I, me, myself

Forgotten Virtues

I, me, myself

To selflessly care for another and to have the primary interests of the society at large before oneself is what altruism is all about. And history is replete with people who had altruism built into their DNA. Unfortunately, in the present world, the concept of altruism has almost become obsolete, rues Dorothy Victor

The year was 1975.  The day was 16th January.  The time was 5.10 pm.  The venue was the subway platform beneath New York’s Lexington Avenue. The scene was one of terror, for, four-year-old Michelle, while trying to look for the train that was hurtling towards the station, wriggled her hand free from her mother’s grip and accidentally fell into the tracks more than a metre below the platform. The call, “save her”, by many desperate voices in the station did not go unheeded. Two passing bravehearts, who happened to be in the station waiting for the train, jumped into the tracks without a moment’s hesitation. Possessed of a strength they never knew they had, the two jointly saved the girl’s life, risking theirs.

Later, addressing the press, Everett Sanderson who played a crucial part in the drama in real life, said that the question, “What if it was my child down there?” flashed in his mind. It pushed him in an instant into the tracks to save the girl. Along with his comrade, Miguel Maisonett, Everett received medals from the grateful New York Authority for civilian heroism. Commenting on his jumble of gallantry and foolhardiness, Everett said, “I don’t know whether this has changed my life, I know it almost ended it. But if I hadn’t tried to save that little girl, if I had stood there like the others, I would have been no good to myself from then on!”

Years later, several psychology books and scholarly articles on altruism referred to the two individuals and on how they risked their lives that day to save a little, unknown child.

The virtue of altruism

The synonym in the Merriam Webster Thesaurus for altruism is unselfish concern. The lexicon also enumerates several other related words for altruism — humanitarianism, kindness, selflessness, magnanimity, considerate, noble-minded, sympathy, fellow feeling, humaneness, mercy, tolerance, hospitality and goodness, to name a few.  

A cursory glance at the various meanings suggests that altruism is indeed a divine virtue. To selflessly care for another, to have the primary interests of the society at large before oneself, and to be others-centred rather than self-centred is a force that has brought equality to men, peace between nations, end to bitter wars, cures for killer-plagues, advancements in education, abolishment of abusive practices and retribution for injustice for all humanity.

Incredible acts of goodness and compassion by fellow human beings have in the darkest of times been a beacon of light to tens of thousands of victims of holocaust, world wars, hunger, famine and plague. Legendary figures such as Dr Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Louis Pasteur, R L Stevenson, Mozart, Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela and Baba Amte, along with scores of thousands of selfless others have, through their altruism, stood as great symbols of love, hope, peace and brotherly kindness in the most testing times of horror and cruelty. The world as we enjoy today with increased safety, enhanced lifestyle, superior infrastructure, higher entertainment levels, better health care and longer lifespan are all the result of the self-sacrifice and the self-giving nature of our forefathers. As Albert Pike, an American lawyer, journalist and soldier once observed, “What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.” Altruism can then be said to be that all-embracing virtue that will make men god-like and immortal.  

Diminishing importance 

Strangers jumping to save a drowning woman from a well, braving thunderstorms and flash floods to rescue trapped individuals, galloping into smoke-choked burning bogies to free burnt victims, rushing into furious mobs to protect innocent targets, going around with warm packets of food on cold winter nights for the homeless and doing anything that takes to save a fellow human being or offer some respite to human suffering, even if it meant a threat to their lives, were all commonplace until a few years back. In recent times, such acts of kindness are slowly diminishing. They have taken the backseat in an activity-packed, fast-paced, competitive and chaotic world of ours.  

In addition, lately, there has also been a corrosion of clear understanding of life’s priorities. Just as Prince Hamlet in utter confusion lamented, “To be, or not to be” in the opening phrase of his soliloquy, modern man suffers from the same indecisiveness when it comes to taking a stand on matters that do not affect him directly. In all situations where the plainness of black or white cannot be seen or appreciated, the question of ‘to be or not to be’ confronts man. Being rational and an ever-thinking being, man opts for that choice which guarantees him safety, comfort and least trouble for himself — the all-important-reason why today man is grossly ‘self-seeking’ rather than ‘self-giving’. To a contemporary and rational person, the concept of altruism is obsolete, destructive and has reached a point of no return.

Self before society

History is filled with heroes who had altruism built into their DNA. Little kingdoms, little villages, little towns and little neighbourhoods had for their citizens little people possessed by a big, serving spirit. Besides, the functioning of the state machinery primarily was through local panchayats which worked on the energy of the many volunteers in and around the panchayats. Co-operative societies and voluntary associations were an integral part of the community set-ups. Life always worked best with symbiotic relationships, give-and-take policies and common goals. The philosophy of altruism thus got weaved into such a way of life and encouraged selfless service for society.

