Not too long ago, I was riding the subway into High Park. There was an elderly woman who couldn’t get a seat and was struggling to keep her balance while standing. As a fairly competent subway surfer – and a decent human being – I offered her my seat. Once we traded places, I felt good about myself. Didn’t my act of goodness signal that I am a wonderful person, clearly levitating above the rest of humanity?
And then it hit me. I’m a terrible person! Okay, that may be extreme. I’m neither wonderful, nor terrible; I’m human. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but contemplate the narrative we tell ourselves. The one that says if you do something nice, you must be nice and vice versa. It made me question what our actual motives are. Do we genuinely care about doing the right thing? Or do we just want others and ourselves to perceive us as good?
The whole thing reminded me of a Friends episode where Phoebe tries to convince everyone that altruism isn’t dead. However, with every example she cites, she’s reminded that she actually feels way better about herself than the recipient of her goodness. So, she decides to donate to PBS since she hates the network. It’s her way of proving altruism exists — until it’s revealed that her donation saved them entirely and she screams out, “oh, I’m so happy!’
The thing is, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling good about doing good. We live in a world that can often feel pretty self-centred, so by all means, feel that pride when you choose something in service of another. But recognize that pride exists and that you, too, are benefiting from a good deed bestowed onto another.