Selfishness, selflessness and altruism

25/12/2011 11:11

I was thinking about a friends 19 year old daughter the other day.

She’s living on a shoestring budget and coping with the hurly burly first year of university. Regardless, she still worked in her spare time to save up enough money so she could fly to the mountain regions of Costa Rica and spend her holidays mixing cement to construct a school for the children of an extremely poor culture.

Three things:
1. I am in awe of her altruism, at the same age I was a stew of hormones and alcohol desperately
    seeking self identity, as self centred as a cyclone,
2. I was wrong in my generalisation about her generation,
3. It’s nice to know that you never get to old to be delightfully surprised when you discover your wrong.  

The train of thought which led to this post started off with an article in from the Sydney Morning Herald entitled The stingy rich need to dig deep by Adele Horin in which she discusses the actions and research of Bill Ferris, Dick Smith, Professor Andrew Leigh, Simon Mordant and “the notoriously stingy Australian rich”.

She states. “In Australia, the super-wealthy have the best of both worlds. They enjoy opportunities to halve their effective tax rates though salary sacrificing, negative gearing and income splitting through family trusts; as well, they are untouched by a culture of noblesse oblige that in other countries propels the rich to give back to the community. Here the rich, along with everyone else, rely on government to fix social problems and fund services, while pumping their own fortunes into real estate and personal consumption

Leigh refers to ,” A man I described as ”rich” during an interview recoiled from the adjective on the grounds he was not in the BRWRich List even though he was by any standards immensely wealthy”

Simon Mordant refers to“wealthy folk , prompted by his example, approached him saying they did not know how to give. He was gratified by their seeking his advice, he told me, and shocked they had no idea what to do with their money. They had no passions, and he had to prompt them into thinking about sick relatives and hospitals, their children and schools, and so on, to spark a light.”

The second article was from Free Range Kids entitled Kid, 11, Attends a Wake…on His Own. It details how an US 11 year old, Jared, who wasn’t allowed outside by himself?,  dressed himself in formal attire and rode a mile on his bicycle to pay his respects to fireman killed on duty. Jared did not know the fireman but had experienced grief, his older half-brother was killed in Iraq very recently.

Both articles got me thinking about how the concepts of selfishness and selflessness and the act of altruism are perceived in our society.

Most people think they know what they mean and give them no further thought. People who don’t know what they mean look for a reference, a knowledgeable source that will define things.The Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary, thesaurus and general all round font of knowledge states that to be;
Selfish – is to be concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.

Selfless – is to have no concern for ones self and 
Altruism – is unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others or behaviour by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species

From my experience in this world I do not believe that in reality the definitions and actions are so black and white. I believe that selfishness and selflessness can be like cholesterol (good or bad) and on some occasions and in certain situations can be neither of either.

Anyone who has spent time in a profession where they are asked to give of themselves, and survived burnout knows that in order to be continuously selfless one needs to sometimes be selfish. Conversely the act of selflessness can be subject to stage management and opportunism on the part of those that want to to be know publicly, for some gain on their part, as altruists. 

Why is it that when a person who has lots, gives a little of it away we celebrate the occasion as if they should be sanctified. Why is it that when a person who has a little, gives away what they have on a constant basis there is no recognition or regard. Why do we now live in a culture where intelligent? adults claim, “they did not know how to give”. 

The answer is simple yet complex. We live in an artificial society that we have allowed to be created around us. From an early age we are bombarded with commercialism, the idea that who we are equates with what we have. We have to have.. the newest, the latest, the greatest. I-pods, I-phones, I-pads, I-tunes, there is no ambiguity in the choice or use of this particular pronoun. Every day in every way we are led to believe that life, and all the people in it, are, or should be, centred around us and our needs.

I have worked at various centres where colleagues have berated very young children to share. Whilst a great ideal, before certain cognitive and moral development occurs children are simply not able to conceptualise the idea, and those that are made aware of the idea understand it as a rule rather than a concept.

We don’t share or consider others when we get older because with rare exceptions most of us have no earlier experiences where we are able to practice and consolidate the ideals into our personal life philosophies.
However this does not mean change is not possible. You can start any day, any time, anywhere. Perform a selfless act without benefit to yourself, without anyone knowing, without hope or intent of recompense or recognition – except the joy it will invariably bring to you.

This is the true joy in life – being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. ~George Bernard Shaw


Tess Michaels