unattainable selflessness


What was your last truly selfless deed?

Really think about that question before moving on.

Did you volunteer at a soup kitchen? Did you help an old lady cross the street? Did you help a friend study for a test? All of these may seem all well and good – you’re sacrificing your most precious resource, your time, to help someone you don’t really need to help. There’s no direct benefit for you. Or is there?

When I volunteer for something or go out of my way to help someone out, it tends to make me feel a little bit better about myself. Call me crazy, but occasionally I enjoy helping people. This, however, does not make me selfless. Not in the least. In fact, if anything it makes me selfish. A direct correspondence lies in me helping people and my emotional well-being. We are, in part, defined by our social interactions. So if I never helped a friend from out of town look for housing in Lakewood on a Saturday afternoon, if I never visited my cousin at work to try and make his night a little bit better, I wouldn’t feel very good about myself.

I am not impressed by Toby Keith when he goes and performs for the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wants to do that. It makes him feel good – not to mention the fact that it’s great press. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not glad he’s performing for soldiers. The greater good is much of the time served by acting out of self-interest. That’s one of the founding principles upon which a capitalistic economy is based.

my pipe dream

I spend much of my time writing a novel that will no doubt be an international best-seller…riiiiight. Anyway, if this novel does take off and I inspire someone to change their ways or make their life better, what do I say when they thank me? When that fan mail comes in and says, “Thank you Jeff for turning my life around with this book!”, do I acknowledge it by smiling generously and saying “You’re welcome!”?

Hell no!

I wanted to write that book. I didn’t spend hundreds of man hours for that person. I did it to satisfy my own personal needs. A result of my self-interest is that I changed a life, but I didn’t do it for them. I did it for me. If anything, I should be thanking them for upping the ante on my royalties, not to mention the inherent ego-stroking involved in their fan mail.

i am more impressed…

…by someone who volunteers once a week at a soup kitchen and hates it then by someone who volunteers every day and loves it. The former is someone who is truly selfless while the latter does it more out of self-interest. They may convince themselves that they’re so altruistic and benevolent, but they’re not. I’ve known some shit-bags in my years who volunteered a fair amount of their time for various non-profits and cause-related events. Their volunteerism should not make anyone think better of them – anybody who knows them, anyway. Self-interest lay at the heart of their outward “altruism.” But hey, that old-folks home got their leaves raked, didn’t they?

99.9% of the population is not naturally selfless. And I say that with a 100% degree of certainty. But this is why it’s such an important quality. Not because it’s rare. But because it must be forced. Anybody can naturally radiate a positive vibe and make others feel better about themselves. Anybody can be naturally humble and not brag about their good deeds, brushing off compliments with a wave of the hand. But incredibly few can be truly selfless.

Find something that makes you absolutely miserable. Something that would help out a complete stranger to a huge degree and not help you at all. In fact, it’d be better if this thing you did put you at some kind of a disadvantage. And do that thing. And don’t feel good about it…at least not for too long 🙂

so i ask you again:

What was your last truly selfless deed?



5 Responses to “unattainable selflessness”

  1. Greg Strosaker Says:

    There is no such thing as selflessness or true altruism. All motivations are selfish – even the person who works in a soup kitchen and “hates” it derives some sort of satisfaction out of doing it, even if its to feel less guilty or appease his sense of obligation. In Superfreakonomics, they discuss recent experiments that show that a previous belief that people were intrinsically altruistic were false, as this altruism was only motivated by the fact that observers were watching. Once observers were removed (at least in an obvious sense), the altruism disappeared. Ayn Rand also discusses the false promise of altruism in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

    Your post was timely, I was just cogitating up a post myself on this very topic.

  2. Bridget Weber Says:

    The perfect “Friends” clip to prove your point:

    If you’ve never seen this episode, Phoebe later lets a bee sting her, figuring that the bee is happy, and she is miserable, which makes it a good deed (but the bee died afterward).

    Good post!

  3. jeffhirz Says:

    Greg – Very good point with the sense of obligation. You went deeper with that one word than I think I went in my entire post.

    I agree with you to an extent. The tiny pinprick of an idealist in me believes that there has to be some sense of altruism SOMEWHERE at SOMETIME in the world. I can’t say that I’ve witnessed that small dot of altruism, or that I ever will, but as a matter of faith and principle, however ignorant, I have to believe that it existed or does exist.

  4. Barnes Says:

    Q: What was my last truly selfless deed?

    A: Reading this blog post!

    Haha, good joke huh? No but really, good point but way to make every good thing someone seem selfish now. Don’t go doing any motivational speeches anytime soon

  5. Mr. Durden Says:

    do you know anyone that is truly selfless. I bet they would be strange company. I would like to meet them though.

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