Saturday, June 1, 2013


altruism: "The quality of unselfish concern for the welfare of others"

I recently signed on to do a volunteer gig for a local non-profit to help them implement a fresh website. I believe in their mission of ending loneliness in institutions like nursing homes and one person, one friend at a time. Because I frequently visit a family member who resides in such a place I am constantly confronted by the loneliness of some of the other people there. It's heartbreaking.

At the same time, I am using this as an opportunity to refresh my stale technical skills, to acquire recent work for my portfolio, and hopefully to get a good reference. All of these I'm very conscious of. So this volunteer project is hardly "altruistic" in its true sense. There's too much of a quid pro quo.

What about our three years in Tanzania? Going off to East Africa to an alien, Swahili-speaking country, living in an oppressively hot climate with lots of bloodsucking malaria-infested mosquitoes, and facing demanding work for which I am not at all qualified (teaching adolescents in a secondary school) are not exactly my idea of fun, LOL. Does this qualify as altruism?

It was certainly a sacrifice of physical, psychological and social comfort. I had to push myself past my fears. Yet after the first several months of setting up a new household, getting familiar with our town, and making a routine for myself at work, it felt like a new normal. Beginnings are the most difficult times when you're going through transitions. After that, it's a lot easier.

Far more than that, though, now that I've completed those three years and can look back on them, what I remember is the experience of a lifetime, unique and fulfilling. What I feel is a sense of having answered what my life was calling me to do, of continuing to move towards the person that I am meant to become. If that's what's happened, then aren't I attaining a higher level of happiness and satisfaction that benefits me to a very high degree?

Maybe it's a false dichotomy. From a Christian viewpoint, each of us is made in the image of a G-d who is infinitely compassionate of all human beings without exception, in which case it is in our very nature to try to act likewise. From a Buddhist viewpoint, all beings are interconnected; separateness is a delusion; there is really no fundamental difference between my wellbeing and yours.

I leave off with two articles that got me thinking about this.
  Is Pure Altruism Possible?
  Our Basic Human Pleasures: Food, Sex and Giving

From the latter here's a quote:
"The most selfish thing you can do is to help other people," says Brian Mullaney, co-founder of Smile Train, which helps tens of thousands of children each year who are born with cleft lips and cleft palates. Mr. Mullaney was a successful advertising executive, driving a Porsche and taking dates to the Four Seasons, when he felt something was missing and began volunteering for good causes. He ended up leaving the business world to help kids smile again — and all that makes him smile, too.
   . . . .
Let’s remember that while charity has a mixed record helping others, it has an almost perfect record of helping ourselves. Helping others may be as primal a human pleasure as food or sex.
- Earl

Friday, March 22, 2013

Doing Good? Making a Difference?

It's been several months since we finished our three-year term in Tanzania and since my last posting. I could leave it at that, but I feel a lack of closure with this blog. Reaching completion on things is really important to me. So I'm going to write a bit more about our stint abroad.

"... when it came to the crunch they seemed to accomplish very little. For every problem they solved they created two more. I rather felt that it was people who claimed to be the sole possessors of the truth who should be ill at ease for the disruption they caused in others' lives. At least one can say of the anthropologist that he is a harmless drudge ..."
From The Innocent Anthropolist: Notes from a Mud Hut, by Nigel Barley, after he had a conversation with an agriculturalist whose promotion of growing cotton in Cameroon resulted in a shortage of food.
I think it's fair to say that for almost everyone who goes to a developing country for volunteer work a primary motivation is to do some good for the people there. (There may, of course, be other reasons as well — our egos and our ethnocentrism are always in play.)

As Westerners we like to get things done, to make a difference. In a field such as health care a physician may be able to see immediate, measurable, tangible results. If you're delivering food to an area of famine you can get satisfaction from simply keeping human beings alive.

For those of us who do what is generally called "development work", though, it's really, really hard to know what the consequences are. We as outsiders are dealing with histories, traditions, cultures, ways of living on the land, politics, etc. that are not our own. That ignorance provides a minefield to step through — and sometimes we don't even know what kind of explosions we're setting off. Our very presence may be a disruption of the local life.

I do in general believe in the value of education, in the teaching of literacy in English and Swahili, science and math, African history, and computer skills. In our case we were invited by the local Tanzanian bishop to a school founded by Tanzanian parents and governed by a board of Tanzanians. I have very moving, positive memories of moments when I was in the classroom or the computer lab. I knew that I was supposed to be there.
"... in Zen meditation we cook ourselves into a state of even-minded ease with things as they are. Tasks are undertaken not because we want to do them, or like to do them; not because we choose to do them; not because we have suitable talent, temperament, or ingredients; not for reward or appreciation; but simply because it is time. Without thinking, we engage wholly in tending to needs as they appear and, in this way, live with clear purpose and total fulfillment."
From Hand Wash Cold: care instructions for an ordinary life, by Karen Maezen Miller.
Karen Maezen Miller was writing about finding contentment in the tasks of ordinary daily life in an ordinary setting. But her description can apply really well to a larger task such as stepping out to a distant land, albeit with some thought beforehand. Diane and I heard such a calling and answered it because it was our time.

Nevertheless, I find myself still left with feelings of unease about the consequences of doing so. They come with the ambiguity that I will always live with.