Friday, December 28, 2012

Is There Any Such Thing as Pure Altruism?

I say no. There's always something in it for the giver, even if that something is only satisfaction.

A few months ago, several of my friends and I were sitting around a picnic table in Atlanta, kicking around this very question. Is it possible to perform a truly selfless act of service, or to lead a life of service that is purely altruistic--you don't benefit at all, even emotionally? After thinking it over carefully, and hearing out the opinions of a considerable number of friends over said few months, I can't say that it is. (Since both I and the friends in question are engaged in national and community service work--that is what we do for a living right now--it's more than a merely academic question, like the other day's post was.)

I'll use myself as an example. If you're a first-time reader, I'm a proud member of FEMA Corps, a national and community service/disaster relief organization. When I sent in my application in the fall of 2011, I did it for a lot of reasons. I wanted to serve my country in a way that didn't involve the military, for one. I wanted to get my hands dirty helping others. I wanted to go out there and do righteous work on behalf of those whom I could help, and what's better than helping disaster survivors? But I'm not going to sit on a sanctimonious soapbox and pretend that selfless motivations were my only ones. Hell, I was going to be out of college in seven short months, and I needed a job! I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life as such (still don't, really), so I went looking for a one-year volunteer program. I didn't want money, I didn't need to get paid; I just wanted a chance to go out in the world and do good works while ducking (what I consider to be) adult responsibilities for another year.

I had a whole huge ball of reasons for joining FEMA Corps, some of which were those of the ideal volunteer, and some of which were not. Does that diminish the whole? Does it cheapen my decision to serve? I don't believe it does. And I wager if you doped up every Corps Member in or out of the program on movie-grade truth serum and made them talk, they'd come out with a similarly impure potpourri of motivation. That is completely okay. After all, disaster survivors most likely do not care (unless motivation impacts the quality of the service they receive) about my motivations, nor those of my teammates. They may admire us for what they perceive as our selflessness, but our job is to help them first. Our motivations don't enter into that, at least not the way I see it.

But even beyond that basic truth, I feel as though every act of service has some personal gain or growth or emotional need behind it. Why else is tzedakah, or charity, or zakat a religious obligation in the West? Why does our present tax code include a huge incentive towards charitable giving? There are both external compulsions and internal impulsions towards what Reform Jews call tikkun olam, rebuilding the world, and some of those are inevitably self-serving. The satisfaction I feel after a long day's work. A donor's knowledge that they have contributed towards a good cause, or even the simple knowledge that the cause is better armed and armored thanks to their donation. Pride needn't enter into it. The satisfaction of helping, all by itself, dispels the illusion of altruism; everything else is gravy.

Here's the kicker: serving oneself and serving others are not only complementary, they're bound together in the very core of this Americorps NCCC, this FEMA Corps that we're a part of.We can't help others without enriching ourselves, whether we feel it at the time or not. It's flatly impossible; they're all caught up in one irrepressible tide of motivation and service and satisfaction and good deeds. And hopefully, all of those feelings and desires and that irresistible will to serve are channeled into a place and a time where we can do some good. It's okay to be satisfied, or proud, or happy with what you've accomplished--whatever word you prefer. There's something in it for all of us, and nobody more than the people we help. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is the way our Creator originally designed us, selfless giving of ourselves, in whatever endeavor we choose. It feeds our soul.

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