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Self-Knowledge • Fulfilment

Our Secret Longing to Be Good

Our time on earth may be far less enjoyable than it should be because of an unfortunate and peculiar idea that has taken hold of our collective thinking: that the ultimate purpose of life is to make ourselves as happy as possible. Encouraged by this now-dominant concept, we’re goaded to try to make as much money as we can, to spend it as lavishly as possible on costly and rare goods, to divert ourselves with a plethora of entertainments and distractions and to get others to cater as often as possible to the maximal number of our wishes and whims.

It’s a seductive vision, but the more precise and surprising psychological truth is that human satisfaction has an overwhelmingly different source: it derives from a feeling of being needed by other people. We grow at peace with ourselves the more we can either alleviate the suffering or increase the delight of someone else. We are hardwired to seek to make a difference even as we are, most of us, structurally hopeless at managing to render ourselves content for more than fifteen minutes. Our characters can be relied upon to pull against any attempts at hedonic maximisation. Our psychological complexities have a habit of trailing us into the fanciest, most apparently desirable places. We have bitter arguments in the marble hallways of luxury hotels, despair descends on exotic paradise islands, melancholy hovers over poolside bars and in the midst of a costly spa day, we may be gripped by lassitude and irritation – and long to return home to bed and cry.

But we may with time come to a deeply relieving alternative realisation: that the route to satisfaction lies in vigorously pushing thoughts of ourselves aside for a while in the name of trying to make others less afflicted. Joy comes from acts of service. We may personally be lost causes but others – with needs that are perhaps easier or more urgent than our own – offer us immense opportunities to exercise our talents and flex our capacities.

Painting by Tintoretto of Mary Magdalene, penitent before Christ.
Tintoretto, Mary Magdalene, 1598

We developed over thousands of generations to serve our tribe: we found the food or pounded the grain, we kept watch at night to keep others safe, we made decisions on which everyone’s survival depended. Any prestige we had was the result of the good we accomplished for others. This is where our pride, our sense of accomplishment and our self-respect has its roots. But in the febrile conditions of modernity, our instinct to contribute effectively to others’ lives has largely been dissipated and lost. Such is the nature of the economy, our jobs seldom give us any direct sense of being of good use to anyone. The gap between worker and customer has grown immense and tangled. We might be occupied day to day making sure a company we don’t especially admire ships tiny parts for engines used to make jacuzzis bubble or protects insurance firms from litigation when they have reneged on their full promises after winter storms. Or we’re paid well to market casino tickets or beer hall memberships to an audience that should rightly be diverting their money elsewhere. We may be doing fine enough by the conventions of our age, but what we’ve been denied is any sense that our intelligence has been angled towards anything remotely honourable. 

Until that is, we receive news that a friend is unwell. We might have wanted to go and see a film or have a massage; we could have been weighing up whether to get a perm or invest in a wine cellar. But a far greater opportunity is at hand. We are no surgeon and our powers of restoration are limited. But we can finally do something important nevertheless. We can boil up a large batch of chicken soup (with plentiful onions and carrots) and ladle it into easy-to-open containers, each of which we mark clearly for a particular day of the week. We can gather berries and chocolate, fresh bread and a bag of oat-based cereal. We may have failed at a lot already; we might be on our second marriage and not be on great terms with our children. But we now have a role and a right to exist because we are proving incalculably important to someone who is recently home from keyhole heart surgery and finds it difficult to make it down the stairs unaided.

The good news is that once we properly lock on to our power to make a difference to others, our room for action opens up in unlimited ways. The sick are everywhere, as are the lonely, the heartbroken, the sad and the spiritually exhausted. 

It can be sweet when a friend thanks us profusely for being nice to them, as if we’d done something that deserved special praise. The truth is that we enjoyed, far more than we can admit, the chance to be overtly, clearly and effectively good. The friend who needed us provided us with an opportunity to know that our lives are not in fact wholly superfluous, that we are not monsters of disappointment and grumpiness, that we aren’t as clumsy as we are in relationships or as grandiose or prickly as we can come across at work; that we do, in fact, still have the power to be decent and effective human beings. More rightly viewed, the thanks should be going entirely the other way.

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