The Tyranny of Recriprocation

Many years ago, when I was far less cynical than I am now, my ex-wife and I lived in a small duplex in southeastern Greensboro*. I used to pass by North Carolina A&T State University's campus on a regular basis when I'd walk downtown. One night, on my way there, I chanced upon a young man trying desperately to gather a billow of notebook paper out of the street. His job was made difficult by cars passing by, their drivers either oblivious or uncaring to the man's plight. Each time one would approach, he'd stop his gathering, step to the side, let the cars pass in a flurry of more papers, and try to continue.

I couldn't help but feel sorry for him, so I stopped to help. Between the two of us, we managed to gather up all the papers (I glanced at a few; they looked like parts of a term paper he'd been working very hard on). As I handed him my share, I told him that I regretted that I couldn't get them in order. He didn't seem to mind, as he breathlessly thanked me for my help.

I can hear the questions at this point, "Well, whadja get outta it? Money? What was in it for you? Whyja stop?"

I didn't get a damn thing.

Because I didn't ask for a damn thing.

Sure, I could've kept moving to my destination** without breaking stride. Or I could've done like so many others these days and stood there and laughed and jeered at the poor guy, making sport of his mostly futile efforts to rescue his schoolwork. Instead, I chose to stop and help. For free. Because he needed help. Without conditions.

So what's my point? My point is that we as a society buys too heavily into the notion of the tyranny of reciprocation; the concept that "Now that I'm helping you, you have to do as I say. I know what's good for you." This ofttimes manifests itself as businesses that think because they happened to sell you something you needed, they get to collect your personal data, or intruse upon your dinner with telemarketers. Or guys who take a girl out to dinner and think that the girl then "owes" them sex. Or jobs that pay you a pittance but then expect you to work overtime***. The government is the worst offender, when it says that since you're getting public assistance (Work First checks, food stamps, disability, etc.), we can ask you whatever intrusive questions we like, come into your house anytime we want, and generally do you without lubrication anytime we get ready for it.

Had I employed the Tyranny of Reciprocation on that poor college student that night, I would've expected, what? Money? A look at his papers? The phone number of his sister? And if he hadn't supplied it, what then? Should I have scattered his papers back into the street? Gone to his professor and reported that the guy couldn't even keep his papers straight; maybe he deserved an "F"? Then what would that have made me? Just another Reciprocal Tyrant.

But I did get something out of helping that young man that night -- I got a chance to help a young man that night.

*The southeast sector of Greensboro is a world unto itself. Most of the city's poor are concentrated there, and of course, that leads to, and is caused by, all sorts of problems. I'll explore southeast in a future post.

**I don't remember where I was going that night; I only remember I was on my way downtown.

***I once worked for a company -- now happily defunct -- that used the concept of "mandatory overtime". You had to come in, work when they wanted, for as long as they wanted, even on weekends and holidays, or they'd fire you. And what was my remuneration for all that work? A lousy $5.75 an hour! Before taxes!

I'm living in Japan nowadays, and let me tell you that this a very different society. For instance, nobody would help you UNLESS you ask for help. Once you do that, they will help you TILL THE END. It's amazing!
For example, you could be lost, holding a map in your hands and asking yourself how the hell to find the entrance to the subway. And nobody would seem to come and help. BUT if you ask somebody, ANYBODY, how to find the subway, not only would he/she tell you, but he/she will walk with you to be sure you find the place, explain you wich train to take, and maybe even pay for your ride! It's amazing!
How I wish things were like that in Western countries. We're too busy thinking on ourselves...
giancarlo... I LOVE the Japanese culture! I've studied their culture and have always felt that a nice mix of their's and ours (Western, that is!) would create the perfect Utopia. Their thinking is to never dishonor yourself or somebody else by assuming somebody is, for lack of a better word, assuming somebody is lost in your example. It is a disgrace to assume somebody is lost because they look lost, and it would be an even BIGGER disgrace if somebody asked for help and you refused. The Japanese culture is heavily reliant on human behavior and a "code of honor" of sorts that focuses on self-responsibility rather than blaming others. To do something dishonorable means you dishonor not only yourself but your family and in some cases your community as well.

If you want to read more about this culture, I recommend the book Japanese Culture by H. Paul Varley ( http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0824821521/102-3817106-6961713?v=glance&n=283155 ) if you're into history/non-fiction, but if you're more into fiction with an injection of non-fiction, I HIGHLY recommend Rising Sun by Michael Crichton ( http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345380371/qid=1142459956/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/102-3817106-6961713?s=books&v=glance&n=283155 ). While the plot is canned, it has a pretty in-depth analysis of Japanese Culture.
Cynicism is a miserable thing. I empathize. I'm beginning to personify my beast a little, thanks to reading your blog every day. Much obliged... Maybe now I can corner her more often and get her to creep away so I can get some peace and perspective.
That feeling of thankfullness... that's all the payment a single person needs. But once it's a group of people, a money-making-mongering group, things unfortunately change.
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