Tuesday, February 18, 2014


For the last few months, my husband and I have been having intense discussions on reciprocity. Our arguments are so diverse and complicated (when jumbled in our heads) that I’ve reached a point where I need to assimilate my thoughts by writing it all out.

Ayn Rand was the first one to instill this idea in me that everything we do is selfish and rooted in appeasing our self. Any selfless compassionate act such as philanthropy is shaded by selfish instincts, because the acts make us feel good and less guilty. It sometimes makes one even feel superior, magnanimous and powerful. I understand that this is a cynical way of thinking.

The other perspective that changed my worldview is the concept of reciprocity as theorized by evolutionary biologists. Altruism stems from self-interest or genetic interest in protecting our species and in making sure we get protected. In our complex society, one needs to be cooperative and nice to others in order for the favor to be returned to us. If you get someone a gift, you know or at least expect (at some deep level) to receive something “good” in return. And if you believe in Karma, you subconsciously or consciously expect good Karma to follow you. So you expect to reap what you sow. This balance of reciprocity is what makes our society function. This might also be a cynical perspective.

But understanding the above two perspectives has made me that much more critical when it comes to “giving”. I try to be helpful to people from whom I know I will receive nothing in return… not even a thank you or a genuine feeling of happiness on their end. It is my way of cracking my ego and my inner need for any kind of reciprocity. It doesn’t mean that I pick out only such people to give or help… but I make sure that every year, I have a list of people that I give to unconditionally, truly without any strings of reciprocity. But even so, perhaps at some level, I expect good Karma to save me in times of my personal need and I do feel good that I helped someone so unconditionally. So, this nags me constantly. What do I do to commit at least one genuine selfless act, if there is one?

Here’s what I do - I give to people who are not (to put it mildly) nice to me. If someone is insensitive and callous and rude, I smile and give them a homemade batch of baked goods that I slaved over. This annoys my husband to no end. But I think this is Gandhi’s excellent philosophy to keep one’s ego in check - by giving to those who don’t treat you well and who will not give you anything in return. Even though one can still argue that this is not a truly selfless act, it is far less selfish than giving to someone who is good to you and who is sure to reciprocate. But maybe the knowledge or belief that the act is far less selfish by itself is a self-congratulatory one, thus nullifying everything.

I hate taking an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. As someone once said -  if everybody did that, we would all be eyeless and toothless. But according to my husband, do good (twice or thrice as much) to someone who is good to you, and do good to someone who truly deserves it (even if they will not return the favor to you in any tangible way). Don’t waste time on those who treat you bad or cannot care less about what you give. Treat them with the same disdain as they treat you with.

Writing it all out, it seems like my husband’s simple and efficient point of view makes more sense than my complicated one. I agree with him on all counts, except the last one.  
Here’s an example: If someone never wishes you on your birthday or special occasion because they have purposely omitted you from their annual “occasion reminders” and never bothers to add your date to the reminder (but has everyone else on their calendar-reminder list), and you know and remember their birthday or special occasion, would you decide to not wish them just to even the score? Because an eye for an eye and all that? How can you not wish them knowing and remembering what day it is? Forcing yourself to not wish them is feeding on your ego and revenge mentality isn’t it? But if you decide to wish them and get them a gift, are you trying to prove that you are a bigger person, thus bloating your ego anyway?

A conundrum. I would rather do the latter than the former, because you can’t really prove something to someone who doesn’t care. Building up on anger and revenge is such an unwanted negative energy… it leads to nothing constructive. However, if you took the latter approach, you are giving your relationship with the person a chance to amend and grow, and there is a possibility of positive changes. Even if nothing comes out of it, you are training yourself to give unconditionally. Right?


Suvasini said...

This is a rather practical problem, and I wish there were an equally practical and correct solution. As a biologist, I go with the evolutionary way for a theory about what makes us show any altruistic behavior whatsoever. It is true that as social creatures and as members of a species, our genes have shaped our psychology to survive better as a group. We are programmed to make decisions that promote our well being (eating, fondness for sugar and fat, sleep, etc) and we make sacrifices that either prompted by some logical basis (the need for quid-pro-quo) or driven by a emotional drive (for siblings, family, etc).

Over the years after debating with all of these theories and possibilities listed by you - I now follow a path of least resistance.

In a practical sense: I genuinely try and help good people - the assumption being all people are good unless definitively proven otherwise (because in most cases their individual circumstances remain unknown to us).

But when it comes to people who have genuinely done harm (to me or others I care about) - then i just weigh my cost-benefit ratio. How much effort am I to incur and how much will it benefit them? Low cost to me - high benefit to them - I just do it.

