I am one of those who always hold doors for other people. We door holders are a kind lot, but we are also (maybe) a bit sensitive. The other day, as I was leaving the post office, I stood outside the threshold for about three seconds longer than was necessary to hold the door for a middle-aged woman as she approached to enter. She walked through without even making eye contact, let alone saying “thank you.”
Now, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t walk away without muttering angrily to myself. Looking back on it, I am very slightly ashamed of this reaction. (Very slightly.) Was I really holding the door out of kindness if I got angry so easily? Or was I doing it to make myself feel good?
Can it be both? Probably.
In any case, I believe it is in our nature to overstate our own sense of morality. In Book II of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes:
Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.
This quote, with its rolling rhythm and timeless language, struck me as oddly comforting when I first read it. It seems to say, “Don’t worry. You’re OK. It’s everyone else who’s bad.” But how helpful is it to tell yourself that?