Altruism – Part II

I was hesitant to put my previous post online, because I felt I hadn’t fully worked through the issue of altruism in my mind. This post will hopefully add a little balance to the matter.

I think I’m being a little hard on myself. My problem is not that I don’t do anything to help others, it’s that I often don’t do the things with the right attitude. What it boils right down is, what kind of a person am I? Am I a giver or a taker? Are my actions motivated by the good I can do or by what I can get out of it? Saly, I have to admit that a great deal of my recent life has been motivated by taking. Even though I have managed to avoid the trappings of materialism to the degree that I rarely purchase things other than the necessities of life, I am still motivated by the desire to consume, whether it’s videogames, DVDs, novels. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these activities – except when they’ve risen to the level that they’re almost your reason to live.

I think this kind of a trap is a lot easier for married people to avoid, because they are caught with the business of looking after each other and their children. But, of course, no one is without responsibilities of one kind or another. The responsibilities of my job, for instance. And this is primarily where I have allowed myself to slip.

When I first started working at the school, I loved the place. And my feelings stayed that way for many years. I even dedicated my first novel to the pupils, with the heartfelt words “… who make it a special place to come and work in each day.” At some point, I started looking at my job for what it could do for me, rather than taking pleasure in what I had to offer. It would be so easy for me to make excuses (and I’ve made them). But when I make them, it only illustrates that all I’m interested in is what the job can do for me, not what I can bring to the job.

Well, I’m making an effort to change my attitude. As well as my usual IT duties, I have some involvement with the Scripture Union, with teaching First Aid, and with raising money for charity (at the same time encouring children to read, even if it is my own novel). These are all activities that have so much pleasure to give, when the person doing them is thinking about the good he can do.

I guess altruism was the wrong word for what I’ve been trying to get at. I’ve been criticising myself for being a couch potato in the evenings, when really there’s nothing wrong with relaxing, as long as you can do so in the knowledge you’re the sort of person who’s motivated by giving instead of taking. My own times of relaxation have been poisoned by my selfish attitude to life. Now that I’ve woken up to this, it’s refreshing to wake up in the morning and think, Here’s a brand new day. What good can I do in it?

4 thoughts on “Altruism – Part II

  1. Karen G.

    this post struck a chord with me, and also reminded me of something i once read, i think it was a short story, and the whole point of the story was that there are no truly selfless acts. i have thought of that any time i have ever done anything for anybody else. in the story, several people were debating about charity and doing for others, and one person said that no charitable act is truly selfless, because at the very, very least you would receive from the act the sense of doing something for someone else, a sense of self-satisfaction. so the protagonist sets out to do a truly selfless act, and for the life of me, i can’t remember if they succeeded or not!
    i think as Christians, what we have to remember, is that every second of our lives is lived for God. every act we do should be done for Him, even if it’s something as mundane as doing the dishes, or relaxing on the couch, or sitting outside, drinking tea and watching the birds. yes, it’s important that we do for others, but ultimately, all is done for Him.
    yes, we are human and therefore subject to our human natures, so we will do things that are truly selfish (probably more often than things that are relatively selfless), but don’t beat yourself up over it. ask forgiveness, resolve to do better, and ultimately, live for God. enjoy what he has given us, the breath to breathe and enjoy his beautiful world, and the delicious food he provides us, and the comfort of good friends, and family.
    okay, i don’t know if any of this really has to do with altruism, other than the fact, that if we keep our focus on Him, then i think altruism will come naturally and we won’t even realize it.

  2. Yeah, you’ve brought to light something that has been in the back of my mind: the connection between selfless acts and their emotional benefit to the person doing them.

    Here’s the crux, as I see it. A selfless act brings a good feeling. We can be motivated by the desire to have that feeling, or we can be motivated by actual love and simply accept and enjoy the feeling that results.

    It certainly is possible to be motivated by love, without ulterior motives. Anyone who has ever laid down his life for someone is a prime example. Can’t hope to feel good about it because you can’t hang around to do any feeling! And if this is true of such an ultimate test, it’s reasonable to assume that such pure motivations are possible (and even common) in the less drastic actions we are called to.

    Here’s another way of looking at it. If there was a strong bond between selflessness and pleasure, everybody would be being selfless as often as possible!

  3. Karen

    a selfless act does bring a good feeling….especially if it is voluntary charity. it’s involuntary charity (a selfless act thrust upon you that you have no choice in…well, you always have a choice in the matter i guess, but the kind of thing where you’d feel like a real jerk if you said no) that is probably the hardest and probably requires the most selflessness. i don’t know if we should feel motivated by said good feeling, but that we should definitely see it as a reward for doing something for someone else.

    and there’s also doing a selfless act and not feeling resentful about it. like helping out a friend (again) and not thinking in the back of your mind, “man, not again…i really wish he’d get his act together.” that’s probably where our human nature really kicks in sometimes, making us feel resentful.

    laying down your life for a friend was also in the back of my mind as possibly the ultimate act of charity….fortunately or unfortunately depending on your outlook, most of us are not called upon to do that. but i think like you said, we have to have that same attitude towards the lesser acts we are called upon to do.

    and, of course, the ultimate example of altruism is Jesus. we know that was hard for Him to do, because He prayed in the garden to not have to do it, but He still had to. talk about selflessness! of course, He was sinless and perfect…but what a great example for all of us.

  4. The main reason I hate asking people to do something for me is because I often wonder whether they hate being bothered. I’m guilty of it, too. We should see every opportunity for kindness as an occasion for joy, but it’s a hard attitude to cultivate.

    One of the things I’ve been taking note of as I read my Bible recently is the question “In what way does God measure greatness?” And “In what way does man measure greatness?” To the latter, we might respond with any number of things, including intellect, scientific achievement, artistic skill, acting ability. But if you read the Gospels carefully with this theme in mind, you’ll see that God measures greatness in a vastly different way. Jesus said something like (I’m paraphrasing), “If any of you wants to be great, let him be a servant.” What’s alarming is that it’s given to us as a choice. It doesn’t affect our salvation, but does affect our “rank” (for want of a better word). I imagine there will be big surprises in heaven regarding who’s greater than who. It will be the obscure and the unknown who are way ahead of those whom mankind has made famous.

    The really alarming thing is that this issue is at the core of the Christian life, and I only managed to crystalise it in my mind recently, even though I became a Christian over fifteen years ago. I was taught to treat my faith too much as an intellectual pursuit: all learning and no action.

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