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This essay first appeared in This Singaporean Life (subscribe!), a newsletter I sent out every Sunday (SGT) where I share my weekly musings on work and life in Singapore.
I get this a lot: Why should I even treat him/her well if:
- I don’t know him/her, and I’m not going to meet him/her again;
- He/she doesn’t appreciate what I do and even disregard my kindness;
- I’m not getting any benefits from him/her
…among many other reasons. I’d have to admit, though, that I used to treat others well only because I knew I might need their help in the future. Now, don’t we all?
It’s only human nature to think so, anyway. Why would we go out of the way for someone who doesn’t reciprocate our actions?
As most would contend: There’s hardly any true altruism in this world. Everyone does something for a reason and usually, it’s because there’s something to gain.
Of course, there are people out there who give their all to others without question. But their stories tend not to end well; they would feel underappreciated, burned out, and find it hard to give anymore.
The best story about the topic of giving is The Giving Tree. For the benefit of those who don’t know the story, here’s the gist:
The tree kept giving to the boy throughout his life to a point where it’s left with a stump and nothing more to give. Even then, the boy who aged into an old man sat on the stump.
Some would say it’s an extremely dark commentary on the greed of humankind, always taking from the environment and Mother Nature. There’s even a recent movie that is directly inspired by The Giving Tree – Mother! – which I reviewed earlier this year.
But there’s also another side of the coin. You can look at the story as a depiction of the unconditional love our parents (or Mother Nature) have for us; they almost never question when it comes to giving their all and are even more than happy to.
Like most great classics, it’s a story that opens up the possibility of countless interpretations.
So what’s the point of bringing up The Giving Tree, you might ask.
The story directly addresses the dilemma we have whenever we’re given a choice to treat others well or simply give unconditionally: acts of kindness can be either very pleasant or the direct opposite, depending on your intentions and perspective.
What I’m trying to say is this: your motivations for treating others well are key to how you feel after your actions.
If you treat others well for the sole reason of putting it on a scorecard so you can get a favour out of them in the future, you’re going to be miserable when giving. Because you have no control over whether they return the favour or not.
On the other hand, you have complete control of your actions and motivations.
If you’re kind to others because you want the best for them, regardless whether he/she is a stranger, an acquaintance, close friend, or loved one, you’re going to feel good right after giving.
Then there’s another side to all of this too: How much should you give? Or rather, how much can you give without harming yourself?
It’s also a question that I’ve heard friends and others talk about over the dining table, especially when people talk about burnout at work or in a relationship.
I won’t say I have the right answer, but I ask myself two questions most of the time when I’m faced with the choice to oblige or not.
- Would my actions make him/her happy?
- Am I sacrificing my interests so much that I’ll get hurt?
For the first question, I would also take into consideration the amount of effort I’d need to put in. If I have to put in significant effort to make someone slightly happy, I might not be the best person to do it anyway.
The second question is self-explanatory.
Call to action
Change your perspective about kindness. Give only when and because you genuinely want the best for others. It isn’t a must to treat others well, but it speaks of your character if you do – when you can.
And if the above two questions I ask myself make sense to you, feel free to use them when caught in a dilemma of whether you should oblige someone’s request for a favour.
What an apt topic to discuss in the season of giving 🙂 Merry Christmas!