On most instances, I go by what I feel towards them. If i don't like them for whatever they have done - I stay away from them unless specifically asked for help. In fact, If someone approached me for help, I think i would rarely deny but I would not go out of my way to help people who have been nasty. This is in contrast to people who I genuinely care for and there I would be eager to help and do what I can.

I don't know if this makes sense but this is my practical approach that made the most sense to me.

On a different note - I do wish we could discuss these and other such ideas in person instead of me rambling on in the comments sections.... :)

Neeraja said...

Suvasini, thanks for sharing! Oh yes, I do wish we could meet in person :). But I really appreciate your comments and discussion too! Let me know if you plan a trip to the East Coast :)

I love your low cost-high benefit approach! It makes perfect sense, and now I realize that this is pretty much what my husband has been trying to convey, although in not so many words. I always take the most high-cost route and that's what bothers him the most and I see why. Something home-made is high cost (for me) but in all probability it will be perceived as low-benefit (materialistically and practically speaking) unless someone realizes the gesture as a relationship-building one. And the funny and complicated thing is - my perception of "high benefit" may not be their perception of "high benefit". So it really is a waste of time when it benefits no one eventually. It practically makes a lot of sense. But, just having to do this weighting niggles a part of me, because "I, me, myself" is always part of the equation, no matter how much I try to get away from it while performing a deed.

I think my problem is that part of me is idealistic and philosophical and another part me tries to be practical. Things get complicated when I try to be ideal and practical at the same time. I should just choose to either be idealistic about it or practical about it :).

Suvasini said...

Will do... hope to visit there sometime. :) And in case the sunny climes of California come calling - remember to drop in a line.

As for idealism and practical matters - I agree - its a tough call. I have tried to apply idealism in real life found it to be rather dispiriting because as biological creatures we find it hard to escape expectation. Expectation of return, gratitude, acknowledgement - anything; and that doesn't always happen. And as you say, an action with any expectation is not really selfless anymore. So it is a vicious circle.

Since theory didn't quite work clearly, then move to practice and make the best of the situation!

I have now embraced the fact that we are all creatures and products of evolution with our own drives and instincts. The mind has its own many foibles and its easy to be deceived. It also deceives us is many ways - as the many psychological tests show. We can't walk away from it all - all I try and do is be most aware of the reasons behind my actions. If its greed, I am honest about it and that moral scruple keeps my greed in check.

As for the balance, the toughest part for me, is when its high cost for you and high benefit for the other person (whom you may not necessarily like for genuine reasons)... that is usually when I wait it out and let fate intervene with an answer.

Neeraja said...

I have been mulling over this on my back-burner since morning. I was thinking of the high-cost high-benefit scenario, and frankly, I would do it. In my mind, every high-cost situation ideally leads to a high-benefit scenario, so I would very much want that. Partly, it is because it bothers me when a relationship is sour and I usually try hard to make it amenable.

Maybe it's all got to do with my need to please everyone :). Unraveling more and more... your discussion is like a therapy session for me... Haha, thanks :)

So it comes back to wounded ego! I guess I can never truly escape that. As you said, as biological creatures, we can't get away from all instincts, especially those that pertain to the "self". Being critical about our motivations do help, and I guess that's the best one can do to act responsibly and maturely.

Yeah, I owe a long overdue visit to California, so will ping you for sure!

Suvasini said...

Neeraja - Therapy session was completely unintended... but am glad the logic is convincing to other like-minded people.. :)

But l do disagree with you that every high cost investment leads to high benefit because as you see from your efforts - it is not necessarily the case.

I think we all value the efforts of only those people who are in our frame of reference - people who we like/care about and think about. We tolerate a lot for them and the rest are just a blip on our radar and we ignore much of what they do (good and bad), unless it directly impacts us. So your good gesture may often be ignored because the recipients priorities are different.

In some sense, I agree with your husband that, considering there are many people who deserve a good turn, your efforts are best served by directing it to those strangers who need it (and might actually deserve it) than to someone who doesn't need it and doesn't probably deserve it.

After all, if I understand correctly, your objective in the first place is selfish, to establish (to yourself at least, if not others) that 'you' can be altruistic even to someone who has not been good to you.

Simple things like a phone call or a wish or an email - I would do without hesitation because after all what does it cost me - a little bit of pride?
But I think significant more effort in any relationship - I think, should be earned by people.

