Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Altruism or selfishness?

"Once, in a spirit of altruism and generosity, I filled a rental car with gas!" ~ Emo Phillips

Lone Ranger posted a link to this web site a few days ago, and after reading some of the testimonials found there, I was left feeling strangely disturbed. I don't know why I'm disturbed. Maybe it's because I don't see these testimonials as examples of altruism, but rather as examples of a pitiful display of self importance. I've been thinking about this since LR posted it, but so many thoughts have run through my head about it that I have difficulty deciding what I want to say.

Read some of them. Really. Go read some of them, and you'll see what I mean.

The old phrase, "Don't break your arm patting yourself on the back" seems appropriate to me.

It's just that I see, instead of unselfishishness in the testimonials, a lot of pride. I am reminded of Jesus Christ's admonition, "But when you do merciful deeds, don't let your left hand know what your right hand does" found in Matthew 6:3. (That's the World English Bible translation, which is not really my preferred version, but it speaks more directly about acts of kindness rather than simply giving money to the poor) I think this applies to letting other people see what you do as well. At least people other than the ones you help.

A genuine random act of kindness is an act that doesn't come with any kind of reward in mind. Not even the reward of receiving accolades from friends or strangers. Again, the words of Jesus come to mind. "Verily I say unto you, They have their reward." Matthew 6:5

I suppose it's long been a pet peeve of mine when I see people do something nice, and then announce to everyone how wonderfully unselfish they are being. The way I see it, as soon as one tells someone else, ones attempt at generosity becomes disengenous.

I posted something on this subject before. Read it here, if you're so inclined.

It is difficult indeed to do some random act of kindness and then be silent. I have done them, and have, for the most part kept silent, but doesn't even disclosing that much lump me in with those who expect some sort of praise? I don't want to seek praise for whatever acts of kindness I do. But at the same time, I want people to know.

It is a dilemma.

I recently wrote about a time when I took the initiative to bring Thanksgiving dinner to a girls group home simply because my heart went out to the girls. Many of the girl's own families had effectively abandoned them and they faced the prospect of enduring Thanksgiving alone, with only their peers for company.

My reason for recounting that incident wasn't for self aggrandizement, but merely to point out the true meaning of Christian charity. I feel guilty to this day about sharing. I could have easily found other examples, but I wanted to draw an example from my own experience. In retrospect, I suppose using another example not from my experience would have sufficed.

In the comments of that entry, I said, "I have my reward".

Those testimonials that seem to point to a desire for attention are not the only ones that disturb me.

For instance, one entitled "Give it away", recounts a story of the author giving away tickets to a concert because essentially, she had 3 tickets her family couldn't use after she had found better seats. I'm sure the beneficiary of the tickets was grateful, but the offer of tickets in this case seems more about throwing the cast offs to the beggars than genuine kindness to me. Kind of like letting the homeless guy have your last couple of bites from the burger you couldn't finish.

Then there's the one entitled, "Stuck in the snow" that is disturbing in more than one way. Not only did the author of this testimonial admit that he didn't even attempt to help until it became obvious no one else was going to, but then he readily admits he did it in hopes that someday someone would help him in a similar situation.

I get the distinct impression that these people who write these testimonials so rarely do anything altruistic, they feel a need to massage their own egos, probably out of guilt for not doing so more often.


Edwin Drood said...

It is hard to a good deed without feeling good.

Anticipation of the good feeling is an ulterior motive.

Avoiding regret and crisis of conscience is also a motive to do what is right.

Perhaps the only middle ground is to keep our good deeds a secret so the recipient may think "our world isn’t so bad after all" instead of "what a nice guy"

Marshall Art said...

I have to say that at a site dedicated to random acts of kindness, it's hard not to post about acts one has committed, comments solicited it appears, and not seem boastful. I read about as far as the snow comment about which you remarked. But as to the comments I did read, I guess true acts of kindness are in the eyes of the beholder. Another good reason to keep it to yourself.

Mark said...

Maybe so, Art, but why not, instead of posting stories about what you did, post stories about acts of kindness done TO you? That way, the do gooder gets the press and he doesn't have to stoop to bragging about himself. Everyone involved comes off looking humble.

Lone Ranger said...

Let's not discount that a lot of those stories could be total fiction. And the person running that site is probably making big bucks. So-called "non-profit" organizations are a major industry among liberals. Activism is a lot more profitable than holding down a real job.

matthew said...

I'm right with you there, Mark.

The needs where you only know generally of a need and find that what you've done fills a very specific and significant need. Receiving no thanks and not revealing it was you who filled the need is a major thing.

It keeps one humble as we see God using us in His perfect way, allowing us to see His strength assisting others in their need.

Anything else, even false humility, is still pride.

Marshall Art said...

"...but why not, instead of posting stories about what you did, post stories about acts of kindness done TO you?"

An excellent alternative.

Ms.Green said...

I got that same strange uncomfortable feeling that I think you described. I got nothing positive out of it.

It almost reminded me of a third grade class "show and tell".