There is a popular idea that there is no such thing as an unselfish act. If you do something to help someone else you end up feeling good, benefiting yourself. And this is called selfish.
My answer to that is a story: Two high-school students have each spent the last year saving up to buy a good bicycle. They’ve given away their free time to work and do odd-jobs, all so they can save up for these bikes. On the way to the store, each with cash in hand, they talk with excitement about how great it will be to race through the town, and out into the country on their new rides.
On the way they run into a classmate. He’s a bit down, as he has been for some time. They ask him what is up. The classmate begins to spill what has been happening. His dad lost his job sometime ago. Their savings is running out. Now they have to make a decision between food and rent. He is on the verge of tears, uncertain what the future holds.
The two friends decide to do something drastic. They give their classmate their hard earned money. The problem may not be solved, but for this month, at least, their classmate’s family can eat without ending up on the street.
As the two friends change their course from the bike shop to home, one of them is overjoyed. He can’t stop thinking about how surprised the classmate’s family will be when they see the money. How overjoyed they will be that someone cared! He is beaming.
The other friend is beside himself. He can’t stop thinking about the bike he doesn’t have. All that work for nothing. Why’d that dad have to lose his job? It’s his fault his family has no money. And now he doesn’t have a bike. His wishes he could take his money back.
Now which one of these two friends is the selfish one? The claim was that feeling good about a selfless act is evidence of selfishness. But in reality, feeling good about doing something for the benefit of others is evidence the act came unselfishly. True selfishness would despise such an act.
I have come to realize this answer is too simple. Though I believe it is true, it is only part of the picture. In reality, doing something selflessly often does not feel good. A perfect example of this is trying to help someone with addiction. You give of your time, energy, love, and self to help them overcome their habit, only to find they’ve carelessly taken it up again. When you invest yourself in them, they turn against you, lashing out at you as if you were the problem, trying to take away something good.
It can be tempting to give up when the object of your care doesn’t even seem to care and returns your love with hatred. To see the results of unselfishness requires perseverance through undeserved abuse. If you do finally get there, to the turning point where help is received and cherished, that good feeling may be numbed through constant betrayals.
This is the shortcoming of my original response, and of the idea there is no such thing as an unselfish act. It limits the “unselfish” to small acts with an immediate good feeling. Giving some cash to a homeless person, giving up your spot to someone else. Little things that require no deep investment of self. It confuses feelings with unselfishness. Really the measure of unselfishness is the giving of yourself.
We need to have a deeper understanding of unselfishness. We can easily recognize it in others, but for ourselves, we often consider mere trifles the full depth of unselfishness. We need more people who are willing to suffer unselfishness. The really problems of this world are not solved by throwing some change in a cup, or prescribing a few pills. The root of the problem requires a service that may at times be unappreciated or unwanted, but is unrelenting and unselfish.