So I have been listening to a series of lectures by Professor Robert Solomon from The University of Texas at Austin. His lectures are on Philosophy and the idea of “Existentialism” which is pretty much the study of the individual while trying to understand one’s role or purpose in the world. The topic is very broad which is fascinating because I get to delve into so many different philosophies of different philosophers across the ages. From Camus, to Nietzsche, and all the way to Sarte. Some of the philosophers are hard-core atheists, while some of them are actually devout Christians. Nevertheless, it is personally rewarding to me because I had never learned about philosophy and this was my first time really getting my feet wet in the subject.
Anyways, the section of the lectures right now are based on a philosopher named Camut, a French Philosopher as well as writer who toyed with many ideas of human consciousness versus experience (I will talk about this later). But anyways, one of his works is called “The Fall” in which a man named Jean-Baptiste Clamence reflects about his life to a stranger in a bar in Amsterdam. Clamence tells his story of his “fall” from grace as a wealthy Parisian defense lawyer who was also well-respected in his community. He is a seemingly selfless man and did nothing “wrong” in his life. As a defense lawyer, he made it his life’s task to dedicate himself to standing up for those who couldn’t defend themselves such as poor women and children. He never does any true crimes, yet he finds himself in the middle of Amsterdam in the lowliest of bars which is a symbol for hell.
He realizes that although he never has committed any true “crimes” in terms of breaking the law, he believes that it was his pride and feeling of self-righteousness that has brought him from his expensive penthouse in Paris to this grungy-bar full of low-lives. For example, although he dedicated his life to helping the poor and the innocent, he did it more for a sense that he was doing “righteous work” in order to make himself feel better about himself, rather than doing it actually to help the needy. Clamence also tells the story in which he helps walk a blind man across a side-walk and bows his hat to him full of chivalry. But he realizes that by bowing his hat, it was simply a means of him making himself feel good and to others, rather than the true act of selflessness.
Which brings me to the question: Is there anything inherently truly “selfless” in life?
All the acts of kindness that we do for others… is it to make ourselves feel better or for the actual sake of helping others? Let me allude to an example in my real life. I love doing random acts of kindness to total strangers. A recent thing that I did was give up my seat on the bus to an elderly man. By doing this, I felt good inside because I felt that I was a selfless and kind person. So is my act truly selfless? Am I giving up my seat to the man to help him relieve of the pain of standing up, or rather boost my self-esteem and just feel good about myself by doing this? And do I have a sense that other people are watching me and applauding on the side from my kind acts?
So what is truly selfless? I guess we can get closer to the act of “true selflessness” if the action that we did to help others disadvantaged or was painful to us emotionally or physically in one regard or another. Donating one of your vital organs to save the life of another. Pushing a pedestrian out of the way of an incoming car with the risk of hurting yourself. Or possibly even sacrificing your life for the sake of others. But from whatever of these actions we do, don’t we have that self of righteousness that makes us feel warm and smug in our own pride?
I guess true selflessness can be more achieved if one is not conscious about his actions. By doing a random act of kindness without really thinking about it, we detach ourselves from feeling of smugness and pride, and simply do that act which benefits the person we are doing it for. If we help someone else out, do we keep thinking about how good we are by helping them out and brag to our friends about it? Or do we keep it to ourselves and not really think about it?
I remember seeing a passage from the Bible that alluded to this idea very well. Jesus told his disciples and all those who followed him that when you did acts of kindness you shouldn’t go on a podium and tell everyone about how righteous you were, but rather you should keep it to yourself. By being keeping these acts of kindness silent to yourself, God would already know the things that we did, which would ultimately benefit us in heaven. He warned us against going out in public and trying to show others how holy or selfless we were, because by doing so, we would totally undermine the entire purpose of being selfless in the first place.
So I am not bashing the idea of Random Acts of Kindness at all. In fact, it is one of the things that I believe in the most and that the world needs more of. I am just stating the idea that when you participate in such acts of kindness, you shouldn’t act smug and self-righteous. By doing so, you are simply being kind and thoughtful to others for your own benefit, rather than to actually help other people.
So try to really keep these things in mind. Life is a constant learning experience, and we can learn a deal from it first-hand or even from the ideas of others. So if you aren’t doing anything productive this summer, pick up a book. The world is yours.