It’s a spin-off! – Adding to ‘Altruism’

Today my mum wrote a post on altruism, which triggered something old and familiar hiding away in the back of my mind. As she noted in her post, it simply feels good to do good; yet is reaping personal gains from one’s altruistic acts a perversion of the spirit of altruism? Now I will drop my story into the pot to add to her contribution.

Some number of years ago when I was 16 and the very same ruminator that I have always been, I voluntarily paid a visit to the school counsellor to talk about an internal conflict I was struggling with.

She welcomed me in. I sat down on the sofa. She asked me what I wanted to talk about. So I outlined what had been on my mind:

“I’ve been thinking about doing good things to help other people. I’ve always had this strong feeling that I want to do things to help people, that I want my job to be one that is about helping people. It’s been a drive that has always been there. I never used to think there was anything amiss with that, I mean I don’t know where it comes from… I once came up with the rationale that it was because there was nothing else I needed in life… That I had already got so much that there was really nothing else for me but to help other people to have as much luck as I have had. To help them know freedom and happiness and opportunity as much as possible, just for themselves, just because everyone should have this experience of life. I’ve felt this desire since childhood. But even if I don’t quite know why this has been such a strong feeling, I used to think ‘Well… wanting to help people, make their life easier or happier, that shouldn’t be anything to worry about right?’

But lately I’ve been thinking about what is underneath the desire to help people. What is the basic reason, the thought from which there is no exit?  And what it comes down to, personally, is that it feels good when I’ve helped someone. To see them feeling good, to know that I’ve made something easier for them… It makes me feel happy, more than happy, like there is something glowing deep in my chest, and like I could sail through the next days without any need for food.

So then I realised. Self-interest is the root of altruism. That’s what it comes down to. We do it because it makes us feel good. So even if you think you’re doing a good deed because you want to help the other person… that’s not true is it, you’re doing the good deed because you want to make yourself feel good. Even if you think you’re interested in the other person, ultimately what you’re interested in is yourself. Everything returns to selfishness.

Everything returns to selfishness. We can never really think of another? Even when we’re trying to share and work for another’s benefit… When it comes down to it we can never step outside of ourselves. We are always alone, stuck in ourselves, doing only for ourselves, thinking only for ourselves. Is this all there is? Is that it for being human, this limited existence?”

Cue the teary eyes and crestfallen face. At the heart of it.. I was feeling that… there was something lonely about that. It seemed somehow that human existence was fundamentally lonely. This made me really, really sad.

What did the counsellor say?

“Well I don’t know what to say to that. I don’t know what to tell you,” she said as she gave me kind eyes and a tissue. “But…….” she started with a burgeoning smile, “I hope you’ll come back and talk to me again. You’re a very interesting person!”

My mind did a double-take in response. ‘Huh? You’re a counsellor! You’re supposed to have answers! I’m an interesting person?? What can I do with that? How does that help? Tell me what to do…………………?’

Of course I was aware it would have been childish to reply like that so instead I sat there and sniffled and wiped my eyes.

I did go back to see her once or twice after that, to talk about something else on my mind, because in all honesty she was good to talk to. Non-judgemental, reasonable, wise, well-meaning. Although I desperately wanted her to tell me what to do, she never did. What she provided with her airy, quiet office was an open space for my thoughts when the rest of the school was clearly not the place for them.

It took a few more years of thinking and living before I could move on from that depressing conclusion. At some point I realised that this singularity of experience and understanding does make sense,  it is simply a condition of having life as this discrete human identity. Yes, we each have this one body and can only be ourselves. Even if we all had the same brains and the same genes if we each have a physical body in a non-uniform physical space, then we would still all experience different things because we can not stand in the same spot at the same time. Beside me is not where I am. And yes, we have to care about our own selves and survive. That is the deal. There is nothing wrong with that, and it can’t be helped.

