My letter is part question, part concern. I know I ask a few questions in the latter, but can you try to answer them, or try to answer the general underlining question I am trying to ask?
Given the state of the world, you constantly hear how bad things are: poverty, rape, corruption, killings, etc. It seems nowadays that the only way to thrive in society and be successful is to put yourself first, to the exclusion of anyone else, and if you do not, you will get stepped over in life and miss out. Either be corrupt in your life and put yourself first, or live your life by what other corrupt people want you to do as they are in charge of society. There seems (from my experience, I could be wrong) to be no real benefits from serving others selflessly because no one writes about it any longer.
Here is an example. My dad is very self centered. He is the type that worked his butt off his whole life, was given no natural talents, his parents divorced when he was in high school, to which his dad left the family and his mom had to raise all of her sons, an environment that required dad to take an active role in helping supporting himself and his mom at a young age. He never talked about his life at all. I only know him during the years I was alive and with him. Today, his success seems to show: he has a rewarding job, money, his health, a girlfriend, lives in CA (his favorite place in the world), and I think he is happy; he even divorced mom because he thought he deserved better than her. The only thing that seems to be wrong in his life now is he has to work 60 hours a week to keep up. (He manages the entire development and production of medicine.) In other words, he looks, acts and more or less is the example of "work hard and success is yours."
However, he is a narcissist, self-centered and very egocentric. He acts like everyone who is not above him can be treated like an inferior and he can act however he likes. Including his family (old and perhaps new). To the point I want to believe that all the wrongs he has done will come back to get him one day, but now I am starting to think that this is life, and you can and will get away with wrongdoing. He is the reason I think karma does not exist that much.
When I was living with him and was working (I was living with him as he provided free rent and help when I was taking collage classes), I live with my mom because I thought college would be better with Mom. But at the moment, I dropped out and work full time as a delivery driver for a pizza place. He would outright discourage or forbid me from tithing. He says what money I make at my job I should save, spend it on myself, help pay for groceries, and, in his words, "If you want to tithe you can tithe to the house." Even if I did all he requested, he still says to keep what I make. When I asked him why not give money, he said it is unnecessary. (I can see his viewpoint: it is not essential to give to those in need as their lives will not affect your life in any way, and what good you do for them will not give you anything, and therefore it is not worth doing.) Though it does help them, it is not a requirement, is what he thinks.
For example (one of countless, this just demonstrates his personality), one point, when he tasked me with selling the garage refrigerator that was unused, I had a potential client, but rather than picking it up herself she wanted us to send it to her via delivery. She sent enough funds to pay for the fridge and a few extra hundred to pay for shipping, which we had to set up ourselves. Dad thought she was taking advantage of me and told me to decline her order and find someone else. He also read my emails to her and noticed how nice I was to her, expressing patience and understanding about her current situation. (I forget what it was now). He did not like that in the slightest, and several days after he said, "It is not your job to be nice to others, they will take advantage of you. You should only be nice to your family" (blood family, that is).
To summarize, my dad is who inspired me to give and be as selfless as I can. Not because he showed what good helping others can bring, but because he set such a bad example on what success is. I realized I did not want to be successful. The pleasure of success is not worth the price it costs others.
But as of now, I am starting to doubt being selfless is better. I feel like what I do is not enough. Currently, I am working full time at a job to raise money for the sake of helping someone with debt and living expenses, I ask for additional hours at work to increase what I can give as well as be of service more at work. (I try to go with the attitude of "what can I do for others, and what I make goes to my friend" (I keep almost none of what I make; I only take money for gas and occasionally $50 to treat myself, but everything else goes to my friend as I do not have any expenses for myself atm).
Is this a sign that I need to expand my efforts to other things and other people?
So on to my questions.
What good things have you experienced in life that was a direct result of serving others? Not just small things like feeling good for donating money or helping, but real treasures from sacrificing lots and giving lots? Is living selflessly instead of selfishly worth it?
What can you tell people who try to take active effort into serving others, when they feel like their work means nothing in the end, like what they do to serve others is fruitless in the sense of what they do does not help enough to make any real difference, and those who try to do good for others (selflessly without expecting anything in return, not out of wanting something back) that fear that they will wind up with nothing in the end. In other words, do you think that living self-centeredly (if not immoral and greedy) would be best?
What do I do?
PS: I am aware that the law of generosity also says "give one season, receive another season" as in what works you do will not have any immediate rewards, it takes time. I am not writing out of distress.
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These are profound questions you are asking. Let's take it a step at a time, starting with definitions. What does it mean to be "selfish"? What does it mean to be "selfless" or "altruistic"? Selfishness means to only do things that benefit you in some way (financially, materialistically). Your dad seems to follow the path of selfishness, although even he will say that it is okay to help one's own blood family, so he's not 100% selfish. On the other hand, it is not selfish to make sure you are not being used by someone, and it is not selfish to make sure that others do not harm you in some way, or that by helping them, you hurt yourself. This is to say that you need to be sure you are financially secure and physically and mentally healthy first, because when you are not, you are of no use to anyone, including yourself. So, if you, say, don't give a few dollars to a beggar on the street because without that money you would go hungry, that is not necessarily selfish. But if you are well-to-do and have more than you need, then hoarding your money and refusing to help others is selfish. Your dad, apparently, went through a rough childhood, a very scary one in which he struggled to make sure he and his family could survive. This likely planted the seeds for his current attitude.
