“Prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish, and someday, you will be a real boy.” ~The Blue Fairy, Pinnochio
Do these sound like things you’ve heard, or possibly said: If you do ___ for me, I’ll do this for you. I did _____, but they didn’t do anything for me. People, including ourselves, have unfair expectations sometimes, don’t they and we? This isn’t about expectations, though. This is about the strings that are attached to the gifts we give and the favors we do. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. You cover my shift, I owe you. I give you a large donation, and you’ll show me favor. If you give a gift and expect something in return, it isn’t a gift. It becomes a heavy, guilt-filled obligation. It’s possible, though, that I’m the only person who doesn’t think that I should owe you because you do something for me, since even the Blue Fairy had conditions for Pinnochio. Be brave, truthful, and unselfish and THEN I’ll snip those strings little fella.
For Pinnochio, and many of us, strings are attached to any good we do or is done for us, but what if they weren’t? What if we did things for people without expecting anything in return? No, not the way you give a gift and pretend like it isn’t a big deal when the other party doesn’t reciprocate but secretly keep count of the debt they owe, but the way you buy the coffee for the guy behind you who will never know who you were and can never thank you or contribute to whatever fundraiser you have going on…you know, the “no strings attached” kind of gift.
Marionettes like Pinnochio must have strings attached in order to function (I always think about The Lonely Goatherd in The Sound of Music). Marionettes aren’t real, I know, but when they come alive in a scene it’s easy to forget that. There are people who operate much like those marionettes, controlled by the strings others have placed on them. You might find yourself as either the person with strings placed on you by others or the person who uses strings to control others. Chances are that at some time you’ve been both of those people. It isn’t enough to recognize the danger of strings, though. If we want to be better people, we need to be willing to snip the strings and expect that altruistic (unselfishly concerned for or devoted to the welfare of others) behaviors can evolve.
In his book Supercooperators, Martin Nowak regards cooperation as the altruistic side of ‘no strings attached,’ and talks about how even within the human body there is cooperation among cells. That is how we have healthy systems. There are those cells that choose to go their own direction, however, and Nowak calls them defectors — cancer cells are the defectors.
When I read through Nowak’s research, it was the ‘defector’ that caught my eye. I could see clearly that when I do something for someone and expect them to reciprocate, I’m basically being a defector. If I am able to do things for others and just be happy with what I’ve been able to contribute, I am a healthy cell, bringing good things to the body of people with whom I’m working, living, and meeting. That’s a visual I can really comprehend.
If the cells in the human body know to work together, doesn’t it make sense that we each have that capability? If our cells are able to sometimes be defectors, it also makes sense that there will be people who are that way, as well.
Here comes the hard part. Just as you typically don’t decide you’ll eat less and lose 50 pounds, you are just as unlikely to suddenly decide that you aren’t going to attach strings to gifts or actions and have it work out easily and beautifully. It’s more in our nature to just react, and that is seldom effective.
You and I will have to make a real effort, be intentional, in allowing our gifts and actions to be simply what we offer with no expectation of reward. You and I will have to be intentional when we look at people who try to control us by pulling one string to make us dance and another to make us sit and say to them “It won’t work anymore.” Will it be easy? I doubt it. Will it be immediate? I doubt that, too. Will it be beneficial to everyone? Yes, I believe it will.
Being intentional is a good place to begin to be a better person and a better part of our families, our jobs, our communities, our world.
A few years ago, I declared to my adult children that I didn’t want to have a special Mother’s Day lunch or birthday gathering automatically on the calendar anymore. Instead, I would simply welcome whatever gesture they had time to make, and said that I hoped that it would matter enough to them to at the very least send a text or make a phone call. I explained that I was not going to have pressure or guilt attached to their spending time with me. Their lives are busy, and I wanted to relieve them of feeling there were strings attached to my loving them. (I can’t say that their dad made the same declaration regarding Father’s Day, but these are baby steps) Do I hope that my birthday and Mother’s Day will be remembered and honored? Of course, I do! But if I want to lead by example, this is where I had to begin.
What if the Blue Fairy had been kind enough to make Pinnochio a real boy without the condition of his being brave, truthful, and unselfish? What if the lunch tab could be paid without being notated on a list by the payee? What if the favor could be performed without a “you owe me” hanging above the head of the recipient? What if we didn’t have to have defectors and could live free of disease? It won’t happen overnight, but it can happen if we become intentional in our choices to snip the strings that give us a feeling of control over someone else. After all, where is the joy in having people do what you want just because you’ve guilted them into it? For me, that is not a joy at all.