CHARACTER IS HOW YOU TREATTHOSE WHO CANDO NOTHING FOR YOU.
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
There are a lot of lessons in selflessness in that little line. It is easy to work hard, do favors, and offer a hand when there is an expectation of recompense or some return. But it can be just as easy to do all that with no thought of a reward. Your character determines the relative ease with which you can do for others without an expectation of return.
Many people have defined character as a combination of Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, and Caring, and these are directly related to a persons’s selfless fellowship with others, whether family or friends, students or colleagues, coworker or the guy down the street. But with these is another needed component to achieve selflessness. Vulnerability. The willingness to accept that there will not be recognition for your actions. Additionally you need to accept that your actions may not even be recognized as selfless. And quite often, that your selfless actions may very well be hijacked by others seeking recognition but not able or willing to extend themselves to helping others.
So if all of this negative response is typical to selflessness, why does anybody bother? Why should you bother? Because there is really no greater feeling than to see somebody happy or benefit from your actions when you want nothing in return. There is no feeling of “Did I do enough?” or “Am I good enough?” You give because you want to. If something should be returned that’s a bonus. On the other hand, if nothing is returned, you aren’t disappointed. Because you aren’t disappointed in your giving character, you are inclined to give more. Eventually people will give to you. Not in return for what you have done but from their own selfless character because they see the peace you get from it.
They say the model of selfless love is the love of pets who give or themselves expecting nothing in return. Pets are indeed loving but they also expect. Stop feeding your dog and see how long he continues to love you. A truer model of selfless love is familial love. Those who truly love their families do not expect anything in return. By the time we reach adulthood we are very capable of feeding and sheltering ourselves. We don’t need others to do for us. We love our families because they are a part of us and we a part of them.
People who have experienced near death situations are also likely examples of high character and selfless behavior. They understand the gift that each days is. Very little can disappoint these people because they have little expectation other than surviving that day. They don’t know whether there will be time enough to be repaid for the good they do or the happiness they spread. In time they accustom themselves to not expecting anything in return but continue to give of themselves anyway.
In the typical day, of all the interactions, meetings, and activities, that go along with our family and work lives, we will surely find ourselves expecting something from many of them. We will expect a fair pay for the work we do for our employer. We will expect an honest return of goods or service for the items we buy and the people we hire to repair or replace our homes or to look after our health. But there are also countless opportunities to give of ourselves solely to be part of a family, group, team, couple, or of humanity itself. To help a child with homework. To assist a shopper reaching for something on a top shelf. To hold an elevator for one hurrying down the hall or an open door for someone loaded with packages. To offer a meal to a sick friend or neighbor. These have no price tag and should not be done for “future considerations.”
The acts that we do are really gifts that we give. Freely. Without condition or consideration. They are the beginnings of selflessness and the foundation of character. We do them not because we want something. We do them because we don’t.