Why Do I Care?
One of my friends asked me something the other day about the volunteer work I do. He asked, “Why do you care? What’s your deep-down motivation?”
His question annoyed me. But he’s a smart guy, and I know he’s also a good guy who has my best interests at heart. When his questions are annoying, there’s something I need to dig into, something I need to learn. I guess that’s why I consider him a good friend, even when he’s annoying.
So I did some navel-gazing. My introspection revealed two things, one altruistic, the other self-centered. I’m kind of proud of one but embarrassed by the other.
I like to think of myself as altruistic and selfless. I don’t like to think of myself as self-serving and ego-driven. But the truth is that I am both, and it’s a good bet that you might be, too.
I wonder if we might not all be that way … an ever-shifting mix of altruistic and self-centered. I’m not sure about you, so I’ll just talk about my own experience. Maybe it will also be true of you. Or maybe not.
The altruistic part: I want to do good in the world, make a difference, do things that are bigger than myself, make a contribution. I want to be a part of something that benefits others — the more benefit, and the more people helped, the better. I want to be meaningful to my family and my community. So I volunteer for activities where my talents might be useful. As I wrote in an earlier column, it’s one of the ways I hope to “be all I can be.”
Sometimes I do good, sometimes I just thrash around, not having much impact. As my old drill sergeant used to say, “Sometimes you bite the bear; sometimes the bear bites you.” So I keep at it, always filled with hope, sometimes satisfied, sometimes disappointed. For me, there’s a deep satisfaction that comes from doing what’s right, what helps others, what makes a positive difference, what makes my corner of the world a bit better.
That’s the altruistic part of me and, as I said, I feel good about it.
On the other hand, I can be very self-centered. It’s my shadow side. My shadow is self-serving, self-promoting, self-righteous, and selfish … the operative word being “self.” I want to be noticed, respected, admired. I want status. I want popularity. I want what I want when I want it. Me, me, me.
I hope my altruism outweighs my self-absorption … that I do things because they’re good and right … that, even if I did them anonymously, with no personal benefit, I’d still do them. But, y’know? … I’m not sure I would. Embarrassing, right? Petty. Selfish. Unworthy. Not very noble.
Yuck. I don’t want to be that guy. It makes me feel that I’m like one of those large corporations … you know, the ones that put millions of dollars into charities and create foundations that do good work for people in need. It’s clear that most of the time, they’re doing it for business reasons, to look good so that they can get more customers and make more money.
But wait. Does motivation matter? Who cares if a corporation is motivated to do good by profit or altruism, or if I am motivated by generosity or selfishness, as long as the results are good for others — as long as they, or I, actually do good for people and communities, or at least try?
Does self-serving motivation diminish the value of good works? I don’t think so. Still, I have to admit that my motivation matters to me. I want to be altruistic. It feels right and good. It’s admirable, valued by everyone I know. It feels demeaning to be self-serving … as I said, unworthy.
So yes, it matters to me … but, I think, only to me. To the rest of the world … hell, what do they care, as long as the results are good, or at least harmless.
The truth is that I can’t untangle the yin and yang of my own motivation. I don’t know which is the actual driver of my life, or if it’s sometimes one and sometimes the other. I’m self-serving and altruistic, both at once, and in equal measure.
And I think — I hope — it doesn’t matter to anyone else, as long as I don’t harm anyone, and I occasionally do real good for others. As I said, I wonder if we aren’t all that way. So, here’s how I respond to my good friend’s annoying question: Yes, I care. I care a lot. Does it matter why?
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