The one-word title for this month’s post may seem like a throw-back to my weekly vocabulary blogs, but we’re still working on doing monthly articles. My word choice has relevance to our present COVID-19 pandemic experience.
As with our earlier vocabulary posts, a definition is in order. Altruism is the belief or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. The word was coined by French philosopher Auguste Comte, who used ottruisme as the opposite for egoism. The Latin root for altruism is alteri, which means “other people” or “somebody else.”
“The world is a pest-house!” This stark assessment of our planet was written in 1993 by Donald Mansell at the end of a disturbing account about a Japanese man whose body steadily wasted away from an incurable disease that baffled his doctors. Now that we’ve endured months of a COVID-19 pandemic, which has wasted bodies and claimed over 100,000 lives, we couldn’t be faulted if we came to the same conclusion that author Mansell did. However, it’s at such a time as this that the word altruism finds a justified application.
Our planet’s long estrangement from goodness makes some people skeptical that anyone can really be altruistic, but the medical personnel, especially the doctors and nurses on the front lines during this time of emergency, have garnered much deserved praise for their selfless service to those affected by the disease. They have endangered their lives caring for those afflicted with the plague. An NPR story highlighted one doctor’s commitment to one of his COVID-19 patients who knew he was dying and had no family member near to sit with him, to make his transition from this life a little easier. He was vulnerable and afraid. The doctor went to the man’s bedside often, even staying through the night, comforting him, filling in for the family that couldn’t be there with him as he left this world. It is a poignant story of altruism in action.
Altruism is not a new thing brought to light by the present pandemic. Smithsonian magazine devoted its March 2020 cover story to Florence Nightingale, “The Lady with the Lamp,” who gave devoted, distinguished service to the soldiers in the Crimean War. A privileged young woman, Florence Nightingale gave up every aspect of a life of ease and selflessly committed her life to ensuring improved medical care for the men in the war, promoting measures to ease their pain and rescue them from disease and unnecessary death. She founded the nursing profession as we know it today.
Some people think of altruism as “an investment strategy.” We do good deeds for others in the hope that they will return the favor. This has been called “reciprocal altruism,” but is this really altruism? Motivation is foundational to altruism where deeds are done without strings attached. The reason the medical professionals are being hailed as heroes and are singled out with serenades and pan-banging in their honor at night during this COVID-19 crisis is that they are seen as giving from the heart, serving selflessly. We can expand this recognition to include first responders, EMTs, the people who deliver essential packages and medical supplies, and those who work to keep the food supply chain functioning All working not for self but for others.
But not even a pandemic that claims thousands of lives can make some people altruistic. They have a high investment in personal freedom and believe in bottom-line survival. So we see some of them protesting in the streets clamoring against the Stay-at-Home order. Some protesters showed up at the Michigan State Capitol brandishing guns and demanding the right to have their community open up for trade. It mattered not that they themselves, by getting their own way, might cause the deaths of others. Egoism is definitely the antonym of altruism.
The real basis for altruism is love for others. The Apostle Paul wrote in the well-known Love Chapter, I Corinthians 13, “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned and have not love, it profits me nothing.” Altruism–being other-focused–displays love. During this pandemic, it’s important to remember that love follows the guidelines set by the health authorities for our corporate well-being; love wears a face mask; love practices physical distancing; love endures the inconvenience of staying at home, sheltering in place.
We participate best in the human experience when we allow consideration for others to rule our actions. Helen Keller has said, “Life is an exciting business and most exciting when it is lived for others.” All of us can be altruistic if, like the song-writer Charles D. Meigs, we put the emphasis in the right place:
“Others, Lord, yes others, may this my motto be;
Help me to live for others, that I may live like Thee.”