Saul’s Laws:* #9. Selfish Behavior

Saturday, September 5, 2009

*See the Preface to the “Saul’s Laws” page at the WordFeeder.

Saul was one of the good guys. Most people… No. Everyone, except me, who knew him assumed it was because he genuinely liked people, which was true. In fact, my father taught me to like and trust everyone I met – regardless of any superficial attributes, gender, race, style, whatever – until they gave me good reason not to. (It’s Saul’s Law #22: Relationships, which includes a corollary that, I discovered when I was in college, is really helpful for men wanting to meet women and visa versa.) Saul liked people alright, but what was interesting was his confessed reason behind everything he did which, he theorized, was the same for all of us.

“Everyone,” he told me, “does everything for selfish reasons.”

Whatever we do, it’s not because we want to improve the condition of the other person, it’s because helping the other person makes us feel better. Now, you say, “Of course.” “Being kind to others is its own reward,” so the adage goes. That’s all my father was trying to tell me. Well, you could say that, but you’d be wrong. If that was what he was talking about – that kindness is its own reward – that’s what he would have said. That would be Saul’s Law #9 on “Kindness,” but it isn’t.

My father’s point wasn’t about goodness as a goal in and of itself. He was talking about pure, raw self-indulgence, devoid of any virtue. Academically, I get it, but was he making a technical observation or was he trying to tell me that “the greater good” was a construct, a somewhat superficial belief, recently layered onto the history of our species, that glossed over the primitive motivation at the root of everything we do?

What difference does it make? The difference may have been that he didn’t trust “good.” Selfishness, greed, these were things he believed in, palpable emotions he considered fundamental to being human and, more broadly, to being a living thing of any kind – essential to our survival, and the reason for our tendency to socialize.

Far from being cruel, it was an innocent realization completely consistent with the intellectual honesty which was the subtext of every conversation we ever had.

Some of Saul’s laws were less straightforward, less obvious for their implications that others. Growing up – and, even as an adult, I’m still very much a work in progress – it’s been something I’ve had to deal with. (If my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Campbell, is reading this, “How are you? And yes, I know a dangling preposition when I see one. Sometimes, I just prefer the way they sound.)

-wf


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