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Looking for selfless deeds

Magnifying Glass created in photoshop with the words focus on quality

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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18 comments

  1. ls Jul 04, 2010 9:11 pm 1

    What a great article to read. I have lately caught myself expecting the same kindness from others that I “think” I am giving them. I hope with this new knowledge that I can learn to slowly let my expectations go and do selfless things with the right intentions.

  2. neuro Jul 05, 2010 3:26 pm 2

    This is a great article. It pertains to something that i continuously struggle with–that is balancing good deeds/altruism with naivete and protecting my rights. But I also understand now that one of the major reasons for our existence is to seek God’s satisfaction by being kind to others, which trumps any small transgression of our rights…as long as our intention is correct.

  3. Sergy Jul 05, 2010 4:28 pm 3

    The classic Hobbesian principle that we still accept today is that people act on behalf of pleasure. Every action that man does is for his own gain. If this is true then how can any act in its strictess sense ever be selfless?

  4. sp Jul 05, 2010 9:44 pm 4

    First of all thank you for this article that has dissected my problem right to the point. I do detect both signs “the seeking pleasure” and “the expectation” in my actions. Now the question in hand is how I can improve my good deeds intention? Is the cure will be simply to oppose both signs at outset? Or two different approaches required for fighting each of the above negative desires?

  5. Happi Jul 06, 2010 7:42 am 5

    Helping others without an agenda is freedom.

    After reading this article I thought that before doing something for another person, I should ask myself: “What is my expectation?”. This question helped me become conscious of my ego. “The ego’s expectations is the negative feeling”. An example of unhealthy expectation is when I want to control another person. This sort of manipulation, in some extreme cases, can lead to emotional abuse. However, when I give up the need to control, my ego becomes silent.
    Thank you very much for this valuable article.

  6. Nancy Jul 08, 2010 8:50 pm 6

    The day before the article was released I had a plan to help somebody, and I set my intention to genuinely help them. That night, after I performed my deed I wasn’t happy with the result. I told myself that the act was a fruitless attempt! The next day I read this article and suddenly I realized that the answer to my problem is right here. I analyzed myself and came to the conclusion that I have some kind of expectation and my intention wasn’t as pure as I first thought. This captivating article showed me that when trying to perform a selfless act one must first purify ones intention, he/she can have no expectations nor he/she should envision an outcome. Because, even the slightest expectation or desire of recognition can turn the most altruistic act black, tainted with greed and egoism. Thanks so much for the help.

  7. Fritz Jul 09, 2010 4:15 pm 7

    Thank you for a thought provoking article.

    One solution to the problem of having expectation might be to do as many good deeds as possible for as many strangers we come in contact with on daily bases.
    We have fewer expectations from people we do not know compared to friends and family. We can practice being nice and helpful with strangers and then apply the routine to friends and family hoping to have fewer expectation of gratitude in return.

  8. Juneone Jul 14, 2010 5:10 pm 8

    I can relate to what is shared here. I had a bad feeling yesterday after i divulged a lot of personal information to someone in telling him about my efforts to “help” someone else. In the midst of the conversation I realized that I was doing so many things wrong, and truth be told, what I REALLY wanted was to get a pat on on the back for being so thoughtful and helpful. I most definitely need to give up the desire to maniuplate and control. It sours everything. Thank you for the article.

  9. OCMaj Jul 15, 2010 1:26 am 9

    :: To Sergy ::
    I somewhat agree with the principle that you are citing. Maybe in its more complete form we can say: “the trait of every existence is to attract that which benefits it and reject that which harms it.”
    I think as bi-dimensional beings, if we deepen our field of perception, we may find benefits to our existence that necessarily do not line up with our common “sensorial pleasure” and reflect a deeper spiritual pleasure which yet can be strongly motivating.

  10. NN Jul 16, 2010 5:59 pm 10

    This was a great article. So many times I find myself “looking” for others to be thankful for acts of kindness I have shown them. Many times at work I’m looking for someone to acknowledge the deed. Rather than appreciating the deed itself, I have become selfish in the quest for recognition.

  11. Sergy Jul 19, 2010 1:40 pm 11

    ::To OCMaj::

    Certainly a deeper spiritual pleasure should be our strongest motivation.

