We are all selfish and I no more trust myself than others with a good motive. -Lord Byron
My grandfather left today. I hardly ever see him. He comes to visit from the West Bank every couple of years and stays for a month or two, enough time for him to become a familiar part of everyday life at home. Then he’s off again leaving behind a heap of questions. Will I ever be able to visit him myself without risking being banned from pretty much every Arab country? Will my own government permit me to go? What does his home look like? Where did my father grow up? When will I see him again? Will I ever see him again?
As I was about to end my evening last night I whispered to my father that I was going to bed. He told me to just get up, say good night as I do every other night, and go to sleep. No goodbyes. That’s how they prefer to do it over there. I guess they’ve lived through times when such goodbyes carried the possibility of being the last goodbye – when people never came back; when people never came home to home again, like my own father, for want of a better life. For a family of farming folk who’ve lived hard lives and have hard exteriors, one thing that sends a rush of emotions surging through their hoe built chests into their throats forcing tears down their sunburnt cheeks is a simple ‘goodbye’. They’d rather avoid them. My aunt literally hides when we leave after visiting her to avoid them.
I got up and said goodnight and went to bed. I stayed up thinking about how uneasy I felt. Something was amiss. How could I not say goodbye to him? What kind of grandson am I?? We are so used to ending our encounters with goodbyes that they have become the natural ending to our encounters. We even feel strange about ending a phone call without some form of goodbye (how the hell do they do that so nonchalantly in the movies??). Without them we have no closure, no sense of completion. So why did I want to say goodbye? Was it my own need for a sense of closure? Is it really to him that I felt I owed a goodbye?
It seems that we have built into our social codes and interactions so many of these rules and practices that seem to signify respect or acknowledgement whereas, in reality, they are at best purely symbolic and, at worst, only self-gratifying. They are performed to reconfirm the social code so that we’re not seen as freaks, for us to maintain our social bonds, or to make us feel better about ourselves. But then where do we draw the line? Where do we stop questioning everything that we do? Are all of our actions
really only motivated by self-interest?
I think the answer to those questions are less important than the answer to the following: So what if they are?? We as human beings were only able to thrive through organizing ourselves into social structures and systems. Thousands of years ago a bunch of human groups needed to move away from increasing desertification and live around a narrow strip of fresh water we now know as the Nile. In order for everyone to benefit and survive, it was necessary to get organized and share this necessary resource. From that need, we got division of labor, agriculture, and a civilization that continues to amaze history and archeology fans, and will do for centuries to come. So our need for self-preservation is what created our inclination to preserve social formalities, gift exchange, gestures of affection, and of course, goodbyes.
“Modern culture is pervaded by a taboo on selfishness. It teaches that to be selfish is sinful and that to love others is virtuous. To be sure, this doctrine is not only in flagrant contradiction to the practices of modern society but it also is in opposition to another set of doctrines which assumes that the most powerful and legitimate drive in man is selfishness and that each individual by following this imperative drive also does the most for the common good. The existence of this latter type of ideology does not affect the weight of the doctrines which declare that selfishness is the arch evil and love for others the main virtue. Selfishness, as it is commonly used in these ideologies, is more or less synonymous with self-love. The alternatives are either to love others which is a virtue or to love oneself which is a sin.” Eric Fromm
The problem truly lies in the way we’ve been brought up, the way our parents needed to raise us, the way will most probably bring up our own children. They must learn that there are consequences to their actions so that we can set limits to their behavior even when we’re not around them. We teach them that bad things happen to people who do bad things, that life is fair and good to the good, that things like karma exist. We teach them to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, to smile at others, and to give back to those who give to them so that they will be liked and accepted. We manage to convince them, as we ourselves are convinced, that the world is just, that as long as we are good, good things will happen to us, and that we are nice to people because it’s ‘right’. Can you imagine how ridiculous this would all sound to a creature from a different planet? To most of the other creatures on this one???
Coming back to ‘why goodbyes?’, I propose that it is not because people deserve them as gestures of recognition but because they make us feel better about ourselves. Everything that we do or don’t do is motivated by shame, guilt, gratification, or pleasure, which are all subjectively experienced feelings that are not shared by the people around us that give rise to them. They are felt inside each of us and are only our own. It is our own inner drives that make us worry about karma, do good to others, or say goodbyes. But so what? The human species has come further than any other because it has directed its self-centered needs and desires in such a way to form social groups and organized societies. In the process we have unwittingly created morality and ethics which have spread in the guise of religion, art, music, politics, and fairytales. Let’s embrace our selfishness and the beauty and nobility it has created, and as long as we don’t delude ourselves about the real drives that motivate our actions, let’s say ‘goodbye’. Because it feels good.