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A milder form of revenge

What does it mean to be grateful? Probably, you think gratitude is an expression of appreciative goodwill for a kindness received. It’s a gesture of acknowledgement for a favour done. It’s about recognition and reciprocity, right? You scratched my back, now I am well-disposed towards you for the help and, probably, I’ll happily scratch yours in return when you need it. Sounds real nice. But Nietzsche had another take on gratitude: he believed that often it was a merely a subtle form of revenge.

I have a story to tell you – a true one. This occurred some 15 years ago. I was back in my hometown at the time, although I have lived hundreds of miles away from there for almost all my adult life. I was walking down the high street and I came across a cell phone lying on the ground. I picked it up. It was a decent, high-spec device (for the time) but it had seen some use. There were pop band stickers fastened to it here and there and there was a crack in the screen. It wasn’t even locked. From this neglect of the most basic security, the state of the handset and the fact it had been dropped in the street, I assumed that this was a teenager’s phone – people at that age can be so distracted. Because social connectivity is important to young people, I imagined that the loss of this device was causing a great deal of upset to someone somewhere. I decided to take it to the nearby police station as an item of lost property. The owner might yet have a chance of reclaiming it.

As I walked to the station, I observed my own sense of self-satisfaction in carrying out this good deed. How could this be the genuinely altruistic act it appeared to be when I was enjoying such a warm, fuzzy feeling. Who was I doing this for really? The unknown, hypothetical teenager mourning the loss of their phone, or myself, basking in my own self-congratulatory benevolence?

When I arrived at the police station, I was puzzled to find it closed. Government cuts, I assumed. Plan B then. I activated the phone and looked for ‘Mum’ in the contacts. There she was, of course. I called. A woman answered. A little suspicion and trepidation in her voice – who was this stranger calling her on a phone she presumably was aware had been lost? I explained that I had found the phone in the street and I wanted to return it. The woman cautiously thanked me, confirming that her daughter had lost it that day, and said that her husband could drive into town and collect it from me. I said that I was happy to drop it off instead if she gave me her address. After a little to-ing and fro-ing, with her insisting that I shouldn’t put myself to any trouble, and me insisting that it really was no trouble, she gave me her address. We ended the call.

The address of the family home where I was to deliver the item was in a village several miles outside of town, and high in the hills that encircled the valley where my hometown nestles. I didn’t have a car. This would be quite a hike. As I set off, I thought again about my feelings of self-satisfaction. Why had I insisted on taking the phone to them, instead of allowing them to collect it? Was it just my boundless kindness, or was this errand simply an opportunity to inflate the magnitude of my own good deed and the feeling of virtuous gratification that I was getting from it? I decided at that moment that this was an opportunity for an interesting little moral experiment.

Presumably, part of my satisfaction was the anticipation of the gratitude I would have showered on me when I dropped off the phone; there might even be an offer of some kind of material reward - which I would decline, naturally. But what if I refused to allow myself all that? Interesting. Yes, I would try to fulfil my promise and return the phone to its owner but without having any contact with them. What would that feel like? No gratitude from them, no recognition and no offer of reward. Sure, I was going to need to suppress my own self-bestowed satisfaction from doing the ‘right thing’ as well. Squeeze that feeling down, crush it. Try to feel nothing. Then afterwards, of course, to keep silent about it; to not tell anyone about my actions as an attempt to claim some credit for them. No humble-bragging. And I didn’t tell anyone about it for many years.

As I walked, the heavens opened and it start pouring with rain. I was not wearing a coat. This was perfect. The ordeal of the task had become even more burdensome, maximising the cost to me (effort and inconvenience) whilst minimising the potential rewards. The question I was interested in was this: was it possible to carry out a simple moral act that is as completely selfless as possible?



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