  12. Smiley Aug 02, 2010 10:39 am 12

    Following Fritz’s comment. I also think that doing many good deeds will start making us forget about them. The more we do something the more benign these acts appear important to our eyes. Then we will do them without thinking, without expecting and helping others will become part of our nature.

  13. N Aug 22, 2010 6:54 pm 13

    When I studied this article, I told myself : I can try it from right now by doing something good everyday with “as selfless an intention as possible” and without expecting anything from the others. It was so interesting! This practise helps me to learn not to expect from the people for whom I have “done something”. No matter whether they are relatives or strangers. To be done consciously and with a planning. Thank U.

  14. r Aug 30, 2010 3:42 pm 14

    Thank you very much for this insightful article.
    It reminded me of a time when I was working as a young physician in England.
    The NHS was supporting a program of cremation for loved ones who had passed and encouraged physicians to discuss this issue with the family. If the family decided to go ahead with the cremation, the physician who signed the death certificate would get a small amount of money for his efforts, even if the physician never had a conversation with the family. I always thought that this was a bit bizarre and never tried to convince the family but it was in fact common practice for a lot of people to cremate their loved ones and I would regularly get a check as the certifying physician. I had decided that I should not take this money and after thorough investigation, I had told the hospital administration to directly send the check as a anonymous donation to the Children’s hospital. This way, I thought, I don’t get money “for nothing”, I donate it to a good cause after making sure that the money was used properly, and most of all no one knew it was me. On a regular basis I would get a letter from the administration telling me that they send the check to the hospital. After a year, I became curious to see how much I have actually donated to the Hospital and took the letters out to calculate the total sum of my donation. It rounded up to quiet a sum and as soon as I had the total number, I felt terrible because it was as if all my efforts for a selfless deed were gone once I had that total sum. There was no one there except me but I knew that that action had nullified all my previous effort because my intention at that time was to feel good about myself and somehow still get the recognition for my “selfless” deed, even though it was only to myself. I was bragging to myself about how “wonderful” I was and padding myself on the shoulder about what a “selfless” deed I had done over the last year… Beware, no way is too difficult for your ego to show itself!

  15. blue Sep 30, 2010 3:51 am 15

    I am so thankful for these articles; I regard them as instruments to use in self analysis. It almost always never fails when an article comes along that touches on a situation that I have been dealing with, if not ruminating in my mind for awhile. In this case, it’s the analysis of gratefulness and its corollary, ungratefulness. I regard this article as a tool I need to move away from my own feelings of resentment that have developed due to a recent situation in this regard. The article poignantly highlights the need to see the benefit and saliency of self evaluation and the intention we allegedly had when offering service to someone. And in my case, when there was no “thank you”, I became upset. However, I too have been ungrateful and this is a valuable lesson in forgiveness, expectation and intention.

  16. wire Sep 07, 2011 3:23 pm 16

    If I find myself in a situation where I can choose to do or not to do a certain act, sometimes I decide to do it because I think it will count as a good deed. However, I am not sure this is true, because I did not seek out that act. On the other hand, I did not have to perform that act, so is my intention correct in this case?

  17. ad. Aug 05, 2012 12:38 am 17

    @wire
    Is your question about intention vs act (i.e the intention can count as an act in itself) ?
    If you could give an example that could perhaps help clarify the context.

    “In general, each act is considered a specific case, and countless material (circumstances, environment, personality, etc.) or spiritual (the true value of an action, intention, etc.) factors play a role”. (Elahi, B., Path of Perfection, p.107).

  18. no name Jul 10, 2014 10:52 am 18

    For some being selfless is just a reaction . For some I can’t speak for the rest of you. It’s like fight or flight mode. Some have it at different times but others may not know what they are capable of until the need to react is at the door. Others react then later try to profit from there actions. I was raised to be selfless but who cares. I don’t care. I do care that others do the same. It hurts my bones to be around selfish people that ignore those in need. Rich poor fat skinny good-looking ugly ethnicity or faith it doesn’t matter. HELP! I can’t speak for all those in need of help but for the most part they don’t care if your helping for your own personal gain anyway so JUST REACT.

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