I also figured out later on that if your intention is to help someone for their sake, then that is genuinely your intention. It is a great thing that helping others can make us feel so good. But just because that does happen, that it’s parallel or inevitable or a side-effect, however you want to put it, it doesn’t mean you that were acting expressly out of selfishness. You weren’t picturing yourself when you were thinking about helping this other person. It’s a symbiotic relationship that exists between living according to what you care about and the happiness that comes from such active caring. They are wrapped up in each other. And that’s nothing but a good thing 🙂 You’re not a bad person because doing something good for someone else happens to make you feel good. You’re lucky.

Le voila, that is roughly where I am today. I’m also less concerned with the loneliness issue because although we are still all essentially, necessarily separate, I think that there are at least moments when we share things, or inhabit some shared mindspace or understanding that is more than what we are on our own. I don’t think we meet in an already established place of togetherness, I think it’s something we create anew together. I could be perfectly deluded in this thinking, it sounds like a nice fantasy 😀 Whatever the case, I keep believing in it.

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3 thoughts on “It’s a spin-off! – Adding to ‘Altruism’

  1. I found your blog today and very much enjoyed reading it. Your thoughts and questions are familiar to me and I can appreciate the struggle you have with them. I, too, have struggled with them and continue to visit them from time to time. As one who has traveled this road and believes he has truly made progress toward the destination, I want to throw in some further questions for you to consider, if you have not already, that I believe will stimulate you and may perhaps take you a step further in your understanding of where I have come to believe that it all leads.

    Have you thought about just why it is that helping others makes you feel good? Have you ever considered that to love, to sacrifice for the good of others, might be the essence of your life and the purpose for which you were made? And might it be that, in fulfilling that purpose, you tap into the very source of life from which you came, allowing it to flow into and through you? Have you ever considered that it is that inflowing of life into your spirit that makes you feel so good? If you have already considered these questions, what were your conclusions?

  2. My answer to why I think helping others makes me feel good is that I find people’s smiles beautiful and I believe smiles and good feelings can have a really great ripple effect. It also makes me feel good because perhaps it goes some way to redressing the imbalance I have felt in being able to have a life filled with opportunity where others have it much harder from the very beginning, for no apparent good reason. It’s something I haven’t been able to get my head around, that my friends at school had to work or take care of baby siblings when they were 8, or that a classmate would come to school with bruises from home and spend lunchtime crying in her seat. To me there is no good reason for why I had a life of comfort, support and financial means where other people struggle to get beyond the damage they didn’t have a choice in receiving. So honestly, it makes me feel good because seeing others experience good feelings makes me feel good (I think it’s a natural, social creature thing) and because perhaps it gives me some sense of agency and that I don’t have to agree with the world’s injustices.

    Yes, I have considered that love is the purpose of my life. I have not so much considered the other questions you asked after that.

    I have to say I don’t believe in sacrifice in terms of strangling one’s own health and happiness for the sake of some cause. And as was sort of the point in this post, I presume that if someone is willing to go very far to sacrifice in the name of helping others, then maybe it’s not truly such a great sacrifice because they either get some other internal reward for it or because they would feel guilty and self-destruct without doing it. It sounds ironic but sacrifice is obviously self-serving too.

    Another reason why I don’t believe in that is because I believe we do our best for others when we are well ourselves. If you believe in the value of other life then that should include your own as well.

    If you have a religious agenda you can come out and outline it and I will give it some thought. Thanks for your comment and your questions, they did give me a little more to reflect on.

  3. Wow you still update! 😀 ❤

    Just randomly decided to come here again.

    On a slightly related (yet unrelated) note, I remember when I asked you should I do good when I do expect something in return even if it’s in the form of good karma. Or if I did something good to impress a girl. I asked if whether it would be better off not doing the good if the intention is not altogether good as long as the ulterior motive is not evil?

    Your answer was to just do the good anyway since it does not harm anyone. Being a selfish and calculative person by nature…I think you are right. Of course it would have been better if I was genuinely good rather than wanting to do good for the sake of something else, but that said, I left the world in a little better place (with pure intentions or not).

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