In his collection of thoughts, Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote about the lessons he learned from those around him when he was growing up and maturing into an emperor who would be known for his wiseness. In his writing he dedicates a long section to the lessons he learned from his father. One of his lessons deals with reputation and how we see our reputation. Aurelius writes, “He was a man who looked to what ought to be done, not to the reputation which is got by a man’s act.” I highlighted this section because I think that it is an idea and perspective that I want to cultivate, but that I find difficult to live out.
The lesson that Aurelius learned from his father and focused on as he wrote this section is to think of others and to think of society before thinking of oneself. To truly commit to the causes at hand requires a certain selflessness that cannot be fostered if your main focus is on what you will receive by taking part in acts that are beneficial to the whole. It is not a bad thing to recognize that benevolent actions and social engagement will have positive outcomes for you as an individual, but it is a bad thing to participate in outreach programs if you are only doing so to enhance your own reputation.
As a whole, our society in the United States recognizes that it is not always a bad thing to volunteer time, effort, or money toward positive causes with a thought of a reward at the end. We offer tax write-offs, provide t-shirts and donuts, and dedicate space to the names of volunteers on plaques or buildings as a way to encourage and recognize those who do good in our society. Benefitting from the good you do for others is not a bad thing, and offering small rewards may help others move in a direction where they become more generous with their time and money and are more willing to help others.
The real challenge is finding a way to do good acts without expecting some sort of reward or recognition. The more we can focus on doing good because we feel that it is our social responsibility or because we understand that it gives our lives internal meaning, the more we can engage in social causes and become fully committed to our actions. Participating to be noticed and recognized means that our full energy and effort is not being brought to the table, and as a result we are not doing the most good we can do.