Someone once shared an interesting confession with me. She said she sees herself as “someone who likes to help others, but like, loudly.” For example, if she’s going shopping, she’ll post on her block’s WhatsApp chat, offering to pick up groceries for her neighbors.
“I know it’s a nice thing to do. But deep down, I also know that a big reason I do it is not because I’m this wonderful person, but for more shallow reasons. I want to be perceived as a great friend and neighbor. Or maybe to stroke my own ego – “how thoughtful I am!” Or perhaps I just want to build up good will in case I ever need to ask for favors. So when I analyze it, even my acts of kindness are selfishly motivated. I feel like a phony- trying to come off as so giving when that’s not the whole story.”
Many morally honest people can sometimes question themselves this way, doubting or criticizing their motives.
We discussed the possibility that even if those are the less noble factors,
1. Her neighbors still benefit from her favors.
2. Doing a good thing for a partially self-serving reason isn’t so terrible if it benefits other people (and it isn’t specifically leveraged to manipulate).
3. Maybe the fact that she wants to “stroke her ego” or build her self-image this way indicates that she is striving to be that person, even if not entirely altruistically. Feeling good about oneself through being helpful is definitely not the worst dopamine hit.
4. Building friendships by doing for others, even if it’s partially so it becomes reciprocal, is actually a normal part of how healthy relationships work. Yes, we don’t want to keep an exact “tit for tat” score to demand reciprocity. But one-way relationships can be draining; healthy people don’t want to always take from others if they don’t need to. Nor do they want to feel constantly used by others. It feels good and is good to give, and it’s important to be able to create support systems for ourselves too.
Humans are complex; we’re rarely linear or one-dimensional in our reasoning and motivation. Often there are multiple thoughts, feelings, and reasons for why we do what we do, and some can feel more altruistic than others. But ultimately, the goal is to self-actualize, to be, and become constantly improving versions of ourselves by practicing behaviors that align with our values.
In Parshas Terumah, the Torah describes the Aron as composed of three nesting boxes- gold, inside wood, inside gold. As a child, I learned that the purpose of the innermost gold box was to symbolize the message of having integrity “inside like the outside” (tocho k’varo in Hebrew) – someone who is sincere through and through- if the outer presentation was gold, there should be gold on the inside too; not just wood: not phony, not hypocritical, just consistent and true.
But I remember thinking: “If that’s the case, then why have the wood box at all? Just have one thick gold box. Or three gold boxes. Or maybe a solid gold cube. This gold-wood-gold thing sort of seems like gold plated all around. If anything, not totally consistent.”
Eventually, I considered this as a potential explanation:
We each have a deep inner self, a soul that is pure and idealistic. That Divine core wants to be as good as we can. That’s the inner gold box, with the Torah in it.
We also seek to express ourselves and connect to others in ways that reflect well and earn us good relationships and reputations. That’s the outer gold box.
How we aspire at our deepest spiritual levels and behave when we want to see ourselves that way often matches up, in theory. We want to be good internally, and we want to practice goodness externally.
Where it gets messy is the process in between. All those thoughts, feelings, doubts, words, and dueling motivations that swim between our core goodness and our outer behavioral expression, that’s where the struggle takes place. That’s the middle, wooden box.
The Hebrew word for wood is the same as the word for tree, and is similar to the Hebrew word for ideas and advice. (Etz/ etzah.) Maybe this is because we grow like trees (to which humans are explicitly compared in the Torah). Starting from a little seed in the dirt, an idea germinates, strengthens, and pushes upward, defying the natural gravitational pulls of ego, lust, and inertia. It grows taller, higher, and bolder. Then it blossoms and produces flowers, fruit, and branches- beauty, nourishment, and building: materials for human growth.
All that stuff happens in the middle box, the “etz”: the messy intermediate emotional and intellectual processes and rumbling between the inner spiritual and outer behavioral dialogue. It’s not as shiny or fancy as the gold, but it’s organic, and it’s where the development happens.
When we act in ways that, even imperfectly, reflect our inner goals and values about who we really want to be, that’s the outer gold matching the inner gold. Even if there are some very human components in the middle.
As the Mishnah says (I’m paraphrasing a little here): “People should allow themselves to pursue virtue, even for the ‘not the right reasons,’ because we’re affected and redefined by our actions. So eventually we can become habituated to our own moral behavior, and it becomes second nature, in both deed and character.”
Most of our actions will not be completely altruistic nor completely ulterior. But if we lead from the soul, the Divine, and practice the role of who we want to be, from wherever we begin imperfectly, we refine and connect the parts of ourselves with the best parts of others’ souls, and with our Creator.