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January 30, 2018

Understanding the Deeper Truths of Benevolence

As anyone who has engaged with me on the topic previously would know, being here to give, or being benevolently disposed towards the world is not necessarily about being nice. In fact this is one of the greatest misconceptions about benevolence and being good more generally. People believe that being good is equal to being nice.

Giving = Being Appropriate

But, being good or being here to to give is about being appropriate and appropriate is often not nice. I always use two examples to illustrate this. If a hungry child asks John for food, the appropriate thing for John to do is to give the child food. We call this quality generosity, because it’s about the giving of things. Generosity is about niceness.

On the other hand if a strapping young lad called Dave is walking through a park and comes across a little old lady being beaten up by a thug, the appropriate thing for him to do would be to beat up the thug. We refer to the quality that Dave has to have to be able to do this as courage.

 If we look at these two examples behaviorally, we are confronted by an apparent contradiction. The result of John’s giving was a full stomach. The result of Dave’s giving was a thick ear. John’s giving involved sweetness and gentle kindness. Dave’s giving involved confrontation and violence. Clearly, giving is not always about being nice, it is about being appropriate.

Every moment that confronts us has a sense of what is appropriate, what the moment requires from us. For an example of this see here. Giving means we act consistently with this sense of what is appropriate. This sense of what is appropriate is presented to us in two broad classes. There is the giving of things associated with the self, which we call generosity. Then there is the giving of the self itself, which we call courage. Courage generally asks a higher price than generosity, because generosity puts things at risk, whereas courage puts the self at risk.

It is for this reason that I say that the mature self transacting in the world will give things easily and will not be risk averse.

Getting it Wrong

If giving is about being appropriate, it’s about paying the price of what the situation dictates, then taking has to mean getting the logic wrong, or acting in a situation that requires generosity in a so-called courageous way and vice-versa. For example, should John give the hungry child a thick ear for having the cheek to ask for food, we would not consider this an attribute of John’s courage, we would see it as selfishness. On the other hand, should Dave take the bag from the old lady and give it to the thug we would not see this as an attribute of his generosity, but rather an act of cowardice.

If you are in a situation that requires generosity and you act in a so-called courageous way you are not giving, you are taking. We call that selfishness. If you are in a situation that requires courage and you act in a so-called generous way you are not giving, you are taking. We call that cowardice.

Generosity and Gratitude

The register of the internal dialogue of a person who is fundamentally here to take is to maximize gain and minimize loss. Their relationship with things will emphasize accumulation, a quality which we experience as greed. This necessarily means that their experience of the possibility of loss (which we is for all of us an inevitable fate to suffer) is a cause for anxiety or fear. The register of their internal dialogue is therefore greed and fear.

I may ask what sits behind this? Why is it that I want to get more things? Why is it, that greed is an issue in my life? Why should I need to accumulate? This has to be predicated on a view that I haven’t yet received enough. The internal dialogue of a selfish person has a register of resentment which typifies how they are thinking of themselves in the situation they are in.

A person who is here to contribute is not trying to get more from life. When they look at the moment they have no accusation. They do not say, “I haven’t had enough yet. I need to get more.” They are saying that there is more than enough, “I have more than enough so therefore I can give freely.” So what enables the translation from an internal register of greed to an internal register of generosity is a shift from resentment to gratitude. A grateful person has something to give. A resentful person wants to get something.

Courage and Trust

If we examine the relationship between courage and cowardice it becomes apparent that a person who is cowardly cannot take the risk to do what is right and appropriate in the situation that they are in. It means they apprehend the future with a sense of distrust. They are saying the world is a dangerous place and if they don’t look after themselves they will be vulnerable and at risk. They will be taken out. They can’t afford to put themselves on the line or take a risk. The attitude that sits behind an internal dialogue of fear is distrust.

A courageous person can trust life because they are convinced that life has a design which is bigger than their own ingenuity. They know they don’t have to cover their own back all the time. They have concluded that, since they are still alive, the totality of the other is necessarily looking after them.

When they contrast the vastness of the universe that confronts them with their own tiny selves, the number of things that could, at any point in time, go wrong with disastrous consequences for them personally, they conclude that statistically the odds of annihilation beat the odds of continuity moment by moment. So why are they still there? This can only mean because the totality of the other is not arbitrary, it admits of a sense of design. Further to that, this sense of design is deliberately benevolently disposed to the self. This person can trust because they inhabit a friendly rather than a hostile universe.

Work on Becoming More Grateful

The person who is here to take looks back at the past with resentment and their outlook forward at the future is distrust. Of the two attributes of ingratitude and distrust, ingratitude has a primary and distrust has a secondary nature. If I examine my past and conclude that life has done me more ill than good I will not trust life as it unfolds into the future. On the other hand, the degree to which I conclude that life has done me more good than ill is the degree to which I will trust life as it unfolds.

This suggests that the key flaw that disables our pursuit of the fulfilment which we aspire to is resentment, and the key virtue that enables it is gratitude. Transmuting the register of our internal dialogue from resentment to gratitude therefore lies at the heart of the endeavour to cultivate contentment.

This deliberate cultivation of gratitude also lays the foundation for the capacity to trust, which is what enables one to take risk. If we want to find the genesis of risk aversion we must look for resentment. If we want to cultivate the courage that enables the appetite for risk then we should cultivate gratitude.

The predominant worldview is based on self interest. It is predicated on an individual who looks at life from a vantage point of resentment. This resentment is not only deeply dysfunctional to the self; it produces a dysfunctional engagement between the self and the other. As we observed previously, if I think you owe me, my natural inclination is to go and get from you what I think you owe me. Because that is my fundamental intent with regard to you, you will experience me as dangerous to you. Also your ability to withhold what I want makes you dangerous to me. We are dangerous to each other and in a state of conflict.

In other words, far from being a virtue, resentment and discontentment are deeply injurious to the other surrounding the person who has it, as well as to the person who has it. The nature of all conditional motive is that it produces discontentment in the person who has it. If I’m doing something to get something else, it means the doing of what I’m doing is the price I have to pay in order to get what I want. If I need to pay a price that means the thing that I’m doing in the present is loss that I have to endure to get something in the future. But since it is only the present that exists, that means that the experience of my life is loss. The degree to which I do something for conditional motive is the degree to which my life experience is onerous and the cause of discontentment.

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