People move across continents to “save the children of Africa.” They adapt to the simple life of taking baths instead of showers, they engage in battles with houseflies for food, they cook with firewood. They learn the slang and wear vintage. They become honorary Africans.
And we applaud them. We applaud them for their courage and enormous hearts. That they would leave the comfort of their continents to help us out of darkness. But in truth, if they really wanted to help, they could have done it in their own backyards. They had the suffering, malnourished, uneducated, homeless people right where they were.
And that’s the thing about unselfish deeds; that they are non-existent.
Think of your noblest action. Something unspeakably kind and selfless. Why did you do it? To help humanity? Because you are an incredible human being? No, you did it for selfish reasons. To feel wanted. To be more fulfilled. Maybe you did it to rid yourself of the guilt of privilege. The point is that you did it for yourself.
If indeed our deeds were unselfish, we wouldn’t attach so much importance to gratitude. As soon as children learn to speak, we teach them to “receive with thanks.” The moment someone takes from us and doesn’t act indebted, we grumble.
We expect the man whose girlfriend donated her kidney to him to love her unceasingly. He’s not allowed to fall out of love. If he does, we call him a despicable human being with no moral campus.
When a man gives to the woman he loves, he is doing it for himself. He is trying to lure her to himself. There is an unspoken timeline for her to keeping receiving without giving her feelings. After a while when his ‘unconditional love’ isn’t returned, he gets frustrated and moves on.
Parents want their children to give them a good return on the sacrifices that they made to bring them up. They won’t let their children forget the late nights nursing them back to health. They won’t let them forget that it took blood sweat and tears to give them a better life than the one they had. They guilt-trip them into paying for their ‘selflessness.’
In the digital age, we are fond of advertising our good deeds on social media under the guise of creating awareness. We pretend that it’s about the people we are helping.
And when we have gained enough support to do grand acts of kindness, we plan dinners and give ourselves awards. When we receive them, we act unexcited and undeserving. But we want the awards. And we are going to hang them in our living rooms and talk about them while still pretending to be humbled and surprised.
If we look closely at those we praise for great heroic acts, we will find that most of them didn’t do it for the good of the majority. They did it for the woman they loved. They did it so their side could win. They did it to fight back. They did it for themselves. Their deeds were, as everyone’s deeds are, selfish.