As for wanting to be liked by everyone, I can understand that need and have seen it rise up on occasions too but then when i dissect it out further - I realize that I don't care about the good opinions of people I don't respect. And the few people that I do respect, the cost never feels high enough. After all, how can I care about what someone thinks of me if I don't think they are prudent or wise or honest or thoughtful in arriving at their opinion. The credibility of the source of the good opinion matters a lot - and that might make things easy for you.

Here is a biology-based summary:
I have come to believe that voluntary relationships should ideally be symbiotic, could be based on commensalism too but should certainly not be parasitic...

Sorry about the long, rambling answers - I wish I learn the art of brevity sometime!

Anonymous said...

How ironic that this blog post and all the discussions in the form of comments circle back and get stuck at where you started that " philanthropy is shaded by selfish instincts, because the acts make us feel good and less guilty. It sometimes makes one even feel superior, magnanimous and powerful" :). All this discussion of cost benefit analysis really does bring us back to "our needs", " our thoughts" and what we feel personally. While I agree that it is not worth it to spend time and effort trying to appease someone who treats you badly,I don't think there needs to be disdain. You could simply choose to ignore those people. I would rather go and help those people out who truly deserve it. This sums things up beautifully!

"In this life
Be kinder than necessary,
for everyone you meet is
fighting some kind of battle.

Live simply,
Love generously,
Care deeply,
Speak kindly.......

Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass.
It's about learning to dance in the rain.
Choose this day to not simply be alive but to LIVE.
And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years. --Abraham Lincoln

Neeraja said...

Suvasini and Anonymous person well versed with quotes :) - Thanks again for your comments.

Yes I think from the beginning it has been established that there is no truly selfless act, and every thread is just pointing to the same. But, I realize that my post is not very clear in differentiating "selfless" from "unconditional". I seem to have used the terms interchangeably, but now I wonder if there is indeed a difference, and if that is what I was rambling about.

Even if an act cannot be selfless, I think I am striving to do things that are unconditional. I define "unconditional" in terms of not expecting or wanting anything explicitly from the recipient. One might still feel good, but that feeling emanates from within. And I am not trying to do this to prove something to myself or others, I just want to adopt it as a way of life, to just train myself in certain areas. One of the reasons is because our spiritual texts ask us to do our duty without expecting returns, and that has always stayed with me. We forget to do that in simple every day acts, which all add up eventually.

And that's why Suvasini, in my mind, every high cost initiative ideally leads to high benefit, even if that's not reality. Just hope for the best and let things take their course :).

But amidst this discussion, I also realize that sometimes I do things "unconditionally" and that are of high-cost, because at some deep level, I expect to establish a harmonious relationship. I am not analyzing why someone would regard something I give as low-benefit - I'm past that kind of thinking in this " wizened age" ;). But it was a realization that when I try to be "unconditional", I am not totally being "unconditional" either.

So, where does this all lead? :). Try to do things as unconditionally as possible. Many times I may not be able to do so, and I may be frustrated to do so. In those cases, putting on a practical cap of weighing cost and benefits might just be utilitarian for all involved because it might help to identify if the "costs" are just my pride/ego or something more substantial!

Suvasini, brevity has never been my friend either, so don't worry. Aren't you familiar with my posts and comments? ;)

Thanks again for helping me sort this!

Karthik said...

I mostly agree with your husband !

Neeraja said...

Karthik, of course! I'm sure you are amused at the ways in which I complicate things :)

Karthik said...

yes, I am amused :)

Srishti Krish said...

I agree with Ayn Rand and ur husband. I don't think that Ayn Rand's view is cynical.It is the core of our existence to do things that satisfy the self. If by denying the self, we go against what is our core it will create only a negative cycle.A good act is a good act whether unconditional or selfish. Let's take the scenario where a person treats you bad and you go out of your way to be good/nice and if the person still continues to be just as before how long can you do good unconditionally?You might do it but your inner self will be rebelling against those acts... We need not develop hatred towards such people but we definitely need not waste our time on them . I would say if such a person approaches you later for help help them unconditionally. But till then do good for the ones who needs and appreciate(not praise) it rather than the ones who cant value it. I am talking about people in personal circle but if this comes in the context of wider impersonal circle, it will be different as in the case of social workers.

Neeraja said...

Thanks Srishti :). I like this sentence "A good act is a good act whether unconditional or selfish"

Guess that's all that really matters.

Many of our instincts are natural and form the core of our existence. But I believe it is a form of a self-enriching discipline to not always give into those instincts. It all definitely feeds back into the self.

How long can I keep giving to someone who doesn't value what I give? Good question. That's when I decide to be practical :)

I agree that practically speaking time is better spent on those that value or need what I have to offer. But as you say, this just concerns seemingly small acts that involve a personal circle.