Updated: May 4, 2020
"People don't want other people to be people."
- Gene Wolfe
At the risk of sounding utterly selfish, growing up, this is a quote that always made perfect sense to me. In my young mind, it was far easier to rationalize ‘you’ in a world of ‘them’. I could even apply this rationale perfectly to relationships, families, communities and countries. I had the jaded outlook that the majority of the world tends to try and maximize their own happiness and the groups they care for becomes a part of their personal identity (ie. Similar country, religion, etc.); a stark contrast to pure selflessness. While I fear this thought still hangs off a narrow ledge somewhere in my mind, a collection of very personal experiences has forced me to not only abandon this cynical view on life but also to revise it and start inculcating values with a positive impact on society.
The first real scenario that made me question this belief occurred when I was around 10 years old. While this is admittedly quite an old age to have such an experience, having lived a relatively sheltered life under the watchful umbrella of my parents, it was easy to blindly embody their lessons without having the necessary experiences that would allow me to internalize those lessons. My particular experience involved a trip to the fish market in Dubai with my parents who were planning a seafood dinner for a few family friends.
The fish market was a bustling web of merchants and traders showcasing their wares, marketing them to passerbys, and incessantly negotiating with buyers. It was a hot and humid day. I found myself reluctantly walking through the stuffy, pungent market while my parents bargained prices with peddlers, sometimes taking the tone of indignation, knowing that the abundance of salesmen always meant a better price. Somewhat ignorantly I forged on, my interest piqued only by the fascinating creatures and slight horror at the live animals being sold (the irony in my horror at dying animals in the midst of the daily suffering of the people working there only became apparent to me in the years that followed).
It was at this moment that a vendor came up to me holding a large basket full of fish and started offering me 1kg for 20 dirhams (about $6). I politely declined, and awkwardly strolled on but he kept following me, his asking price plummeting with every step he took. It was at this moment my father joined me and unequivocally rejected his offer. In one final desperate plea he offered to sell his entire basket of around 3-4kg of fish for 15 dirhams. My father once again declined, stating that he wasn’t a fan of that particular fish, and walked on having spotted some lobster.
It was only as my eyes found his pleading eyes that perspective hit me with the weight of the world and I managed to realize and fully internalize the fact that he was walking around in the burning Dubai heat, day in and day out – a heat which I myself was hesitant to brave for even 10 minutes – sweat dripping down his shoulders, offering all his wares in a bid to make just 15 dirhams. His eyes frantically searched mine for even a hint of compassion, irrespective of my age. While the actual context of the situation might have been a bit different (memory is fallible after all), it really spoke volumes towards the struggles some people face just to feed their families and impressed upon me how truly privileged I was.
Being as broke as your typical10-year-old, I scurried after my father and pleaded with him for 20 dirhams, which he handed to me with a flicker of a smile and barely a second thought. I ran back to hand it to the merchant. His face immediately lit up! He started thanking me profusely and handing me the basket. Having no real desire for the fish (or way of explaining its presence to my father), I simply pressed the money into his palm and ran off in my father’s direction.
While this was an admittedly minuscule gesture in the grand scheme of things, it instilled a very valuable lesson in me. No matter how microscopic my deed might have been, the feeling it had given me to help someone with no relationship to me had been utterly transcending. Like nothing else. Some might name this feeling pride or fulfillment, but the fact remained that the ability to help someone without an agenda refuted my ideology that it is easier to consider other people not to be people. That in fact, if life is indeed about maximizing happiness, this was arguably one of the purest forms of happiness I had experienced.
As the years went on, the characteristic combination of laziness and self indulgence took over, despite some occasional volunteering and a scattering of good deeds. While I understood the value and impact of helping people, I still found it far more convenient to concentrate on myself. My mindset was still heavily directed at me, my immediate circle, and our place in the rest of the world.
That’s when I had my second meaningful experience. While living with one of my closest friends for a year, I saw time and again, his generosity, not only to me but to the world around him. Initially skeptical, especially as a far more selfish person, I found solace in telling myself it was more to do with the identity he had created for himself and while he was certainly generous, this identity was far more rooted in the idea he had cultivated, the idea that he was a generous person. In my mind, this could also be chalked off as a sort of selfishness.
However, the closer we got and the more intense our discussions about goodness and generosity became, I saw that he rarely ever brought up any of the good I witnessed him doing, and often even forgot many of his kind deeds. While I had read about inherently good people, the kind that help people regardless of their level of acquaintance, having a person like that in my life, was a sight to behold. Till then I had been quite content with my belief that people held ‘emotional bank accounts’ as responsibility to one another, rather than inherent generosity. However, upon having these conversations I realized that, while logical, it was ultimately an unhelpful way to look at life. Even if my views of selfishness were true, by propagating those views all we would be accomplishing is the reinforcement of boundaries between people and the creation of more emotional borders. The world could never get better.
In his mission to spread positivity, his goodness consistently created a ripple effect so that, even in cynics like me, there was a net positive outcome within society, thereby making the world a better place, even if fractionally so. At that point, I really internalized the old adage of “be the change you want to see in the world." The volume at which he helped me as well as others, without a moment’s thought saw a gradual shift in my mentality, and I found myself shirking the idea of ‘emotional bank accounts’ and aligning myself to be naturally attuned to helping anyone just for the sake of bettering the world, in whatever little way possible. I will admit, however, that the road for me is still long and there is much more I could be doing, but I believe sincerely that the first step is incorporating altruistic values and actions into your daily life and sharing them with the people around you, whether it be your friends, your neighbors, or the homeless person on your way to work.
Experiences like these have taught me how fundamentally interconnected we are as a species and the responsibility we have to the world around us. It is ultimately possible to motivate ourselves to help others because they are people themselves, not merely an extension of our own identities. We owe it to not only them, but to ourselves, to find our way down that path. All it takes is beginning with small, incremental steps to embody values and actions that make generosity and altruism in any form, our second nature.
About the Author
Sachin Samarakone is a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet and a pawn who hopes to one day be a king because in the wise words of frank sinatra: That’s life!
He is happiest whiling the hours away with his friends, counting his age not by years (which he hates to admit is slowly getting up there) but by meaningful relationships developed