On Altruism…


Altruism /ˈalˌtro͞oˌizəm/: the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.

I belong to a very small community of yoga practitioners. We meet via Zoom every weekday morning at 6:00 a.m. While our goal is to get all bendy and strong, sometimes we have some deep conversations that make their way into this blog. A few days ago, our instructor (he eschews the term “guru” because he’s not mental) was pondering the question of whether people are intrinsically (naturally, at the core) good and, if so, what is the evidence?

After spending 50 minutes in various shapes mulling over the question, I came back to the conclusion I have had for many years, which is: people are intrinsically selfish.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that in a negative way. Selfishness is, according to Merriam-Webster being concerned excessively or [not and] exclusively with oneself seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being…

I don’t believe selfishness is necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, I believe, we must be selfish in order to survive. I need air to live, so I breathe. I need food to live, so I eat. I need water to live, so I drink. I need the company of other people to maintain my sanity, so I socialize.

I began volunteer work in dog rescue back in the late 1990s, and continued do that until just recently. Those of us who toil in animal welfare, regardless of whether we admit it, get a little buzz from the kudos we receive from other people. The “oh, you are so awesomes,” the “you are so generouses,” the “I could never to thats);” it is all very addictive. The big smiles from the new owners, and the years of Christmas cards and pictures thanking me for giving them their best friend, were like heroin.

I closed my rescue a few years ago when it stopped being fun and rewarding. Oh, sure, the dogs appreciated it, inasmuch as they were aware of my contribution to their safety. The new owners, when they were good, became lasting friends I maintain even now. But the others, the former owners, the dogs with really poor health or worse, awful behavior issues and had to be put down. Putting down any dog, regardless of reason, never got any easier, never ceased to haunt me for months. There was just too much heartbreak to deal with. Plus, I had ailing parents at the time and I needed to reserve all my energy for them. I rationalized that there were younger more energetic rescuers coming up the pike and I should let them have a shot. But, that’s not really it. I stopped because I was exhausted and it stopped being fun for me.

While I stood on my yoga mat, with my head touching the ground, I wondered if there were really any examples of altruism that weren’t also grounded in selfishness. There was my friend who took in her brother’s drug addicted daughter. It seemed selfless; what was in it for her? Well, her mother quit nagging her and calling her a terrible sister. Sure, it gave the daughter yet another place to stay after she had worn out her welcome, but turned out to be just another place to do drugs. The act benefited my friend by removing the negativity of her mother and she received many thanks from her brother, but it didn’t help the niece, really. Conversely, handing a homeless person a dollar, makes me feel good, but there is the “he’s only going to buy booze with it” comment you hear so often. Is a dollar really doing anything but making me feel good in the moment?

I put out bird feed in the winter, because food is hard to come by for them and I want them to be fed. Birdfeed is really expensive, but I fill three feeders anyway. Why? Because I am selfish. I am. If that weren’t so, would I put the feeders there in the open space in front of my window where I can enjoy watching while having my morning coffee? No, I would put it in the wooded area so the cardinals and sparrows would be safer from the predation of hawks flying over head. I put it in front of my window, for me.

The same is true for the deer feeder. The herd I feed would no doubt feel safer under cover of the blackjack stand on the other side of the house. “But, hey, Bambi, I’m buying this food, I need to see you enjoy it!!”

Last week, I accidentally hit another person’s car with my door in the parking lot at work. A 70 mph Oklahoma wind gust ripped the door from my hand. The sun was very bright so I didn’t immediately see any damage, but also the wind was pissing me off, and I was running late for a doctor appointment, and I didn’t have a pen or anything to write on. So, because I’m selfish, I drove off and went to my doctor’s appointment. I promised myself when I returned the next day I would look for the car and make it right if, indeed, there was damage. I worried about it until the next morning.

The new otherwise pristine car was in the same spot as the day before and there was a pretty good nick out of the paint where my car door hit it. I went into work, secured a pen and paper and wrote a note which I planned to put on the windshield when I went down for my mid-morning walk. There were a few people I told about the incident and most of them encouraged me to forget it. “You don’t know that nick wasn’t already there,” one said. “Car door dings are a way of life around here,” said another. “Has anyone ever put a note on your windshield after dinging your car?” asked a third. But I just know how I would feel if someone had dinged my new car and left me to pay the bill. See, I brought myself into it, selfishly. Some would say putting myself into the shoes of another is empathy, and it is, but empathy can be selfish when I turn it around to how I would feel.

Why did I choose to tell anyone but the owner of the car about this? Maybe I wanted reassurance that I was doing the right thing, even though I knew I was. Maybe I wanted accolades because I was doing the right thing where other people might not. She was so very grateful when she called, and I am glad that I made the effort. Telling her was the right thing to do, and it is going to cost me money. Is that altruism; or is it selfishness because it made me feel better and took away my guilt? Also, I have hope that by doing the right thing, I will be rewarded and she’ll just let the whole thing slide. Yep, selfish.

A friend asked me for a favor not too long ago. I immediately obliged because I love my friend, my friend needed the favor, but also granting the favor made me feel good and helped my friend continue to do things that benefit me. Good grief, is there no end to my selfishness?

On the other hand, people do benefit from my selfish need to be loved and liked and to avoid guilt and feeling bad. How can it be a bad thing? Sounds like a win-win to me.

Yesterday, I met a good friend I don’t see often. She is one of the most generous people I know, not to mention one of the most intelligent. She traveled from another state to attend something in my city, that had nothing to do with me. She asked if I would like some pecan trees that she had pulled up from her property and, if I did, she could bring them up on her way through. How generous, right? What could possibly be in it for her? As we were saying our goodbyes, the trees safely tucked into the back of my car, she said “Thank you for taking them,” she said. “There were just too many, but I just cannot bring myself to kill trees.”

That is when I knew she and were the same; looking out for ourselves; intrinsically, beautifully selfish.

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