Altruism: Real or Make-believe

I’ve had this topic plaguing my mind all of last week. Hence I decided to talk about it on my blog.  I’ll start by sharing my thoughts on this topic and then you share yours, deal? Okay, good.

It all began when a colleague from work started talking to me about his altruistic deeds. He gushed about how he plays with the kids at a local orphanage and how he visits the elderly at an old age home, at least once a month. He went on to share how his eyes well-up with tears and his heart  fills-up with joy, when he manages to put a smile on the faces of these orphans and waifs. All this while, I was listening to him in admiration, but then something he said made me stop and ponder.  He spoke about how he believed no act of kindness would go unnoticed. I thought to myself, here’s a man who has his heart in the right place, but if his act of kindness is compelled by his intent of receiving something in return, does the act still qualify as a good deed?

Before we talk more about this, I want all of you to watch this clipping from an episode of the popular sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S, where Joey argues with Phoebe that there are no unselfish deeds. This will serve as a preface to what we discuss ahead.

Oh, how I miss watching F.R.I.E.N.D.S! Like they say, all good things have to come to an end. *Sigh*

So, do you agree with Joey when he says that any good deed which makes you feel happy or feeds your ego is not really a selfless act? I do. I’ll tell you why. I believe that any altruistic deed done with purposefulness is not a selfless deed at all. If the deed doer derives happiness, satisfaction, recognition, a sense of alleviation or redemption from the deed, even if it may be inadvertently, then it’s not really a selfless act. Let me illustrate this to you by drawing-up a few examples.

The first thing that comes to my mind is a short story which I had learnt in school (I’m sure you have too) – ‘The Gift of the Magi’ written by O. Henry. This tale is about the sacrifice made by a young couple, Della and Jim, to buy each other presents for Christmas. Della cuts and sells her hair to buy Jim a platinum chain for his watch and Jim had sold his priceless watch to buy Della a set of expensive combs, which she had her eyes on. What the author tries to convey through this story is how the young couple sacrifice each other’s most treasured possessions for the one they love and how their act of selflessness is synonymous with that of the Magi. Although I’m really moved by this story, I can’t help but contemplate whether what Della and Jim did were truly acts of selflessness. For starters, their acts of sacrifice were driven by their desire to feel contented for having made the other person happy.  Both Della and Jim wouldn’t have done what they did, had they been given a choice. Plus, Della would’ve known that her hair would grow back with time and Jim would’ve realized that it was after all only a watch.

Here’s another story that appeared in DNA (an Indian daily), of a woman who took to begging at the age of 11, after being widowed and abandoned by her in-laws. She saved up money over a period of time, which she invested in purchasing land and at the age of 100 she donated land worth Rs.25 lakhs to set up an orphanage and children’s park. By every means, a noble deed indeed. But was it an altruistic act? Let me try responding to that question by putting forth another bunch of questions. She didn’t have any off-springs or any relatives; who would’ve inherited the land after she died? Why did she hold onto the land till she was 100 before she decided to donate it? Why did she accept to receive refuge at the club premises? Did she not get moral satisfaction from doing a charitable act?

A mother’s love for her child is said to be one of the most selfless acts known to mankind. Is it really? Does the mother not take pride in her child? Does she not yearn for the child to love her back? Does she not hope that her child turns out to be a caregiver during her old age?

Army men are revered the world over by one and all because they’re the bravest amidst us; they lay their lives on the line to keep us safe. I’ve the utmost respect for their kind and I pray for the well-being of each and every one of them. But, I would beg to differ if someone told me that the army epitomizes selflessness. Take away the pride, the recognition, the remuneration and the benefits, how many would then enlist themselves in the army?

Having said that, my intent was neither to discredit any good deeds nor offend anyone. I’m merely trying to say that the terms ‘Altruism’ and ‘Selflessness’ have been conceived to make ordinary people seem like saints. Fact is that nobody is selfless. All there is are good people. There are a few who pretend to be holier-than-thou, but I bet even a kindergartener could see through their farce. I believe that only good can come out of kind and charitable deeds, regardless of the purpose attached to it. I couldn’t even begin to imagine living in a world where there are no good-doers. I rest my case with this quote:

We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.

–          Mother Teresa

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6 thoughts on “Altruism: Real or Make-believe

  1. You can do a good deed selflessly. If your decision to do something inadvertently helped someone and you never knew it had. That is a selfless good deed.

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  2. Hey. .a very good post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Keep up the good work 🙂
    I would like to digress on the point of mother’s love.

    A ‘selfless’ deed becomes selfish when you did the deed, and consequently you expected something out of it.

    However, a mother’s love, when she becomes mother for the first time, her love is true. She doesn’t expect the newborn babe to love her. How can a newborn love her then? It barely has any developed senses. At that point in time, her love is pure.
    Of course later, she may need recognition etc. But if her love doesnt get reciprocated, even then her love for the child wont disappear, it may become less though.
    And the pride she takes, is the part of her love. She didn’t expect it to have it. It comes along with love.

    My conclusion is, a mother’s love for her child at the time of birth…uptill a certain time remains untouched with “selfishness”.

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    • I buy your point Akshat, but here’s another analogy that may help put my argument about the mother’s love in perspective – You buy a sapling and plant it in your garden. You nurture it, and you care for it. In this case, do you do it because you love it or do you do it because you’re hoping it’ll bear fruits some time in the future?

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  3. I agree with you here. It seems that it’s human nature to have a reason for every single thing we do even if we don’t think about it. We always have to fulfill some sort of goal otherwise we discard the activity as useless.

    Great post. 🙂

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