I just watched the recent film adaptation of Mordechai Richler's novel "Barney's Version" starring Paul Giamatti. It's 1:15am on a work night, but the movie was so affecting that I decided to make myself a cup of tea and jot down some thoughts here instead of going straight to bed so I don't just keep thinking about the movie instead of sleeping.
The movie follows Barney Panofsky, a sort of bumbling fellow who seems to keep tripping through the paces of life - he marries his first wife because he, as she humbly puts it, "knocks her up". She turns out to be unfaithful to him and he walks out on her. His second marriage is to a Jewish princess-type (played exceptionally well by Minnie Driver - it's surprising how well all these non-Jewish actors can pull off a Jewish role!) But, in another example of carelessness and irresponsibility, Barney happens upon a woman named Miriam at his wedding reception and falls head-over-heels for her. She finds this idea preposterous, of course, and leaves for her job back in New York.
Ultimately he ends up with Miriam eventually and she is perhaps so overwhelmed with his over-the-top pursual of her that she decides to give him a chance. What is odd in this movie is that you still really are rooting for Barney - despite his utter lack of compassion (or even reasonableness) for his 2nd wife, despite the fact that he hardly knows Miriam but somehow he is pursuing her with an insatiable drive, we still find ourselves keen for Barney to be happy. Maybe just because he has seemed so utterly unhappy in his first 2 marriages, we just want to see him win for a change.
And with Miriam, he does. She turns out to be the exact kind of sensible woman who can call his BS when he tries to serve it up, and she expects highly of him where likely his previous wives didn't.
As the trials of Barney's life continue, he makes further choices that no reasonable man should make, he steps on his own feet and in times of desperation he acts selfishly and without care for his wife and his family. His mind at times seems so self-fulfilling, so into-himself and so irresponsible in the context of people who are relying or dependent on him.
The movie then takes quite a twist and we feel a lot of compassion for Barney's character. At the end of the film, we learn about a lot of altruistic things he's been doing always in the background for the people that he works with - he's concocted a whole story to help a particularly nostalgic cast member on the show he produces. She is a washed-up model and he arranges for a magazine from her homeland of Bulgaria to run news articles on her so she can feel like people still appreciate her even though she is well passed her glory days. There are some actions like this that he does, that come as a surprise to even his family, they never knew about these little favours he was doing to make people happy, to keep his work family and real family feeling loved and appreciated.
This really made me think. What is the nature of altruism? If you do a kind act for someone, you should probably not do it for any positive results for yourself, then it would not truly be altruistic. But, on the other hand, if you do something nice for someone by hide the evidence (as Barney did), you may look like a total jerk on the outside, but there is some hidden layer of your personality that people may not ever find out about. Can you do something good without people knowing? Or rather should you make it well-known that you have done something good? If you can show off that you're making a difference, surely you can inspire others with your thoughtful acts, and convince others to follow in your footsteps. On the other hand, if you show off in the wrong way, your actions will appear arrogant and no one will want to follow your lead.
This is a really interesting concept and I don't think there can be an exact answer here. But in my opinion, I'd probably stick with the idea of making your actions public. Why parade around like a complete jerk (as Barney sometimes does in the film), why torture yourself and your family life, and then spend a bunch of time working tirelessly to help people, yet no one notices? In this case, your kind actions just appear to be an attempt at a balancing act - to outweigh your negative actions you're just adding some positive stuff on the other side of the scale.
It seems to me that the balance of positive and negative actions will ultimately just cancel each other out in the long run. A truly great person I think should attempt to fill their life and time with positive action throughout all areas of their life - trying to achieve a stable and happy existence. Barney seemed to be a very complex character, trying to do the right thing but so often being seduced by less-than-worthy pursuits. I suspect that if Barney spent less of his lifetime being conflicted and less of his time making bad decisions, he could have made a much larger impact on the people around him rather than just a mediocre amount. He could have changed the world publicly, and made room for his son or daughter or future generations to follow his positive lead.
What an incredibly interesting movie and it really does bring up a lot of questions about what it really means to be a mensch. One final note: Dustin Hoffman is hilarious in this movie and a perfect casting choice.