When you give him the milk, he’ll probably ask you for a straw. Altruism does not result in gratefulness; it results in a sense of expectation and entitlement in the receiver. He has been given something for nothing. What have you taught him about the value of his own labor? Nothing. You have given him not a cookie but your own self-esteem. When he’s finished, he’ll ask you for a napkin, and you will have no grounds on which to deny him, for you have conditioned him to suckle uselessly at your teat. Then he’ll want to look in a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache.
When he looks in the mirror, he might notice his hair needs a trim. So he’ll probably ask for a pair of nail scissors. His misfortune is not a mortgage on your well-being.
To whom would you rather give that cookie – men who could not equal the power of your mind, but who would equal your moral integrity, who could never approach you in stature, but who would do their best, work as hard as you did, live by their own effort, and – eating that cookie – give a moment’s silent thanks to the man who gave them more than they could give him?
Or would you rather see it eaten by whining rotters, who proclaim that you are not to be paid, neither in matter nor in spirit, neither by wealth nor by recognition, nor by respect nor by gratitude?
You would rather see the cookie smashed and scattered to the winds first.
When he’s finished giving himself a trim, he’ll want a broom to sweep it up. He’ll start sweeping. He might get carried away and sweep every room in the house. He may even end up washing the floors as well. Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a cookie to a mouse. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that cookie. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, cookie by cookie, from any mouse who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”
When he’s done, he’ll probably want to take a nap. You’ll have to fix up a little box for him with a blanket and a pillow (you have to do nothing; the illusion of obligation exists here only in your mind). He’ll crawl in, make himself comfortable and fluff the pillow a few times. He’ll probably ask you to read him a story. Will you forever acquiesce? What is his claim on your sacrifice, and where does it end?
So you’ll read to him from one of your books, and he’ll ask to see the pictures. When he looks at the pictures, he’ll get so excited he’ll want to draw one of his own. Will you surrender all your values to him? And if so, what will he do with them?
He’ll ask for paper and crayons. He has no right to them, but he will ask for them regardless. He’ll draw a picture. When the picture is finished, he’ll want to sign his name with a pen. Then he’ll want to hang his picture on your refrigerator. Which means he’ll need Scotch tape. He’ll hang up his drawing and stand back to look at it. You are a vegetable waiting to be eaten.
Looking at the refrigerator will remind him that he’s thirsty. If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is. If you achieve the career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor’s child and let your own die, it is.
So he’ll ask for a glass of milk. And chances are if he asks you for a glass of milk, he’s going to want a cookie to go with it.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.