Salon.com's advice columnist Cary Tennis answered a letter today from a woman who refused a friend who asked to come over during a blizzard when he was without power. Although my initial reaction was fairly judgmental toward the letter writer ("how could she be so selfish?"), it made me think about the limits of what we will do for our friends.
I like to think of myself as a generous person, but I have an uncomfortable suspicion that much of my generosity falls into the category of what is easy. By "easy," I mean that which doesn't require a lot of sacrifice or work on my part. I think that I have good intentions, but I also know I am lazy. How does this play out? Well, for example, if I were in the position of the Salon letter writer, I would never even consider turning my friend down (even if it wasn't a particularly good friend). I would welcome my friend with open arms, and invite them to stay as long as they wished. But it's easy for me to share my home; I am happy to do it, and I enjoy it. Similarly, I am always glad to lend a sympathetic ear, and offer advice (if I think I have something useful to say), or comfort (if I have nothing constructive to offer). But I enjoy that kind of interaction with people, especially people I care about. In both of these hypothetical situations, I am getting something out of being generous and supportive, so my actions are not totally selfless.
There is one thing that holds my laziness in check, however, and makes me more inclined to offer help even when I would really rather not: the deeply ingrained "golden rule." Raised by a bunch of liberal Catholics deeply concerned with social justice, I was always taught to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I learned at an early age to imagine myself on the other end of requests for help, and so am inclined to do what I can when a friend needs something, regardless of my own discomfort. This helps to moderate my basic selfishness: it means that if a friend requests help which requires minor to moderate inconveniences on my part, I will still say "yes, of course," without thinking, and help them cheerfully.
But I still struggle with larger sacrifices, as well as with sacrifices for people I don't know or don't like. Up to now, my friends mostly have not asked for anything that would entail a serious inconvenience. I assume that this is partly because most of us have relatively substantial resources at our disposal and so rarely need to ask for significant help, and partly because we as a larger society are less and less likely to ask people outside our families (and sometimes not even them) for that kind of help. What this means is that I don't really know where my limits are. But I worry about learning something I don't want to know about myself if and when I am asked to make a big sacrifice.Posted by at March 14, 2006 9:06 PM | TrackBack