Altruism or cowardice?

There are a few films that I try not to start watching when they are played on TV, because if I do, I usually have to watch them till the end. The Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Big Country, LOTR, Eight, The Philadelphia Story, Casablanca. I could watch them any time I wanted, but there is something about just finding them randomly on TV, like bumping into an old friend. I can’t just leave them there and go to bed.

(If you haven’t watched Casablanca or LOTR and plan to, please stop reading now)

At the end of Casablanca, Rick faces a choice (this is fiction, so let’s assume free choice does exist, at least here). He can write his name down on the safe pass out of Casablanca and escape the Nazis with the woman he loves (who wouldn’t love Ilsa…) or he can write down the name of the head of the Resistance, Victor Laszlo, who, incidentally, happens to be Ilsa’s husband. If he writes Laszlo’s name, he frees a noble man who fights for the highest cause. But, unfortunately, he will take his wife with him. In addition, Rick will most likely be executed, since he just killed Major Strasser at the airport. If he puts his own name down, Laszlo will certainly be killed by the Germans. Ilsa loves Rick, but is torn between the man she loves and the duty she feels towards her husband, who I guess she also loves. She can’t decide what to do and leaves the decision to Rick.

Rick finally writes down Laszlo’s name on the safe passes, to the surprise of Ilsa, who thought she was fleeing with Rick. I guess this was the only possible end to the story, especially considering it was filmed during WWII and it wouldn’t have helped morale to see Rick leaving with Laszlo’s wife and sentencing him to death. When I first watched Casablanca, I thought that Rick was a hero and that he had done the right thing. However, with the years, I started thinking that he might have acted like a coward, that he didn’t have the courage to be with the woman he loved, to choose what was best for him instead of what was the right thing to do. Even if it sounds unfair, it somehow seemed to me that he had taken the easiest path. Painful but easier than going against his own mental barriers and, probably, against his own personality.

In LOTR, Aragorn faces a similar decision. He is in love with Arwen, the daughter of Elrond, whose bloodline descends from Beren and Luthien. Beren was a man and Luthien was an elf. Since elves are immortal but men aren’t, their descendants get to choose whether they prefer to live a mortal life or to be immortal (some decision…). Therefore, Arwen can choose either to be mortal or immortal, and Aragorn is fully aware of this. Arwen loves him and, to be with him, she chooses to live a mortal life. Aragorn is then left with a similar decision to Rick’s. He can accept Arwen’s love and effectively condemn her to death or he can refuse her love and let her go to Valinor to live forever. Yes, it is ultimately her choice, but he has a say in the matter too. If Aragorn had been Rick, he would have refused Arwen and send her to the West with the rest of her people, thereby ignoring her wishes but keeping her alive. As Elrond very eloquently summarised it to Aragorn: “She stays for you! She belongs with her people!”. In the end, he decides to marry her and enjoy together whatever years they are given. Was this selfish or was this generous? Or maybe he had nothing to decide, because she had already decided for herself?

Sometimes it takes more courage to do the wrong thing and to be true to oneself than to do the right thing, which may only be right for someone else. Sometimes it’s just more difficult to be selfish than it is to be “good”. Either way, we are left with a bittersweet taste (or just bitter), feeling either guilty because we hurt someone or stupid because by helping someone else we hurt ourselves. Was Rick a hero or was he a coward? Was Aragorn selfish or was he just true to himself?

The balance between altruism and selfishness is what allows us to develop as individuals while living in a complex society. I find keeping this balance extremely difficult. Not just doing what’s right, but sometimes actually knowing what’s right for the individual and for the society. And, above all, I find it difficult to do what’s “not right”, even if it might be just right for me. I read somewhere that introverts sometimes try to behave properly and to be organised in an attempt to have some feeling of control over an ever changing world, because we find it difficult to deal with change. I have always wondered where my obsession with behaving well came from and that’s the best explanation I have found so far.

Maybe both Rick and Aragorn did the “right” thing, maybe they were both wrong. Maybe there was no right decision. Maybe all choices were flawed, a mixture of joy and sadness, satisfaction and disappointment, pleasure and guilt. Or maybe this is a fake dilemma and the decision is irrelevant, since our own happiness depends primarily on ourselves. Maybe there is no such thing as free choice. Or maybe all possibilities are there and we just don’t see them.