I think, seeking relative pleasure. But I don’t think it’s that, either. He’s usually not so grumpy in such a situation. And even if he was, I wouldn’t mind it more than the sore back. It has to do with the obligation I feel simply to let him sleep. Because sleep is good for him. And I feel a strong and ever-present pull to do what I think is good for him. I guess you could wrap this around to something like: Submitting to this pull, the fulfillment of this obligation, does in fact make me feel happy, or some vaguer form of positive emotion. Or, at the very least, it avoids the bad feeling that would come from not fulfilling the obligation—and that’s a grade of comparative happiness. And in that regard, I guess I’m back to my original 14-year-old assertion that there’s no such thing as a selfless act. It is my brain, after all, that’s telling me what to do. But I think there is actually something different and more complex going on. Because the way it feels, when my back is hurting as I carry the kid up on the elevator and into our apartment, it’s almost as if it’s not my brain telling me what to do. It’s something else, it’s for him.