So, what is being selfless or charitable mean? It means to realize that you are not the center of the world, that the human race and, indeed, the world benefits when people work together as a community, helping each other to build a better world. It doesn't mean that you have to do this to the exclusion of your own health and well-being, but it recognizes that no person is an island. Selfless people give to their fellow humans and to their communities not in the hopes that there will be a payback someday but, rather, because when we create a better, kinder, more loving world, we all get to live in it and enjoy the benefits of that world.
A perfect example of the above is the United States of America. The current capitalist system and influence of conservative politicians has created a world in which the 1% have 90% of the country's wealth. They don't share this wealth; they hoard it for themselves. The idea of the "trickle-down economy" in which giving tax breaks to the wealthy and letting them build huge hoards of gold like dragons in caves does not work, as proven by numerous economists. What IS the result of such hoarding? Well, we now live in a country where people are literally dying from lack of money and health care, where the infrastructure that everyone uses is crumbling, and where there are high crime rates and drug use because people are desperate, depressed, and without hope. This lowers the quality of life for everyone. And it also creates political unrest and destabilization. Furthermore, on a worldwide scale, it has led to global warming, which is going to destroy coastal cities and lead to mass migrations, war, and water shortages that affect the wealthy as well as the poor.
When your dad tells you that being kind and generous to others offers no payback, that is because he is thinking in financial, materialistic terms. Will volunteering to plant trees earn you money? No. Will donating clothes to a charity buy you a new wardrobe? No. Will helping a roommate get through a difficult time in their life by helping to pay their bills or giving them a shoulder to lean on get you a job promotion or a university grant? Of course not.
The rewards of being a good, kind, generous, and selfless person are largely intangible. Imagine the kind of world we would live in if everyone followed kindly principles? We could literally eliminate hunger if billionaires decided to use their excess money to feed people. We could get rid of pollution and make the fear of climate change a memory if corporations were not so profit-driven to pollute so they could please their stockholders. There would be no war if no one tried to take over other countries or deny others their religious beliefs or ethnic background. Students wouldn't be buried in school loan debt if we made college education free, and this would lead to an economic boom, too. Yet, none of these acts would benefit the donors financially, materialistically.
The key to being selfless is not expecting a payback. It's not charity if you expect money or favors in return (and it's not being a good Christian if you are only nice to people because you expect to be rewarded in Heaven). How would you feel if someone gave you a birthday present worth $50 and then said, "Okay, that cost me $50, so now you owe me." Would you think that was a good friend or family member? Now imagine yourself giving someone a present that they truly didn't expect and that they totally love. Doesn't that put a big grin on your face?
Oh, and guess what? When you feel joyful for making someone else happy, that improves your mood and this, in turn, improves your health. Studies show, too, that happy people live longer! Isn't that payback? And that one is actually quite tangible! (Note: this benefit requires that the giver have empathy; some people lack empathy, sadly).
All this is not to say you should allow yourself to be used. No. This seems to be your father's fear, and perhaps comes from personal experience. He sees everyone out there as a potential user, and so he has built walls around himself to prevent outsiders from using him. The problem with this is that now he lets no one in and he has, frankly, become a big douchebag. He might look happy and materialistically successful on the outside, but it is rare for such people to have loving, caring relationships. They tend to have trophy spouses, have family that resent them, and are in constant fear of losing what they have (which is why he works 60-hour weeks). This is what engenders conservative politicians. It is the same mentality that creates dictators. Sure, the dictator is all-powerful, but he is in constant fear that he will be assassinated or overthrown and put in prison. That is not a happy life.
As to your concern that helping others won't make a difference, you are incorrect. I can understand why it might seem so. When we are overwhelmed by the media reporting wars, poverty, pandemics, global warming, political corruption, and on and on, it can be discouraging. What can one person do?
A lot, actually.
When you exert acts of kindness in the world, it has a cascading effect, the results of which you might not see or realize (at least, not right away), but they are there. Being nice to others can make the people you are kind to say, "Hey! There are good people in the world! This makes me happy, and now I want to pay it forward!" Like a pandemic where one person can infect three or four people, and those people infect three or four people, and on and on until millions are sick (maybe not the best analogy), so, too, do acts of kindness spread around the community and the world. And those acts of kindness can be seemingly tiny. For example, compliment a coworker or a restaurant server. Take the trouble to tell the boss at a fast food place that you thought Sarah at the cash register was very kind to you. It doesn't have to cost money to be nice and to put a lot of good vibes out into the universe.
You ask me, directly, in your letter, "What good things have you experienced in life that was a direct result of serving others?" The letter you are reading is an example of what I do selflessly. I don't get paid for writing this column. I don't get awards or even, really, any recognition. Yet, I feel like it has done a lot of good for many people (cf. https://www.askpapabear.com/testimonials.html). You added, "Not just small things like feeling good for donating money or helping, but real treasures from sacrificing lots and giving lots? Is living selflessly instead of selfishly worth it?" Again, in this question, you are looking for evidence that selfless people get back "real treasures" for their acts, although you don't really specify what qualifies as such a treasure, though you assert that "feeling good" is insufficient reason.
Other than what I have noted above, writing this column gives my life a sense of purpose, and that is a profound reward. You see, I started writing this column right about when I was in my midlife crisis years, wondering what the hell my life was all about. It wasn't enough just to be doing okay, making money enough to live. I wanted a purpose, and writing this column gives me that. It is the most rewarding thing that I do in my life other than helping my disabled spouse and other family members. What is, after all, the purpose of life? Is it just to exist? Is it just to hedonistically pursue pleasure? I, for one, don't believe so. I have concluded that the only thing that truly brings me happiness is not material goods or money or even sex. It's making the world a better place as much as I possibly can.
I hope that answers your questions.
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