Jorge had collapsed from weakness in his legs and asked that I help him get off the floor. I needed to think quickly about how to get him up without hurting him or myself. I crouched behind him, reached around his chest, under his arms, then lifted him to a crouching position that matched mine. Then, on a count of three, I pulled upwards while we both pushed up to the standing position. I continued to hold on to him from behind as I guided him to the sofa.
We looked at one another and smiled. He thanked me for the help. Then I thanked him for asking for help. We had let down our guard for a few moments. Both of us are very independent guys. We are quite eager to help. Both of us are very reluctant to ask for help. Jorge suggested we look into this personality trait.
I mentioned that I’ve long believed that one of the signs of maturity is that he or she would feel an inate desire to be responsible in the world. In that there is so much hurt and hate going on, the mature person spontaneously wants to help others.
I mentioned Jorge’s momentary weakness and fall. There was no mental hesitation on my part to help him, but I don’t think that’s anything special. Something instinctive kicked in my mind before Jorge requested my assistance. This sort of behavior happens thousands of times each day to people all around the world. Is it just a reflex?
Ever the armchair philosopher, Jorge instantly quoted Pythagoras, “No man stands so straight as when he stoops to help a boy.”
I mentioned that there are a lot of people who apparently stand straight in the manner of Pythagoras’ observation. People in the helping professions, like medicine, fire and rescue personel, counselors and so forth. It seemed to me that most of those people have heroic measures of the helping instinct.
Jorge asked my opinion about the people who apparently feel no need whatsoever to help society. What about the current glorification of people who only think about their own success, wealth, and satisfaction? How do they justify and condone their own self-centered lack of empathy? Why do they deny that society exists as a result of mutual aid?
I said that I can only guess that they are extremely unhappy people who try to fill their never-ending emptiness with an unquenchable thirst for ever more power, prestige, and material gain. They apparently believe in the superiority of independent gain. They suffer a lack of understanding about the interconnected nature of the world. I posited that their behavior is akin to that of a narcotics addict. Part of me feels pity for them.
Jorge said he believes that people behave the way we do because of our varying levels of altruism. That is altruism requires a person to engage in the act of helping without any conscious benefit to himself.
Jorge thinks that many people display a superficial type of altruism. There is something of personal benefit in such behavior. Perhaps there is the promise of public esteem and goodwill upon recognition of helpful actions. Another selfish reason might be that the helper has the desire to avoid feelings of guilt or shame and not mainly a need to help others.
I agreed with Jorge on this point. I further wondered if the level of altruism can be measured by whether or not the helper views the victim as belonging to his in-group, thus seeming more “deserving” of help. If the victim is a member of an out-group or scapegoated group, whether or not the helper acts with charitable actions or not can be an indicator of his level of altruism.
Jorge offered that the self-categorizing is probably very true where situations of ongoing needs are concerned, the categorizing before action probably is less true in emergency situations, when an automatic urge to help arises. A dramatic form of overcoming categorical help was when rare individuals risked their own safety to harbor jews, sexual minorities, political disidents, and religious minorities during the Nazi regime in Europe. People like Oscar Schindler who continually risked his own safety and life to protect his Jewish employees.
Jorge’s example made me think of a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'”
There might be a religious motivation for such altruism, or it may be simply as basic as the desire to feel good about oneself. I told Jorge that I believe the need for positive self-esteem, in the helper, trumps it all. I think that if I was placed in a situation of helping a member of an out-group or leaving him to fend for himself, my choice would be to help.
Jorge agreed with my intellectual opinion. We both wondered if we found ourselves in an actual situation like that in Nazi Germany or present day Uganda or Russia, would we actually follow through? We both hoped that we would do the right thing. But a hypothetical scenario is one thing, the real world pressures are another.
With that, we changed the topic of conversation.
The Blue Jay of Happiness likes this quote from the Lord Buddha: “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”