Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Seeking the Highest Good for All

Yes, this is the post where I plead for more page views for someone else's benefit...or is it?

Think for a minute of the youngest generation in your family. Don't you love seeing their eyes light up?

Is it possible that you enjoy making a child smile even more than the child enjoys smiling? My mother used to like snapping pictures, trying to capture family moments of joy. Recently she and I were sorting out the most hopelessly faded pictures in a box. We came to an old yellowed snapshot showing a little girl holding out a spoon for a toddler to lick. Mother's eyes lighted up. "That's the cutest..." I could still see smiles on my brother's and my grayed-out baby faces, but this was only a mildly pleasant memory for me. Having captured the image of two spontaneous smiles in one picture was still an outstandingly pleasant memory for Mother. In my mind, we might say, eating ice cream was "nice." In her mind, photographing us smiling as we ate ice cream was "TRIUMPH!!!"

Think of someone you know slightly, perhaps a co-worker. Is it possible that you enjoy doing something nice for that person even more than that person...

Years ago, I had a job that I loved because it was a challenge, working with another writer. She rented one room as both home and office because she had done volunteer work overseas and adopted several "brothers and sisters" to whom she enjoyed sending money. We worked in sufficiently close quarters, at the one desk in this room, when there was not a sleeping bag on the floor. One day the owner of a sleeping bag that was on the floor kept popping in and out of the door. "Would you like a slice of pizza? No? Can I get you drinks? No? Can I..." The writer kept accepting these annoying offers and I kept turning them down.

After she'd gone away for the fourth time I said something like, "Isn't she going to do any sightseeing at all while she's in Washington?"

The writer said, "Well, actually she's here because she's having problems back home, so she's trying to do nice things for other people to cheer herself up."

If the visitor had told me that at first, I could have recommended a charitable mission that could have put her to work and kept her out of my hair...

I am, as you now see, a selfish, impatient, even irascible person; most writers are, although the one mentioned above deals with it better than most. I have, however, observed that doing good things is a source of pleasure...actually, sometimes even vindictive pleasure.

Humankind seems to be almost evenly divided about the quality of this pleasure. Extroverts, like that wretched visitor, seem to get their emotional reward only when others notice and tell them that they're doing the right thing. Introverts, like me, get it when our own perceptions of what we're doing match our perceptions of what we ought to do; it feels a bit like getting a guitar string into tune, only more "meaningful."

I've dedicated my Bubbling to the family discussed at priscillaking.blogspot.com/2013/12/homeless-victims-of-welfare-state.html ...for the usual nitpicky complex of selfish reasons. Because my family don't let people go to homeless shelters when we have rooms where those people could stay, and I happen to have the three big rooms--leaks, water damage, and non-functional electricity being separate issues. Because I enjoyed being in my ancestral territory, and hated moving from place to place, as a child. Because I believe everyone is better off when people own their homes and land than when people are crowded into slums. Because rebuilding houses is fun, and having housemates may become the right thing to do but it's not nearly so much fun. Because I want local people to know that I found a way to help people who were even worse off than I am; because I want them to be motivated to contribute their share to this fund; because, if you get right down to the blight at the heart of the rose, I want them to be ashamed of what they've not done on my behalf, too. And so on.

As (co-author Zahara Heckscher observed, main author Joe Collins agreeing) in How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas," the people who do the most to help others tend to have a mix of "selfish" and "altruistic" reasons...and some people who fail to complete their missions have an imbalance of one over the other.

But if there's a cosmic Good Principle (which I call God, but you may read what you please) at work in all the good-and-bad of our lives, then the whole dichotomy of "selfish" and "altruistic" might be considered false. If God, in whatever sense you understand it, made you and me alike, then what's good for me is as important (even to me) as what's good for you after all. If goodness consists of acting according to the Good Principle, or doing the Will of God, then if I'm in any confusion about what is really good for me, I may find some clarification in considering what's really good for you--and vice versa.

The Highest Good is not my good at your expense, neither is it your good at my expense. The Highest Good is good for all concerned.