Altruism

One of the ways we lift the human project

In the above sunflare, I always saw a dove. As well as “peace,” the dove symbolizes altruism. And in this context, the trees represent the strength and growth that accompanies the privilege to give and help. The word “altruism” was coined by French philosopher Auguste Comte. In French, altruisme, is an antonym for egoism. He derived it from the Italian altrui, which in turn was derived from Latin alteri, meaning “other people” or “somebody else.” (Wikipedia)

Arguably, the greatest social debate that’s been raging worldwide since the discovery of fire has been the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In Genesis 4:9, after Cain killed his brother, Abel, the Lord asked him where his brother was. He lied, saying he didn’t know and posed that infamous question. Ever since, different people affirm or deny that we, as human beings, have an obligation to support or provide for anyone who is lacking or suffering.

 

The Religions

Christians are taught to love one another. The apostle Paul wrote (1 Thessalonians 5:12-15) “See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all.” Similarly, Buddhists are encouraged to practice “loving-kindness” toward one another. Neither emotional nor selfish, it’s seen as the most effective way to maintain purity of mind and to purify the mentally polluted atmosphere. 

In the Metta Sutta, the Buddha expanded this perspective. “Just as a mother would protect her only child even at the risk of her own life, even so, let him cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings. Let his thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world, above, below and across without any obstruction, without any hatred, without any enmity.” Love of neighbor has been one of the fundamental precepts of all the traditional religions. 

 

The Dissenters

Among the skeptics and outright dissenters to the principle and practice of altruism, novelist Robert A. Heinlein believed altruism was “based on self-deception, the root of all evil.” Industrialist H.L. Mencken said it was “grounded on the fact that it is uncomfortable to have unhappy people about one.” Business and political writer Andrew Tobias said “there’s no such thing as altruism.” Marcel Proust, novelist and critic, said “Human altruism which is not egoism, is sterile.” Science fiction writer Greg Bear wrote “Altruism is masked self-interest. Aggressive self-interest is a masked urge to self-destruction.” And novelist Ayn Rand proclaimed that “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.”

 

The Science

Dr. Abigail Marsh, author of The Fear Factor, reported in Psychology Today that after six years of MRI research working with dozens of altruistic kidney donors, researchers Kristin Brethel-Haurwitz and Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. found that altruists are “particularly attuned to signs that another person is in distress. They have a better-than-average ability to recognize when others are frightened, which seems to result from an area of their brain, called the amygdala, being more reactive to fearful facial expressions. This fear sensitive part of the brain is also physically bigger in altruists. These patterns are especially interesting because they are the opposite of those seen in psychopaths—particularly uncaring and selfish individuals—who have smaller, less active amygdalas. Together, these results suggest that humans may naturally vary along a sort of a “caring continuum,” a spectrum ranging from highly altruistic people who care a lot about others’ welfare to psychopathic people who don’t care much at all.”

 

The Wisdom Teachers — In their own words

The root of happiness is altruism – the wish to be of service to others. — Dalai Lama

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. — Mahatma Gandhi

When you are able to shift your inner awareness to how you can serve others, and when you make this the central focus of your life, you will then be in a position to know true miracles in your progress toward prosperity.” ― Wayne W. Dyer, Motivational speaker

Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now. ― Jack Kerouac, author of The Portable Jack Kerouac

Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. — Martin Luther King, Jr.

What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal. — Albert Pike, Arkansas poet and lawyer

Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile. — Albert Einstein

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. — Winston Churchill

My sister, Joanne, and I were raised to be generous, especially toward those in need. My wife wasn’t raised that way, but being highly empathetic giving became natural to her. Our daughter, Jennifer, excels in that area and Jason, her husband, has such a strong impetus to service that helping and giving are prominent features in their family. 

In my experience, in addition to the feeling that I’ve helped someone, incidents of giving and helping evoke a powerful sense of gratitude for what we have. As with power, privilege comes with responsibility. No matter how small the contribution or help, irrespective of the motivation and circumstances of the receiver, altruism is one of the ways we can lift the human project—one person, one organization at a time.      

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I welcome your comments at <smithdl@fuse.net>

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