3: Is selflessness a dying virtue?

When I was a kid, I had difficult older cousins who would try to annoy me by destroying my personal belongings or even on some occasions trying to physically hurt me. It wasn’t that I was unable to defend myself, but, my mother always stopped me from retaliating. She encouraged me to treat them kindly and avoid seeing them instead. When I would angrily ask my mother how she could ignore what my cousins did, she would remind me of an old Hindi adage, which would roughly translate to, ‘those who lay thorns in your path, return them the favour by strewing flowers on their way; the thorns in your path will turn to flowers, and the flowers that you have laid for them will hurt them like a trident’. I learnt forgiveness and selflessness from my mother. She still reminds me, “When you help others, the universe sends out ways to help you” and “If you have only lived for yourself, is that really living?”

As I grew up, all around me, the focus grew on taking care of oneself first, to the extent that I felt that selfishness had gained social acceptance; to the extent that I began to question the merits of selflessness and whether people meant the same thing when they claimed to be selfless. My gender studies class showed me how women have been subjugated through centuries by glorifying self-sacrificing behaviour. Prominent feminist movements were based on challenging this notion by encouraging women to claim what they had been shamed to seek, viz. their own bodies and from society. Personal development coaches will tell you the same thing, focus on your life, go ahead, and follow your dreams. It made me challenge what I erstwhile accepted without much questioning. When I went back to my mother, during college holidays, I asked her, “Why did you make me do the things I did not want to do? I tolerated your relatives only to make you happy.” As angry as I was back then, I would do it all over again. My mother’s life is a testament of selfless acts done for me, each of which has made me what I am today. Doing these little things, like helping her family, even if it was unpleasant, was my turn to return the favour.  The happiness accompanied by it was not illusory but left me feeling warm and satisfied, just like when you feel after a tough round of working out.

When we care for others, we are taken care of by others. It need not be the same people that we help, who come to our aid but there will always be someone. After all, we are all part of one big cosmos. That’s how society should function. There are certain things to keep in mind, though. You may become a source of giving only, if the people around you are merely interested in receiving help. Genuine needs also must be distinguished from constant neediness. Both these conditions are difficult to attain in real life. But there are ways to work around it. If you feel that there is someone (anyone) who genuinely needs your help, then go ahead and do it. If you feel that there are certain people, who have established themselves in your life, as people whom you can trust and that they would sacrifice as much for you as you would do for them, then go ahead and do it. It won’t hurt you.

I would like to end, by mentioning my friend, who recently tried the Pottermore sorting hat ceremony. He got Hufflepuff, the house which represents the helpers. Most people would be sad for not getting Gryffindor, the house which represents people who seek greatness, or Slytherin for people who covet exclusivity, or Ravenclaw, for people who seek knowledge. My friend took it in his stride, and retorted if given a choice between helping someone and seeking greatness, he would choose the former. If his college tenure were to be examined though, it is nothing but a testament of greatness. That’s what comes around when you imbibe selflessness in your daily life, and everything else follows.

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