Monday, August 31, 2009

Selfish Generosity

I have gained, in the past five years, an undeserved reputation for generosity and patience. Like most people, I'm a fairly selfish runt with genuine interest in other people's welfare, but the first interest is in myself. I learned the finer points of *behaving* as if I'm not a complete bag of greed first from my mom and then from my best friend (to whom I am undyingly and truly grateful) - but it's all behavior, habituated and applied over years, and not really altruistic.

As I've grown older, the nature of my selfishness has changed - I no longer care about presents, nor (shockingly) even getting all sorts of attention - but it's basically unchanged in magnitude and priority. It's been an easy matter to turn down the drama queen-ism I suffered in my twenties, and I've learned how to focus outward. But by and large, I don't mind talking about myself any more than anyone else does; and it takes real love for me to worry much about other people's blabber. An increasing streak of valing my privacy has gone a long way to toning down the greater part of my attention-grabbing ways, and I'm sure that is all to the best as far as everyone is concerned.

Strange, though, this idea people have cultivated about me regarding generosity.

To a certain point, I've always had a capacity for helping other people. Since I was fourteen years old, I've been "Dear Abby" to my friends - and, possibly even more usefully, possessed of a great ability to distract people from their problems. I almost never know what to say regarding my friends' losses, or fears - but I have long cultivated the accidentally-discovered habit of, at least for a little while, removing their focus from the worst things at hand. With certain people, I'm even able to deliver that most inappropriate of gifts, for the unhappy, escape by laughter.

I'm inordinately pleased with myself for having this facility. My ability and desire to ease the frustrations of those around me is very real; the urge to it is incredibly compelling. When a friend recently called me for substantial practical advice, on a huge choice she and her husband were facing, I went against my own desires and usual wisdom to feel her out, to understand the situation, and to make a recommendation which takes them away from me by a factor of a couple thousand miles. I'm sorry to say goodbye to people I do love; but so flattered that I was asked for a viewpoint at all. And excited for the prospects they have waiting. I have a need to see those I care about always better off, and this is not generosity.

If I had my way in the one aspect of my supposed kindness to others, let it be said that the bottom-line payback would be for myself first, as truly as I feel it would benefit anybody else.

I am DRIVEN by others' welfare, but to mistake this for goodness misses the many many points on which the benefit of those I love becomes my own asset.

The person who best understands the mercenary nature of my selfishness also, oddly enough, has been the person who most reveled in it - has enjoyed both indulging my essentially greedy natur, and indulging IN it. The purchase of a pair of shoes, with the right person, can become a little thrill of shared fun - the fullest sense of unnecessary "indulgence", consumerism, profligacy.

A dirty little secret about the various kinds of love we have in this world is the extent to which giving someone else pleasure really just feeds our own. The triumph it can be to find JUST the right gift for my mom, not an easy woman to buy things for, is really strong. The excitement of what it's like to make my brother laugh is prideful as much as it could be amusing. The fun of "play", just because something you do makes a niece squeal and want to play again.

Those I love aren't incidental to my pleasure in life, but they feed it inextricably, and anything they get out of whatever possible action I may take for their happiness is nothing compared to the reason that drives me at all.

I realize it is impossible to express any of this without sounding insufferably self-sainted. It's a frustrating thing. Honesty with myself (and selected others) is too important for this to be as muddy as it inevitably ends up being expressed.

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