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Service and Selfishness

I got together with two friends last night for drinks and the conversation rolled around to service and selfishness. One of my friends felt strongly that we ultimately give for selfish reasons. She explained that we want to feel good and achieve that by helping others. Why helping others would feel good, I forgot to ask. The point was plain though: whatever you do for others also benefits you in some way. For that reason, you do it selfishly.

I can understand this. Back in college, I bought into it too. Now I think it’s wrong.

Simply because an act of kindness or service benefits you too doesn’t make that benefit the reason you do it. I know few people that, when considering to help someone else, first consider how good it will make them feel. No one drools over that good feeling that comes after helping someone; maybe there are some but it’s certainly not me. The good feeling that comes (if it does come) is kind of ancillary in my experience. In many more cases, it feels that “no good deed goes unpunished.”

Still, I think you could argue now that I underestimate the power of the subconscious desire and recognition of the “feel good” that comes with helping others. Well, I don’t and I still think it’s wrong.

To me the issue with this thinking is that service is seen as a transaction. It’s not surprising that in our consumer and capitalist society, this has become our lens. If service to others simply is giving financially then it can often be reduced to a calculation. For many who give, I think they fall in this bucket. If times were to get tough, giving would stop first.

In my view, service and giving are not transactions. I’ve walked a road to get here but I’m pretty convinced. Rather than seeing service as a transaction, I see it as a relationship. Sometimes that’s a relationship where love and kindness is reciprocated and other times it’s not. Service as relationship doesn’t have neat boundaries. It isn’t easily cataloged or reported like a transaction. Whether you get something good or bad out of it is generally difficult to know. Relationships require something of us and our identity becomes enmeshed with them.

This road I’ve walked has been one of following Jesus of Nazareth. In his life, Jesus served many. I don’t see any evidence that he did it to feel good.