“Everybody wants to save the Earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.”
― P.J. O’Rourke
I saw a wonderfully moving picture the other day of a commuter allowing a distressed special-needs gentleman to hold his hand on a packed train. The nonchalant chap made no fuss or play for gratitude; he was just aiding his fellow man from a place of empathetic concern in order for the world to spin in a beautiful unbroken manner.
I would describe my personality as selfish but polite; philosophically known as an egoist. The major prerogative for any action is to make myself happy, though often happiness in others produces joy in me. As a result I am sceptical about altruism; generous donors may support a cause but the “thank you” they receive means more to them.
A cynic may call them smug but I think it is more a proudness – benefactors very rarely donate in the dark, preferring to stand behind a giant check with a famous face in tow.
There are also occasions in life when you realise that the milk of human kindness has certainly run dry in some. Tubes, once again create a marvellous micro climate – humans are cattled into a confined space with characters with whom they usually wouldn’t break bread, often in unbearable heat. One learns a lot about the sweaty twitchy person next to them, especially when you behold them remorselessly smash a pregnant lady out of their way or refuse to offer an octogenarian their seat.
Altruism is the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others (opposed to egoism). This is a very difficult practice to uphold in the modern world and is conspicuously rare in city life – many believing it to be the last bastion of humanity.
In an attempt to understand altruism further I scoured the Internet. Plenty of businessmen want to be considered altruistic but in reality they are mere philanthropists in this cold world. Many cite political or religious leaders such as Mandela, Ghandi, and (the closest in my opinion) Mother Teresa of Calcutta – but on closer inspection they are utilitarians (the greatest good for the greatest number of people) and deontological zealots.
There is also the grey area of the magnificent Victoria cross heroes. There is a resplendent room in the imperial war museum dedicated to these indomitable humans – I spent a couple of hours reading the spellbinding stories of all the beneficiaries, survivors and slain. The disregard for their own lives in order to aide other beings is benevolent but in most occasions they must take lives of ‘evil’ enemies (often indoctrinated by veritably malevolent despots) in order help their own.
It is not to belittle their braveness but fortitude is usually trained into a military chap. Another question to ask is; is there altruism in not thinking about one’s family at home reacting to the death of father, son, and husband?
To find oneself musing on altruism is actually a reflection on modern society – a divine world I adore living in. That it is impossible to imagine humans doing such selfless acts without a cynical twist to it is sad; studies in animals state that altruism does exist, so it must be there in the genetic make up of a Homo Sapien.
Sadly, once the Phoenicians created coinage man’s jealousy reared its head and sewed a seed deep into our subconscious. Amelioration and brinkmanship swamp us; a society where we would rather trample over our weak neighbour than have them join us at the table.
Altruism is like any philosophy – a beautiful ideal – and virtually impossible to practice. There are moments in life of major and unseen micro altruism that help others in need and for a fleeting moment brings joy.