On more personal levels, the erstwhile joint family system was all about joint interests. Three generations of families living together in a sense of oneness exposed the immeasurable joys that there is to sharing, giving and benevolence. Joint property, joint businesses and joint trade spelt joint victories. The good of the other was always something to be reckoned with. This philosophy naturally got extended to the society at large. Brotherly kindness just had to be the norm, the absence of which meant no life at all!

Fast forward to the 2000s. Drastic shift in the whole functioning of the world resulted in changing lifestyles, dynamic philosophies and a gross swing in values, attitudes, practices and beliefs. Joint families gave way to nuclear families. Large families were no longer revered. ‘We two, ours one’ was the popular propaganda. Capitalism became the pervasive economic system worldwide. Free market and free trade gave power, affluence and influence to individuals on unprecedented scales. The newfound purchasing power and freedom to make choices put man on a roller coaster ride in wanting to live it up, the so-called good life that money could buy. He just could not stop the momentum. He had to constantly move ahead just to stay in the same place. All he could think of was — I, me, myself.

Altruism as a concept has slowly and steadily taken a downward trend over the years and has today hit alarmingly low proportions. While sharing, caring, stretching beyond oneself and going the extra mile for others all came so naturally to our ancestors, the present day motto is — Stay aloof. Let somebody else stick his neck out.

Human nature

A preacher put this question to a class of children, “If all the good people in the world were red and all the bad people were green, what colour would you be?” Little Anna thought mightily for a moment. Then her face brightened and she said, “Reverend, I’d be streaky!”

This is exactly how the millennium man has evolved. He has gotten streaky. While some elements of his ancestors’ altruism remained within him, technology, status, globalisation and awareness have overshadowed unselfishness and made him go behind a wall. This isolated world further got him to pour all his energy to himself. He found it a comfort zone and soon got cosy. He stopped ‘being available’ to others.

The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel used the French word, ‘disponibilite’, meaning ‘being available’, to throw light on how men stopped being available to others. Borrowing the word from financiers, who talk of available funds, Marcel noted that unlike some who ‘open a line of credit to others’, most people with degrees, money and egos allow no one to enter their inner worlds. They shut themselves off. He called this ‘crispation’ to describe people who become crisped like dry autumn leaves. Such a disposition is not conducive to practicing altruism and as Marcel explained, “it is the modern individual’s struggle in a technologically dehumanising society.”

Dog-eat-dog world

Modern existence has boiled down to cut-throat competition, constant rivalry and perennial struggle. Even with too much, man can still feel he has too little. Evils of greed and the quest to conquer the material world saps him of his concern for others. The overvaluation of financial success and the undervaluation of the means to achieve it have contributed to gross deterioration in the value system with which men lived in the past. In a society thus reduced to a dog-eat-dog world, we know the price of everything, but the value of nothing, and all too often we are left with a lot to feel proud, but with nothing to inspire us.

While our ancestors had real heroes to constantly stand as illustrious examples before men, to teach them through their selfless living of the virtuous that made them heroic, the new world is filled with false supermen living a life of farce, spreading the poison to decimate all that stood for kindness. It is no longer an exaggeration that men believe kindness to be a weakness, showing compassion to be meek and risking lives for the welfare of others to be foolhardy and naïve. Feigning service, the modern man is all too absorbed in the pursuit of self-pleasure, self-service and self-gratification.  

Where self-centeredness is a way of life, suspicion and doubt lurk like the mist in foggy air, blinding men off clear vision to extend a helping hand to the weary and the needy. Every situation that begs for kindness is looked on with scepticism. This makes the practice of altruism simply too dangerous. “It is risky to get involved,” we chime. “It is not my business,” we justify. “I am an army of one and can’t make a difference,” we rationalise, thus turning a blind eye to a youngster who is eve teased before our eyes, to a colleague who flouts business policies to make a quick buck under our nose, and to a world that is in need of our kindly intervention, our healing touch and our little involvement.

Need of the hour   

All said and done, the world, as it stands today, is an enriched and prosperous one. Opportunities, advancements and affluence loom large. Ironically, men stand impoverished in several other ways. Alone, he fights for survival in a broken world of terror and uncertainty. To lend a helping hand to the least of our fellow human beings is the most heroic of all actions a man can do. “I know of no great men,” said Voltaire, “except those who have rendered great service to all human race.”

Albert Einstein, the most recent of all geniuses in modern science, vouched the same philosophy of altruism. In his words, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. But, without deeper reflection, one knows from daily life that one exists for other people; first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy.

A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labours of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving. A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Only a life lived for others is worth living.” And such a life will always be rewarding, fulfilling, and most importantly, life-giving!

In the army fleeing from Moscow amid the bewildering snows of a biting Russian winter was a German prince whose sterling character had endeared him to all his soldiers. One bitter night, in the ruins of a shed built for cattle, all lay down to sleep, cold, tired and hungry. At dawn the prince awoke, warm and refreshed, and listened to the wind as it howled and shrieked around the shed. He called his men, but received no reply. Looking around, he found their dead bodies covered with snow, while their cloaks were piled upon his body — their lives given to save their serving, altruistic leader! 

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