Selfishness vs altruism – same or different?

Two decades ago I met a guy in a new age shop who tried to convince me that it was arrogant to try and help anybody. In those days, somehow, I often had deep conversations with utter strangers. Anyhow, I was stunned at this thought, and afronted too. The thought of a world in which people did not try and help each other out was depressing to me. Honestly, it still is.

However, being older and a bit wiser in the ways of the world, I do see what he was perhaps trying to say: sometimes when we try to help in a situation, we make things worse. Sometimes we grasp onto the ‘helping’ so badly that whatever good we intended becomes less helpful, or even counter productive, because we don’t allow the process to simply work itself out. After all, you can’t make a seed grow by watching it. You water it, you make sure it has light, and good soil – the rest is up to nature.

Similarly when we think someone needs our help, it takes wisdom to discern what is best to be done. And if that person doesn’t want help, we had better be very careful: we might easily make things worse.

In Christianity there is this idea of sacrifice: Jesus sacrificed himself so that others might not have to deal with the consequences of their sins.

When studying Tibetan Buddhist teachings on Bodhicitta – the intention to save all beings from suffering – I’m struck again and again with how inclusive it is: The main idea is ALWAYS that in helping others, we are also (and in fact principally) helping ourrselves.

From a classic Western perspective this is humbling. Here I am, giving up my happiness, my health, my wealth, my peace of mind to help some person… and now you tell me that this will (at best) help me more than them?

From a Buddhist perspective this is, unless you are a high order Bodhisattva, madness. If you make yourself unhappy to make someone else happy – you’re not adding to the total store of human happiness at all: one person is happier, the other is less happy. Leaving aside the karmic consequences for the moment, the chances that you really made that other person happy aren’t great. After all, how could they be happy at you making yourself unhappy? This is one reason why moms going to work is often a good thing for the kids:mom is happier which in turn makes the kids happier, assuming, of course, that they aren’t getting emotionally neglected in the process.

This reminds me of a conversation I had online several times. In psychological studies it has become clear that people who help others, by volunteering, visiting their grandmothers, feeding the homeless or even donating money, are happy about that. Generosity makes people happy. Being a ‘good person’ makes people happy. Contributing to society makes people happy.

What is weird to me is that to some people this means that these altruistic people are, because they are happy about what they do, therefore less altruistic. As if the fact that they enjoy giving their time and energy, somehow invalidates the contribution they make. As if altruism is only really altruism if it’s accompanied by the sacrifice of happiness.

Somehow my own happiness was not on my conscious agenda for much of my life. When my teacher gave me a Tibetan name that means ‘a long and happy life’ (Tsering Yankyi), I was a bit afronted. I wanted a nice dharma-sounding name. Something impressive. However, took that name as spiritual advice, as something to live up to. I was not very happy at that time, and while I didn’t consciously decide do do anything different, I did in fact become happier. Perhaps the name opened up the possibility that I might in fact be happy and that there was nothing wrong with being happy and relaxing a bit.

They say that you can only love others if you love yourself. I still don’t know if that is true. I do realize now, though, that unless you know at least a bit about how to be happy, you can’t make other people happy either. Trying to help others without helping yourself is like feeding everybody, except yourself. It’s foolish in the extreme. Altruism and taking care of yourself aren’t as much opposites as they seem.

2 thoughts on “Selfishness vs altruism – same or different?”

  1. I think that at times people’s idea of helping others is based on the idea that others need to change or be changed. Historically, charity has involved submission by those on the receiving end. To provide help without judgment or expectation of change is altruism at it’s best.

    1. Good point. Of course it is rather hard to look at (say) addicts and want to help them without wanting to change them. Respecting the person precisely as they are, with all the history that led up to where they are, is really the only way to help them on their feet. Unfortunately that implies acknowledging that they are free to continue on their self-destructive path.

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