At school, we are covering the topic of volunteer work, and the question came up if not people that do volunteer work because it makes them feel good, are really just selfish and not good people after all? Or, if the care they express is a sort of overly sacrificing attitude, ending up that the compassionate people are judged as self-neglecting or even self-harming, obviously making the whole game unappealing to the general public eyes.
I feel come across this view quite regularly, especially among the younger generation, and it used to trouble me a lot and still do some times. It comes with a nihilistic and very individualistic flavor, which in turn means lack of joy and meaning in life. Basically, we are stuck in a paradox of either I am being selfish - helping others to help myself (which feels shit)- , or there I have hatred and neglect towards myself so my way of finding value is by taking care of others. Compassion does not exist, and all is selfishness.
I think in the west, this view might be due to skew view inherited from Christian culture. We have some kind of idea that compassion means sacrifice, and sacrifice means pain for the one doing the sacrifice. As I see it though, spiritual sacrifice brings benefit to both parties, though it might seem like one part is not getting much out of it. Here by “benefit” I mean not material gain, but insight and liberation and merit growing from compassionate motives and acts. It does not mean self-neglect or self-harm. For example I don’t believe that Jesus hated himself, though he did the most famous sacrifice in our history. Moreover, I would not categorize it as selfish since there is spiritual gain, such acts I think are really done for others.
As I see it, harmful intentions toward others affect our own system, harmful intentions towards ourselves does exactly the same thing. Because, both arise in due to ignorance, thinking of separate self and others, we have not understood emptiness. So to practice dharma while having a negative view of oneself might be challening (shame, guilt, self-harm etc…). Just thinking of oneself is of course also a mistake. My view these days, is that the compassion we have for others, and the compassion we have for ourselves is really one and the same thingy, the same ocean so to speak, including all and everyone, also myself.
So to conclude. I think that feeling good about helping others is not bad or selfish, especially from point of view of spirituality if it is done genuinely. I think it is a perfect win-win.
All this being said, I am also a noob on this topic, I am not a parent or have been in the army or have done many sacrifices I am aware, so I cannot say much as I like about this, feel free to pitch in if you have something