The well-meaning

It may not seem so, but receiving good wishes from others is a complicated business: they always get you into conflict.

One the one hand, they're well-intentioned, and we should appreciate that. The mere fact that someone takes the time and care to express a good wish indicates that there is some value they see in your relationship, and that's something to be honored. (Leave aside those cases where the motive is selfish; if you can't trust someone as far as whether their good wishes for you are based on a calculation that you may be of some use to them, then it's presumably not a complicated task to decide how to respond.)

On the other hand, however, the wishes of nearly everybody else around you will express what they think of as valuable, and given the sparse distribution of really hard thinking about this, of consistent reflection and willingness to decide on the basis of reasons, not received opinions — given this rareness, then, what most people see as valuable are most likely just the things commonly seen so: a long life and health, probably; happiness (in the prevalent sense that means not much more than just feeling good and easy, having fun); professional success and reputation; being well-off and proud owner of an imposing collection of status symbols (a house, a car, a private jet — just fill in what is current in the circles you are frequenting).

These things may be what we often go after; they're not always highest on the list of priorities, though, and it's precisely not a good idea to accept what's implicit in such wishes: that things like that are valuable, something that would be good to have (in a strong sense), something that makes a difference for whether you're leading a good life or not. Were that the case, then we should simply go after them always, and independently of what the situation is like and what our goals and plans may be. But that's not so. Whether you should go after things of that sort is a decision, and one that can only be taken by yourself, one that depends on both the respective circumstances and your ability to recognize what goes on in them, to figure out what's the right thing to do. And you may well decide, in a given situation, that there are more important things to take care of than your own long life and health (how many risk their lives and health for the good of others every day!), your feeling good and having fun (if you've ever spent some time with a needy person, someone too old or ill to get along on their own anymore, you'll see immediately what I mean), your career (you hopefully don't belong with those who sacrifice being together with their loved ones simply for doing longer hours at the office, risking a breakdown of relationships or leaving your children unhappy and alone), or money (not in need of elaboration, isn't it?).

The point here is not that it is wrong to care for your own health etc., of course. It's rather that these things have only a relative value, one that hasn't always primacy. (And you'll notice quickly that the examples I have given can be added to indefinitely; once you start thinking about it, there are many occasions where these things count less than it looked like at first glance.) The most important thing to have is the ability to choose, at any given time, among them and other options; it's a decision, and if there is anything to wish for, then it is for you to make the best possible decisions, to choose well and act right. And that is up to you, of course: thus in a sense it is something that you can wish for, rather in the sense of a resolve, or an intention; it's actually not clear where the point would be for others to wish for your acting well. Still, that would at least express the right values in a wish of them, and thus even show that they've successfully reflected on what would be really good for you, instead of merely propagating a common belief.

It's not by accident that we struggle for such a long time to tell the difference between what's truly of value in our lives and what's merely preferable on occasion; part of what makes that struggle so difficult is the overwhelmingly widespread false opinions on that question. Error of judgment in value questions is viral: it is transported by the good wishes, and well-meant suggestions, of those who want to do you some good. When I started by claiming that receiving good wishes is complicated, that was what I had in mind: you have to be careful to separate what's really good in a good wish (that the other person cares about you, which is invariably valuable) from the reference to what doesn't have a value of its own (which means almost any content of all those wishes you probably receive). And that's not easy, given the positive inclination to what we're receiving. It's crucial to make sure that this positive response picks out the right component: namely, the intention, and not the content of the wish. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.