To do good, as we all know, is not only helping, supporting and comforting others. It is also and above all doing it with as selfless an intention as possible, by trying to put aside our own egotistical interests. I say “as selfless an intention as possible,” since experience shows that perfect selflessness is an ideal hardly ever attainable. Making this an absolute condition for a truly ethical act, may hinder our motivation for something that we know is out of our reach anyway. To speak of acts as-selfless-as-possible is not only to recognise that what seems to be generosity is often no more than disguised ambition (La Rochefoucauld); it is an incentive to trace in ourselves more subtle forms of egotistical interests—of the kind that would go unnoticed, were it not for distinctive signs.
One of the signs that allow us to identify such hidden egotistical interests is the pleasure we take in making our good deeds known to others. Jesus said: “Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth, for that thine alms may be in secret; and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee” (Matthew 6:3). We know all this, and yet we cannot help mentioning, in the course of a casual conversation, that we are in the know about so-and-so’s problems, that we sympathise with his distress and only deplore that he will not listen to the good advice we’ve lavished on him… In a word, we show-off. The problem with showing-off is that it’s counterproductive. In seeking other people’s approval, we are likely to act in a way that comes off as disagreeable, or even dreadful.
Another well-known sign denoting the ego’s expectations is the negative feeling we nurture towards those we have done good to but who have failed to show us gratitude in return. It is a feeling of sadness and disappointment which, if we choose to ignore it, may transform itself into anger and resentment. If only we would listen closely, we’d discern the presence of the ego in this inner outraged voice that shouts: “After all I have done for her!” However, frustration does not always come from not having been thanked or returned the favour. As we know all too well, whether out of sheer politeness or as part of our basic moral education, we should ask neither for thanks nor for compensations. But expectations come in more subtle forms. For example, we may expect from this same person things that are far more interesting: that she keeps us informed on a daily basis of all of her little affairs. We’ve supported, defended and advised her. She must now provide a detailed account of all that happens to her and grant us permanent access to her private life! And she better watch out if she resists. Because from then on, we’ll become stingy with our counsel (“after all, she must learn to deal on her own”); in a more or less direct manner, we’ll make sure she feels of just what privilege she’s deprived herself by being ungrateful (“as it is also my duty to protect myself from other’s ungratefulness…”). In short, we’ll seek revenge but all the while search for means to ease our conscience. In the best case scenario, at the very least we’ll have lost a good deal of the enthusiasm we had felt unwinding the problems of this person who now suddenly reclaims her freedom.
I hear a protesting voice within me: “What? Is it not natural to expect from others that they show gratitude?” In reality, there is nothing more natural. It is indeed in our nature to like those who are grateful and to dislike ungrateful people. However, enjoying gratitude is one thing, expecting it is another. In fact, ingratitude is also natural. Expecting others always to be grateful is denying human nature; it is forgetting that, since we ourselves share this very nature, it happens on occasion that we show a similar kind of ingratitude. Would it not be better to forgive others for a breach we’d like to be forgiven for?
But most importantly, although it is a good thing to be able to recognise ungrateful people as it is necessary in life to know whom we are dealing with, learning to remain unaffected by ingratitude is a real liberation. By reaching such a state of mind, even momentarily, we get to taste the pleasure of what affection without expectancy or a relationship without constraint could be like. We get to appreciate other people without being chained by the latent desire for a payback. We feel freer, more serene, more detached; simply put, we become a bit happier!
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