This might be among the most poorly observed fundaments of life: that all things require an exchange –a type of giving by, at least, two sides; a type of giving that calls us to surrender an element that makes up who we are. To breathe is to relinquish molecules of carbon dioxide for oxygen. To perceive the world is to collect the external while leaving it with pieces of our internal. To love is, in part, to quiet our proneness for judging another person about trivial qualities that we would otherwise have been quick to fault over and again.
This exchange is a type of giving where each side desires a reward, however small or insignificant, for their actions. We make choices of where to go, what to eat, or what to wear, according to our perceived benefits for doing so. We venture into partnerships because we see something in the other –a thing in it for us (be it more money, comfort, peace of mind). We ask what’s in it for me? before each exchange with another, phrasing our asking differently in each instance. To ask whether a company’s values align with ours is to ask what’s in it for me? To wonder if a project will bring us fulfilment is to ask what’s in it for me? To ruminate over why we like a friend or a partner or a sibling, outside our effort for appreciation, is to ask the question of what’s in it for me? And we ask these questions partly because we all possess the quality of selfishness, which is a kind of protective garment.
In asking what’s in it for me?, we seek to protect something that, if lost, could hurt our being; things like our time, resources, health, beliefs, identity. Here, we employ what’s in it for me? to look a little further in the future – even though we cannot predict the problems of the future – before accepting opportunities or venturing into projects and relationships. We armour ourselves with the selfishness of what’s in it for me? to ensure that we are not taken advantage of; that we avoid being taken away from; that a venture leaves us with a feeling of fullness and is fitting for our place in time.
And we notably see the relevance of what’s in it for me? – of its value as a protective measure – during exchanges in the business world; where each funding desired, partnership pursued, sponsorship approved, requires a profitable giving between parties – which is understandable because businesses primarily exist for financial profit. Still, we see how this same asking of what’s in it for me?, in business, can shorten the vision of successful corporations, preventing them from pursuing new innovations and consequently reducing them to case studies titled ‘the fall of…’ We see how this too is true for the individual self: that success flows with the air of comfort, which can make one feel like they no longer have to put in the work, strapping the successful in a ‘high and mighty’ position and wrapping them in pride, before reducing them to nothing.
Despite its servitude as a protective measure for the self, despite its necessity in our everyday ventures, the selfishness that accompanies what’s in it for me? is one with contrasting ends; it is one with no shame of turning into me me me or scratch my back and I scratch yours. And it is in this turning that we perceive the chronicity of what’s in it for me?
All things in life require an exchange; a type of giving by, at least, two sides. A type of giving (either between givers or a giver and a seeker) that calls for fairness. It is through this giving that personhood interacts with otherness and our lives become laced in the story of another person. It is this exchange that reveals our connectedness as planetary occupants of earth, a truth that should posture us as thoughtful, considerate creatures. But despite our rising recognition of this connectedness and how it has amplified our call for empathy, we are plagued by a coexisting, ever exacerbating – and somewhat unnecessary – desire for profitability. We are told to seize the moment; to try a thousand and one strategies; to do this because it could give us that. And while this push has propelled some into the company of financial prosperity and is peeling several gates that have been manned by a few for decades, it also champions the notion that we cannot do things just for the love of it; that we must take advantage of the virality of our post or the popularity of friends and family members; that we must always find the opportunities lurking behind a skillset or our contact with a popular figure; that we must always ask: what’s in it for me?
When the selfishness behind our giving jumps from something of a protective measure to pure self-seeking, when our exchanges become engineered by self-interest without empathy, what’s in it for me? reveals its ugly end. Too often, we see how the exchange between a seeker and a giver can be stripped of unkindness; how the giver (who is a giver with the upper hand) demands something unfair of the seeker (who is a giver with the lower hand); how the giver refuses the seeker something that, if given, will cause them (the giver) no harm or destabilizing loss. We see this when sex is demanded in exchange for a job or when we refuse kindness to another human being or deny assistance to someone deserving of it (when it is in our capacity to assist them).
David Whyte reflected in Consolations that ‘giving is an essence of existence, and a test of our character; it asks deep questions about our relationship to others, to ourselves and strangely, to time itself. Giving means paying attention… It is a way of acknowledging and giving thanks for lives other than our own.’
To build our giving around an unkind desire for something in return – to give with a type of selfishness that is harmful to the receiver – is to make a mockery of life’s call for living outside ourselves; for empathy. To only consider how we benefit from or are affected by something, to chase and chase our own happiness at the expense of other people’s wellbeing, is to scoff at life’s call for understanding that our lives are delicately connected with the lives of other humans and creatures. It is to unknowingly handicap our own peace and deprive our lives of its beauty. After all, kindness enriches both its giver and its receiver. It undoes the tightness around our lives. It awakens a vital part of our humanity. Leo Tolstoy puts it simply: ‘nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.’
1 Question for You
What’s in it for you, really?
As you think through this question, here’s what you should do next: Take in Easy to be Hard (a review of On Kindness) and the Real Meaning of the Golden Rule and a blind person describes what the world looks like.
*Tẓza is the Berber word for the number, nine, which, in the context of my notes, represents the month of September. The Berber language is an Afro-Asiatic language. From Tachelhit to Tamazight to Kabyle and Tamajaq, the Berber language comprises 26 closely knitted languages that are predominantly spoken by over 20 million people in Northern Africa.
Thanks for reading.
I started Strange Notes because I wanted an open space to ponder on existence. That’s still true. But here, too, is a body discovering itself. A house beyond borders that’s open to you, to selves in search of, to heads seeking rest. A room where thoughts turn to words turn to records and meet you.
I share notes on my questions about life. I share art as paintings and music and books read. Art that shifts something in me (and possibly in you too). I share intimate (shareable) conversations with friends and strangers. In this place, there are no rules. Move the vase on the tabletop. Shift the curtains to the wall. Pull the rug to the ceiling. Place your eyes on the bookshelves. Strip on the kitchen counter. Speak in your sleep. Daydream. Come, find, ask still.
I publish Strange Notes on the First Sunday of every month, and as you read, I hope that this note initiates a questioning about the fabrics of existence: the things that make us who we are and the activities that define life.