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XVI. unreasonable unselfishness.

When some eloquent clergyman preaches a sermon on unselfishness so powerful and searching that, as his hearers say, “It goes right down into every pew,” the melancholy fact remains that the person it hits is apt to be just the person who needs it least, and who would be more benefited by a moral discourse tending in just the other direction. Or when the lecturer on Ethical Culture handles the same theme in an equally ardent manner, rebaptizing the old-fashioned virtue under the modern name of “altruism,” the effect is very often just the same. Saint or scientist, the result is likely to be this, that the comfortable sinner, who has been conveniently selfish all his life, sheds the exhortation as easily as a duck's back disposes of the water; while all the duty of “unselfishness,” or “altruism,” as we may please to call it, continues to be done, as heretofore, by the quiet, uncomplaining personage in some other part of the pew. He or she — more frequently she --is the only one whom the arrow of exhortation has really reached; and while every sinner of the [81] family goes home and eats a comfortable dinner undisturbed, the single saint is found fasting and praying, and lies awake that night trying to devise some new point at which she can incur martyrdom.

When shall we recognize that while the greater part of the world may be guilty of selfishness, there are always many who need rather to be condemned for an unreasonable unselfishness, which mars their own lives, and also demoralizes those of other people? Who knows but Blue-Beard himself might have turned out a decent domestic character, and have had his life cherished by his brothers-in-law, had he encountered a spirited resistance, instead of weak concession, from some of his earlier wives? How much of the usefulness of Socrates may have been due to the wholesome rasping that he received from that friend of her race, Xantippe Husbands spoil wives, wives ruin husbands, sisters are absolutely destructive to the characters of brothers, and it is said that brothers in some instances have actually been injurious to sisters, by unmitigated petting under the specious name of unselfishness. It is for this reason that physicians generally recommend a professional nurse rather than a member of the family, not so much that the nurse is more skilful, but that she alone knows how to moderate her disinterestedness — to keep it on tap, as it were, and administer it from time to time, instead of pouring it, as the home [82] nurse does, in one everlasting flood. The wife of the nervous patient breaks down at last herself, the daughter of the insane mother becomes herself insane, simply from prolonged and exhausting care, while a hired nurse would give herself relief. In such case the excessive unselfishness defeats itself; it does not even benefit other people; it only burdens the family at last with two invalids instead of one.

There is an impression that it is the highest imaginable type of character to merge all one's own wishes and powers and aims in the absorbing care of other persons. Such is not, I am sorry to say, my own observation. Self-sacrifice, like many other forms of diet, is a food or a poison according as we use it. There are those who really carry it to a morbid extent, and can no more be trusted to measure out their own share of it than an opium-eater to write his own prescription. There are families where pastor and family physician have to bestir themselves all the time to defeat the plausible excuses under which the devotees of unselfishness veil their excesses. They need watching with unceasing vigilance, these people who stoutly maintain that they prefer drumsticks at dinner, and sleep best on a straw bed. One evidence of their growing demoralization is the utter disintegration in their characters of the virtue of truthfulness. No immoderately [83] unselfish person can be truthful at the same time; they are soon ready to deny that they are ever cold or hot, or hungry or thirsty, or tired --and this unblushingly, in the face of overwhelming evidence. Nothing is too indigestible for them to eat, in order to save the feelings of the cook ; and they will have the teething baby sleep with them for a dozen nights in succession, because dear Maria, his mother, really needs repose, and it is a peculiarity of theirs to be able to do without it. Truth is considered by the moralists to be a merit, as well as unselfishness; but these people simply lay it down, during their insatiate pursuit of their favorite virtue, as rich people lay down their carriage-occasionally --when they go into bankruptcy.

But such collateral faults are not the whole evil. There are positive virtues to be cultivated as well as the negative virtue of self-surrender. It is right to do one's own work in the world, to develop one's own powers, to exercise a tonic as well as a soothing influence on those around. That was a profound remark which Charles Lamb made about himself in regard to his close and arduous supervision, for many years, of his partially insane sister. He said — I quote from memory — that though this way of life “had saved him from some vices, it had also prevented the formation of many virtues.” No person can spend the greater part of his time in a [84] constrained position, or with a tight ligature round some portion of his body, without suffering some physical retribution; and if the constraint and repression are applied to the mind instead, that also suffers. Every human being is entitled, within certain limits, to live his or her own legitimate life ; and though this may easily be made an excuse for the basest selfishness, the habit of unbroken self-sacrifice brings perils of its own just as marked, if less ignoble. There is a certain charm in it, no doubt-in feeling that self is absolutely annulled, that we live only for others, or for some one other. But this is, after all, to quit the helm of our own life, so that our vessel simply drifts before the winds of destiny. The true skill is seen when we sail as closely as possible in the face of the opposing gale, and thus extract motive power from the greatest obstacles.

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