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