AMBIVALENT: Using autobiographical data, I will communicate thoughts on altruism. I arrived at this understanding through personal experiences in my journey from endurance to compassion.
I was raised in a privileged home. European/American, private schools, intellectual, musical, globetrotting, high powered, urbane and wonderful. But there was also sexism, abuse, parental alcoholism, terror, confusion, controlling and faithlessness. I left there only to experience the joys of three small children from a marriage where I was beaten, but escaped and survived.
Things turned around for a while. I re-educated and re-invented myself. I remarried, this time to a good man. I found happiness.
Then one of my sons was killed by a drunken driver.
I was hired not long after this senseless and completely preventable tragedy to do work and study in the rain forests of French Guiana. I gave all the money I had to a leper colony. By the time I returned home from many adventures, I was fly infested, and had dengue fever and malaria.
Three years later I fell off a roof. I was first in a wheelchair, then on canes. It took half a decade to walk again.
When I could walk (and dance again, yea), I worked in a soup kitchen for eleven years. I was a cook for Nuns at their retreats for six years. I also worked as a landscape designer.
Today I am happily re-married for twenty-six years. My husband is a person who radiates calm. He is strong of character, warm, and affectionate. He has a deep spirituality. Together we designed and built our home in the woodlands of upstate, NY. I still design for a few clients. Our children and grandchildren visit us, as we visit them. As a family, we sing, perform music, art, garden and are active in science. We love our community. I visit the sick. I am a presence to the terminally ill. I support a beloved alcoholic friend and her family. I also support a friend with cancer. As well a friend who recently lost her daughter, one who is divorcing, one who lives with and cares for her ailing father. I have a lot of happy and healthy friends too. I love to be with those who call on me to comfort them. They all honor me with their confidences and their laughter, sharing their pain, and their life decisions.
So what is it? Is it altruism? Does that really exist? Maybe. My personal sacrifices came first. Then I believe anger and endurance transformed themselves to compassion along the way. I felt it coming on when I started forgetting about myself, when I began to move on. I went from there to here. I found myself and happiness by focusing on the needs of others.
ENOCH: A discussion result is in large measure structured by how the discussion is framed. Because Ambivalent and I come from different heritages, we approach the same phenomenon from different premises. First let me present my take. Then I shall come to a conclusion which I believe accommodates the hills and valleys of each approach to this important topic.
Altruism is a term derived from Latin. It appears first to be used by Comte (1798-1875) to designate conduct impelled by motives utterly unselfish and inspired by the desire to bring about happiness to others without regard to, or even at the expense of one's own happiness. As such, it is opposed to egoism. There is no equivalent to it in ancient Hebrew. Why?
Altruism, and its contrary Egoism are both concerned with happiness. That is not a part of classic Jewish Scripturally based ethics. The antithesis of altruism and egoism is bypassed in Jewish ethics. The fundamental motive for moral conduct has nothing to do with feelings and happiness in my tradition. The bedrock upon which morality is founded is service. Mitzvah (Commandment and/or Good Deed) is an end in itself. The reward for doing a Mitzvah is in its performance. The punishment for transgressing a Mitzvah is in the act of transgression. This is not to deny future consequences. It is that when we serve correctly, it enhances our character and self. When we do not, we fail ourselves. This is not to say we are not happy when we help others. Neither is it to incorrectly imply that a life of service isn't its own reward to the heritage of Ambivalent and others. It is merely to point out that there is more than one route to arrive at the same destination.
It matters less how we arrive at the goal of helping others. The route we take is in part defined by factors such as where we start out. Try this as an exercise. Go to a driving directions Internet site. Input a final destination. You will get a variety of directions from any one starting point. You can choose the fastest route. The one with least mileage. The most scenic. Now try keeping the destination the same. Change your starting point from north to south, or east to west; keeping the mileage the same distance. You will get widely different routes. But you will still get where you are going in the end.
Consider Rabbi Hillel's famous quote from Pirke Avoth (Saying of the Fathers). Im Ain anili, mili? Im lo bishvili, leat's mi? Veh im lo akshav, ad matai? If I am not for me who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?
There is a practical side to life. You cannot be maximally efficient in service to others if you don't first take care of yourself. If all you do is address your own needs, what are you? If you don't do both now, when?
Time, it is something to befriend, or it is surely an enemy with which to live. For most of us, we know we will run out of time, but do not know precisely when. There is no better time to take care of ourselves and others than right now, before it is too late. The motivation, and our account of why we should do right by others is far less important than simply doing what needs to be done, and doing it well. Doctrine divides, helping unites.
Scripture which Ambivalent and I shall in common does address this topic. Let me share a smattering. Please provide quotes and ideas from your heritage, culture, philosophy, lifestyle approach and original thoughts in the comments section.
Leviticus 19:18 Do not take vengeance, or bear any grudge against the children of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.
Leviticus 19:34 The stranger who travels among you should be loved as yourself.
Deuteronomy 26:12 A tithe of crops must be given to the poor in the third and sixth year of the Sabbatical (Shimetah) cycle.
Leviticus 23:22 Remnants of the harvest must be left for the poor and the stranger.
Deuteronomy 15:7 Give loans to the poor, according to their needs, without charging interest.
Leviticus 25:36 and Deuteronomy 15:1 These (loans) must be forgiven in the Sabbatical year.
Deuteronomy 16:14 Fulfill the obligation to celebrate holidays together with strangers, orphans and widows.
All major humanitarian and/or religious traditions have a place for charity and good works of loving kindness. I see no exceptions to that generalization.
Why are we good?
Once a prominent member of my Congregation came to my study. He asked me for blessings for his health, livelihood, and to have a better relationship with G-d. I pointed out that he had a copious list of things he needed. I asked what about a list of things for which he is needed?
If our focus is on service to others, happiness will find us, and we will do the right thing.
It doesn't really matter how we get there, or why. All that matters is that being there for our fellow members of the human family is achieved. As we are there for others, and they are there for us, life improves. In the final analysis, that is the rationale for the creation of Chaplains Corner. To improve life for all Viners.
Peace Abundant Blessings, and Fellowship to One and All.