I love all fables, paradoxes, koans, teaching stories,  and aphorisms. That’s one reason I love to keep my Secrets of Adulthood – my own contribution.

For this reason, when I was last wandering through the library, I couldn’t resist pulling out William March’s book, 99 Fables.

And I was particularly struck by Fable #4, “The Persimmon Tree,” about a loophole-invoking possum.

In the fable, a possum looks longingly at the delicious persimmons hanging from the fox’s tree, and thinks about how badly he wants one. “’No,’ he said. ‘The fox is my friend and benefactor, and he trusts me. Oh, no!’”

Several days later, he stares again at the persimmon tree, where the fruits had reached their finest flavor. His mouth waters, but he turns away and goes home.

There, he sees his wife, who says, “’What a morning this would be for eating persimmons! When I think how sweet they are…I could break down and cry my eyes out.’”

The possum says, “’That settles it. I’ll take those persimmons if it’s the last thing I ever do…Why, what sort of a creature would I be if I deprived my sweet, faithful wife of persimmons—endangering her health and making her cry her dear eyes out.’”

The fable concludes:

“We often do for the sake of others what we would like to do for ourselves.”
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In Better Than Before, my book about habits, my favorite chapter (I admit it, I have a favorite) is the chapter on the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

I identify the ten — yes, ten — categories of loopholes. (Here’s a list of all ten.) Now, what’s a loophole? A loophole is a justification that we invoke to excuse us from keeping this particular action or habit in this particular situation. We’re not mindfully making exceptions, we’re invoking a loophole as an excuse.

The possum is invoking the concern for others” loophole. We tell ourselves that we’re acting out of consideration for others and making generous, unselfish decisions. Or, more strategically, we decide we must do something in order to fit in to a social situation.

  • It will hurt my girlfriend’s feelings if I get up early to write.
  • I’m not buying this junk food for me, I have to keep it around for others.
  • So many people need me, there’s no time to focus on my own health.
  • It would be so rude to go to a friend’s birthday party and not eat a piece of birthday cake.
  • I don’t want to seem holier-than-thou.
  • Changing my schedule would inconvenience other people.
  • I can’t ask my partner to stay with the kids while I go to class.
  • At a business dinner, if everyone is drinking, it would seem weird if I didn’t drink.(This loophole comes up a lot with drinking. Teenagers aren’t the only ones to feel peer pressure to drink, it seems.)

We all have the few loopholes that we invoke most readily. My own personal favorite is the false choice loophole.

Do you agree with the moral of the fable, that “We often do for the sake of others what we would like to do for ourselves”?

Have you ever done something that you thought you shouldn’t, for the benefit of someone else? This loophole is tricky, because sometimes to do that is a form of virtue, and other times, a form of self-deception.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier—and the recently released Happier at Home. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. For more doses of happiness and other happenings, follow Gretchen on Facebook and Twitter.

I’ve posted my U.S. book tour, and I hope to see many of you along the way. Tour cities include Los Angeles, San Diego, Plano, Denver, San Francisco, Princeton, Wellesley, Madison, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. And of course New York City. Please come! Tell your friends! Soon to come: tour events in Canada, the U.K., and Australia.

Image courtesy of Paul Proshin.