Can we really be altruistic?

Monday of the 31st Week in Ordinary time
Philippians 2:1-4; Psalm 130:11-3 Luke 14:12-14

I’d like to propose the word of the day: Altruism. Broadly, it means selflessness or the practice of concern for the welfare of others. The word was first used by philosopher Auguste Comte as opposite or antonym of egoism. (coming from the Latin alteri for ‘someone else’). This seems to be a good word that captures much of Christianity doesn’t it? The Lord constantly reminds us to love our neighbours as ourselves and gives us the Beatitudes ( to be poor in spirit, meek and peacemakers). St Paul tells us that ‘love seeks not its own interests’ (1 Cor 13). Altruism seems to be deeply entrenched in our lives as followers of Christ.

True, what do others do? From Peanuts, Charles Shulz [Pic via]

The readings for today tell us as much. The 1st Reading exhorts us to be united as communities though the bond of love. How do we do that? By not being competitive, avaricious or arrogant and never to think of ourselves as better than others. The key here is to think of others first. And that’s echoed very beautifully in the Gospel – to act without hope of reward. The situation might seem somewhat confusing as we’re not asked not to invite our family and friends. We should continue to do so as that too brings unity. But we’re asked to go beyond that – to extend our invitation to people who might not be able to reciprocate. We’re invited to extend ourselves and allow our kindness to go beyond our ordinary circles

And that’s where the call is – to move from being self-regarding, self-centred to being much more other-regarding. For St Paul, that’s how community (with the emphasis on unity) is built. When people think about others more than themselves, are kind beyond their ordinary circles, the groups and circles grow. As more are included, they’re better able to see the possibilities that would emerge when we act beyond ourselves. Community and other-regarding people build on each other.

So that’s altruism! To be concerned for others. That’s great but as with all things, it’s not easy. There are many (psychologists, scientists and the like) who claim that egoism is built into ourselves as people and one would be hard-pressed to overcome that easily. There are some who say that self-interest is in all things we do and we can’t escape it. Some evolutionary biologists (including noted atheist Richard Dawkins) go so far as to say that altruism in organisms is possible but that it’s aimed solely at ensuring that the genes get passed down. It seems sad that we can’t seem to be selfless or other-regarding purely for its own sake.

I’d like to share a small experience with regard to this. Many years ago, I began getting involved in overseas community service projects (or service-learning projects as they were called later). I participated in a few and went on to lead students on such projects too. These took me all over Asia, including Nepal, China and Thailand. These projects were not holidays as the main aim was to serve a community, to meet particular needs of the local groups. But there were criticisms, the chief of which was ‘Why spend so much going over when you could send more money over and help more?’ Some others said we were just going on subsidised holidays with community work as an incidental part of the trip. Some of these criticisms hurt in the beginning.

What I did learn over the years was that for the most part, true altruism is pretty far away. But it’s not completely unattainable. I began to remind myself that a large part of these trips were for personal development. You learn much more than if you stayed home and sometimes, (especially later on when I was working with students on such projects), you learn invaluable lessons out there that one would not be able to learn at home. Experiences, new friends, new perspectives on the wider world, self development – all results of such trips. I realised that whenever good is done, good will come to the doer too. One has to embrace that as something good that improves the self. And improving the self makes one better able to love one’s neighbours as oneself. As long as the focus is not on the self (be it developmental, experiential etc) but on others, I think we’re fine. We might not be able to be fully altruistic but we can start on the road towards it. I noted that a number of students I worked with began doing other voluntary work after returning from our projects.

I learned that trying to work towards altruism is difficult. And even more so if we look at it from a ‘modern’ angle. Altruism, according to philosopher Max Scheler, is sincere if motivated out of love of others and coming from a person who is relatively self aware. However, it’s often not the case. A warped altruism could emerge from a desire to feel good from getting involved with the business of others. This can substitute for real love for others and could distract one from one’s own weaknesses and true desires. In the latter, the focus is on the self and doing good for others just covers up the other problems that one might have.

With all these problems, one might be tempted to want to throw the entire idea of altruism or selflessness out the window. It would be a good idea to do so if we were to do it alone. But we won’t. We work on earth with God’s grace and we continue to require God’s grace in all we do. We don’t work on earth on our own but labour with God to build the kingdom. We need to keep that in mind. We aspire for altruism not because we ourselves want to but because we are given the grace to want it. We’re constantly persuaded to love and to live in this love. So let’s remember and try to be as selfless as we possibly can, continually asking for God’s grace to fulfil it.

In closing, I’d like to share a prayer:

To love is to serve
Lord, help me to love as you love us all.
Help me to put others before myself,
not forgetting also that I need to grow in your love.
Help me to embrace the good that you give,
not forgetting that it enables me to love more.
Help me to serve others because I want to,
not forgetting that the desire to serve comes from you.
Most of all, help me to serve with love,
knowing that this love comes from you always.


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about the brushhead

had a head like a brush (it's more like an egg now). seeks to sweep through thought and faith with that brush. tries to wax philosophical but often forgets to wax off. trying to be good brush to all, while discerning what kind of brush he's meant to be.

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