Altruism: n.—fr. Latin alter: other; unselfish concern for the welfare of others.
Are you an altruist? Do you exemplify unselfish concern for the welfare of others? Or do you feel, sometimes, like you’d rather focus on your own needs, wants and desires?
I have a close friend—we’ll call her Maggie, because to identify her publicly would embarrass her—who I would describe as an absolute altruist. Maggie has devoted her entire life to others. She constantly gives, especially to those who need it most. She has little concern for her own needs, and because of her giving, loving nature, she always has too much to do for others and too little time to do anything for herself.
This makes life hard for her. Maggie has few possessions—she tends to give them away when she gets them—and very little in the way of material wealth or security. She has a special care and concern for poor people, especially poor children, so she tends to spend most of her time and effort in that direction, and even gave up a good-paying job to work to help poor children for no pay.
I know that some of the people she has tried to help have taken advantage of her generosity of spirit, and she’s been terribly hurt in the process. She struggles constantly against the unfeeling selfishness of the material world. Maggie truly feels the pain and suffering of others, and her feelings run deep, so sometimes she battles sadness and defeat and depression. Despite those battles, her own needs usually go unmet, while she’s trying to meet the needs of others. What Maggie does, devoting her energies to others, does not make her life easy.
But I will tell you this–more people love Maggie than just about anyone I’ve ever met. If you measured wealth in love instead of dollars, she’d be a billionaire.
Maggie says that’s the secret of life. “”Love,” she told me once, “that’s the currency of the spiritual world. And guess what? You can take it with you. In fact, it’s the only thing you can take.”
All of the world’s great Faiths would probably agree with Maggie’s assessment of love and altruism.
Judaism, and especially the mystical Jewish Kabbalah, defines God as the original force of giving and bestowal—which means that love and altruism are the most important attributes of humanity.
In Buddhism, love, altruism and compassion exist outside the dichotomy of self and other, that false duality which the Buddha identified as responsible for all suffering. Buddhists try to erase that dichotomy with love and kindness, with the altruistic intent that all beings might realize happiness and freedom from suffering.
In fact, the Dalai Lama says altruism is karmic: “The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes.”
For Christians, the teachings of Jesus Christ center around altruistic love for others. In Christ’s Sermon on the Plain, recorded in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches his disciples to love your enemies, to turn the other cheek, and of course, in his reprisal of the Golden Rule, to treat others the way you want to be treated. In his Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Mathew, Christ asks his followers to exemplify love, humility and mercy toward others.
In Islam, and especially emphasized in the Islamic Sufi mystical tradition, Muhammad asked his followers to devote themselves to others and forget their own personal concerns. The Islamic concept of altruism, called i’thar, means actually preferring others more than yourself, and denotes the highest and most noble station a human being can aspire to and evince.
For Baha’is, altruism forms their Faith’s central ethical, moral and spiritual ideal. In a tablet to his followers Baha’u’llah advised them to “Have regard to the good of the world and not to your own selfish desires.” Baha’is try to transcend selfishness and evince love and concern for the entirety of humanity, actively working to develop more altruistic attributes on a daily basis.
So while my friend Maggie might live at one end of the altruism scale, all of us have met people who live at the other end—selfish, self-involved, self-centered and self-satisfied.
Every person on Earth struggles with this natural, normal dichotomy between selfishness and selflessness. Our egos demand that we feed them; we want to get a return on our emotional and psychological investments; the insistent self requires constant recognition and reassurance; and we’re told that we should always act in our own self-interest. I’ve heard it expressed this way: “Hey, if I don’t take care of getting my needs met, who will?”
In this short series of essays, we’ll take a look at that important human dilemma. We’ll examine the science and the psychology of altruism; ask whether it’s acquired or inherent; explore some of the Baha’i viewpoints on the subject; reflect on three powerful, life-changing arguments for altruism; and end with a handy tool that can help you measure your own levels of selfishness and selflessness.