My cousin is auditioning for a sainthood. She’s both a bravura host and all-weather Samaritan. For this she’s duly punished by two women who imagine they’re her best mates. I call them Poor Me and Me Too. Poor Me visits weekly, bearing vats of oily soup as a form of payment, then parks on the sofa and moans. Me Too lives further afield but monitors my cousin on Facebook, doling out unsolicited advice, looming large at every party, staying for days to ‘help clear up’.
Does your halo hang heavy? Well whose fault is that? Forgive my cynicism but I find compulsively helpful people suspect. ‘Why do you want me in your debt?’ I wonder. This attitude is mean spirited. More worryingly, it could be bad for my health.
Happiness studies suggest the most rewarding activities, for pleasure and wellbeing, involve kindness and gratitude. Help others and you help yourself. This circular logic perfectly fits the explanation of altruism as ‘enlightened self-interest’ proposed by that least rose-tinted philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. Ornithologists agree, seeing help as a weapon among teenage Arabian babbler birds, which compete ferociously to feed their younger siblings. Why? To gain valued social commodities like prestige – just as billionaires pay fortunes for junk at charity auctions. In exchange, recipients can feel overloaded with obligation, deprived of choice, or prey to donors’ whims. Hence insistent helpers, like Me Too, can resemble bullies – because they know best…
This is an etiquette problem, but doesn’t prove we’re ruled by ‘selfish genes’. (As Mary Midgley recently teased Richard Dawkins, the word ‘selfish’ wouldn’t exist if it was a universal condition.) I’m with Epicurus, ancient connoisseur of delight, who held, ‘It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us, as the confidence of their help.’ Goodwill doesn’t just boost egos. Much of civilisation’s history makes sense only in light of the mingled benefits and mixed motives of co-operation and patronage.
Being helpful may lose its virtue if you tingle with superiority, or resentment. That doesn’t make it bad so much as human, although probably it also means this is less a friendship of equals than power game. To avoid such pitfalls and aid a friend, let her know you’re there and leave gifts you see a clear need for. But knock on the door. Don’t force it.