Last summer I reread Either/Or, after a long hiatus. The book was written by the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. I can’t say I like this book. It is strangely constructed, bizarre in outlook and quite condescending towards women. Besides, I see the either/or split in different terms.
But one thing Kierkegaard says resonates with me, when he talks about the ethic of “living for another.”
Altruism is a beautiful value. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the fact of caring about the needs and happiness of other people more than your own.” Acts of kindness, of generosity are like distributing loving energy from one person to the next.
But anything exaggerated can become negative. Consider the claim that there is nothing finer than laying down your life for someone else: this makes selflessness and self-sacrifice morph into self-destructiveness.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to help others, while making sure you remain well yourself? This at least would keep things in proportion.
I was raised as a mule – a goldarn mule – always ready to carry other people’s baggage, always ready to hit the trail and go the extra mile, even when it put my own life and well-being at risk. It got to the point where my only value lay in what I did for others. I anticipated their needs, stepped in and provided loyal services. And they expected me to continue being an uncomplicated, serviceable mule.
This may sound to you like a caricature. But being a goldarn mule – by default – means serving others and never asking for anything in return. It is rooted in an overly simplistic view of the world, where virtue is its own reward, and it is somehow moral to expect nothing back, as if decent people were above mundane matters like being well-treated by others.
Mules are rarely seen as intrinsically valuable or interesting creatures, as having lives of their own. Instead, they are cast as sterile draught animals whose sole function is to perform tasks for their masters. The mule may hope for a bag of oats as recompense, or for time off in a pasture somewhere, but the mule’s hope is nothing in proportion to the services being rendered.
Mules are used to rough treatment by others. They only get noticed when they bray, react, show frustration, wince under the blows of a stick, or hesitate under a heavy load at the edge of a cliff.
The day I realized I was unconsciously acting like a goldarn mule came as an epiphany for me … and on that day, I changed course altogether, and just stopped … acting like a mule.
Living for another is all one-way, and can be symbolized like this: →
I prefer reciprocity in human relations, which can be symbolized like this : ↔