Altruism

If you’re a long time reader of this blog, you may have noticed that it goes through phases, reflecting my changing interests (obsessions) as the months and years go by. What I’m noticing is that it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything remotely personal, especially about my Christian life. This, sadly, is a reflection on my spiritual state. Until yesterday, I can’t remember the last time I actually picked up my Bible; the only things I’ve been reading are novels. For a long time, my faith has taken a back seat, and consequently I have no spiritual adventures of which to speak … except this one.

Over the last year or so, one particular philosophical theme has been occupying my mind: altruism (definition: the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others). Astute readers of Chion might have noticed that this is a major theme of the novel: altruism as it relates to the meaning of life. That sounds overly intellectual, but what it boils down to is this: The only kind of life that has any meaning is a life lived for the benefit of others; everything you do for your own self-centred interests ultimately amounts to nothing when you’re six feet under and gradually turning to dust.

I got some worrying news just before the weekend regarding my health. I’ve developed a touch of osteoarthritis in my neck, due to an old injury aggravated by overly long periods in front of the computer and games console. It’s not serious, but it is permanent. This news had the effect of getting me thinking about mortality again – how we’re all on the way towards death, with our bodies gradually decaying and picking up damage through the wear and tear of living. So I decided to ask myself: “If you knew you were going to die tomorrow and you looked back over your life, what would you say you’ve have done with it, in just a few words?” In my case, the answer is, “I have entertained myself as much as possible.”

I didn’t like the answer, but I felt it was honest. Maybe you think I’m being unfair to myself. Maybe you think that the fact that I’ve written novels and made movies counts for something. To be honest, most of it’s pretty self-serving, even all the charity stuff I’ve done selling copies of my books in the school where I work. All I cared about was being as widely read as possible. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying there’s going to be no more books and films. I’m just saying that my life has to amount to more than these things.

One of the most startling Bible passages is when Jesus bent down with a towel and a basin of water and washed his disciples’ feet. It’s a strange lesson he was teaching, because foot-washing is not something that is done in the modern day, with our cotton socks and perfectly moulded shoes. I suppose the modern equivalent might be the Queen bending down with a tin of polish to shine your shoes. Jesus was saying that true greatness lies not in the magnificence of your achievements, but in simple humility and a willingness to serve your fellow man. And if the master – the Messiah, the savior of the world – is willing to humble himself to this degree, how can we think such actions are beneath us? I find that inspirational. Not only is it radical, but it forms a meaningful alternative to the futile hustle and bustle of Capitalistic existence. Serving your fellow man is the only way to lead a meaningful life. Since you don’t gain from what you do for others, not even your own death can rob the meaning from what you have done.

The trouble with me is I’m all talk. My working day has gone from something that I used to find inspiring to something that I’ve gotten used to and merely tolerate. I look forward to getting home in the evening and vegetating on the sofa in front of DVDs and videogames. On the eve of 2007, I made a stab at trying to change, but it didn’t amount to anything. I started writing a diary, which I intended to put online as a secret blog where no one would know my identity. The blog was intended to be an adventure in selflessness, where I would document the various things I was doing for others and hopefully grow spiritually and inspire others. I didn’t have anything to write, because I didn’t have the heart for the quest. And I’m not even talking about anything grand here. My intention was merely to keep a look-out for situations where someone was in need of my help, and to offer my help. But I’m so wrapped up in my own selfish pursuits that I don’t keep my eyes open for others’ needs. And on the occasions when I do help, it’s rarely done with a sense of joy in being useful; I consider it an irritation to be overcome as quickly as possible, so that I can get back to the more important work of serving myself.

Are any other Christians relating to this? Because I don’t think I’m the only one who is affected. I think this is a problem that’s affecting the whole Church. Our lives are steeped in mediocrity. And we’re like that simply because we belong to a society that teaches us to be like that. We’re Capitalists, but we’ve forgotten that we’re called to be in the world but not of the world. The sad thing is that I’ve lived most of my Christian life without realising my responsibility. We can easily fall into the trap of measuring our spiritual growth in terms of the avoidance of sin, whereas it should be about the pursuit of the highest good. At least I’m no longer blind to the problem.

So what’s next? Well, I don’t think I’ll be jet-setting off to the Third World, or anything so radical, but I think I need to start seriously keeping my eyes peeled for ways that I can be of help to others. I have a couple of brief memories from the past, where I beat the odds and did something special for somebody when everyone else was blind to the opportunity for service, but these really are only a couple of memories – although they are the very best. Better even than receiving the very first copy of my novel in the post. Sadly, these memories are not characteristic of me.

I hope this post is an encouragement to other Christians to “beat the odds,” and I hope it shows the nay-sayers that there’s a lot more to the Christian life than merely a crutch to lean on. When you read between the lines, Christianity is not for the faint of heart.

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3 thoughts on “Altruism

  1. Earl says:

    While considering altruism, it might be worthwhile if one asked the following questions: do I have a duty to others; do these others matter, or do they just happen to inhabit the same third rock from the sun? Our action or inaction towards others stems from how we value them. Consequently, we tend to help those closest to us since we value them and care about their welfare. Our attitude to those outside of our family and friends should improve if we only take some time to reflect on what it must be like to be them. Placing ourselves in others’ shoes may make us less complacent, and provoke us to help those in need. To someone else we are one of these others. Therefore, we should treat others, as we hope to be treated.

  2. Darryl Sloan says:

    What you’re saying reminds me of what Jesus said in Matthew 5:43-47: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Emphasis mine.)

    When you say that our love stems from how much we value a person, that’s true, but it seems the standard we are called to is much higher than that.

  3. James says:

    I hear everything you are saying as if it was coming from my own mouth. I too would probably have to admit the majority of my actions are for self entertainment. I believe this partly stems for a desire to numb ourselves from the depressing realties of our lives. C.S. Lewis said that we were made for something better, and deep down we all know this is true. We are living in a fallen and broken world with pain, sickness, crime, and sorrow. If we constantly stimulate our senses, then we don’t allow ourselves time to stop and see all the garbage around us. We cover up that deep yearning to cry out for something more because we fear there isn’t anything more. The problem with gratification is that it only provides us with a temporary satisfaction that eventually leaves us feeling empty. As Solomon says, it’s all meaningless. And yet, that said, what is the answer? Yes, Christ showed us to be a servant not a king, but I have a very critical bone when it comes to a “true need” verses someone just wanting to take advantage. Is helping the person just supporting their laziness? Their lack of self discipline? Are your contributions just going into a bottomless pit? Or is the need really a genuine struggle? Sometimes, filling a supposed need will actually hinder the person from growing, from pushing them beyond their comfort zone and forcing them to take responsibility for their own lives. But how do we discern between this? That’s a question I have a hard time finding an answer to.

    Thanks for sharing your honesty. More of us “Christians” are in this same boat than one might think. We’re all just hiding on the lower deck.

    ~ James

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