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?