I am sure you can picture the scene. You finally have found your seat on an airplane, hoisted your incredibly heavy carry-on into the overhead, and buckled your seat belt. While checking your text messages you are told to turn off your electronic devices. If you are still paying attention at this point, you hear the ubiquitous warning that if oxygen masks are lowered in flight that you should put the mask over your face first before helping the person next to you. Suppose the person sitting next to you is a child? Wouldn’t your first reaction be to assist a child?
A good friend recently shared his dilemma with me about assisting a person in distress. While hurriedly taking a shortcut through a narrow street, he saw a woman park her car in a restricted zone. A workman on the street started screaming abusively at the woman to move her car. My friend was incensed and also concerned for the woman. He continued walking but felt personally bothered that he had not stopped to offer help. This scene, and his reaction, has bothered him ever since. My friend is a stellar example of a kind, thoughtful person. Is not stopping to help someone an example of not being altruistic?
When listening to an NPR broadcast shortly after talking with my friend, I was drawn to several provocative conversations about altruism with Guy Raz on his May 26th TED Radio Hour. Each story, like my friend’s experience, evoked further reflection.
A wealthy macho-type lawyer visiting India passed a leper languishing on the road. The lawyer was frightened and ran away but felt cowardly. He returned to the dying man and put a blanket on top of him so the leper could die with some dignity. Subsequently the lawyer made working with lepers his life’s work, including offering himself as a subject in medical research with an experimental drug. He later moved his family, including two young children and two dogs, to a leper community where he established a leper colony which has become a refuge and a flourishing community. One is left wondering if his need to help others trumped his concerns about exposing his children, wife, and pets to illness and possible death? In fact, his dogs were killed by coyotes. Does this person display altruism any deeper than that of my friend who continued walking?
A young couple wanted to adopt children in addition to having two biological offspring. As they pursued adoption, they realized that there were many children who needed forever homes but who might be forced to spend their formative years in foster care. Eventually the couple adopted 20 children, even when their two biological children asked their parents to stop bringing home more babies. How does one define altruism in this situation?
There is a blurred line that prevents a rigid dichotomy between altruism and narcissism if we insist upon simplistic either/or definitions. When we help others, it is assumed we also help ourselves. What motivates some people to be overtly selfless and giving, unlike the narcissist who is blatantly selfish and self-absorbed? Narcissism, like altruism, is not the presence or absence of a particular characteristic or trait. Labels can be misleading. Altruistic individuals can be (and are) narcissistic. Narcissistic people can be (and are) altruistic. Both exist on a continuum and in varying degrees.
An extreme version of altruism on the altruistic-narcissistic spectrum may result in chronic self effacement and idealizing others while devaluing one’s self through self-sacrifice, modesty, diffidence, and reticence. Yet one cannot help others when the focus primarily is upon promoting one’s private agenda, unable to see beyond the blind spot called “me”.
A noxious antithesis of altruism becomes obvious when glorifying one’s self is carried out at the expense – and even inflicting harm - upon others through egotism, self-importance, self-absorption, and lack of empathy. In our current political climate, where so many people are crying out from the pain of hunger, the terror of unemployment, the trauma of unaffordable health care, the fear about personal safety, and the disrespect for equality and civil rights, basic human needs are challenged, disrespected, mocked, and ignored by the occupant of the White House.
As written in our Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” At present, empathy and concern for others, hallmarks of altruism, have become endangered human values. Protecting and promoting “unalienable Rights” are being eroded by toxic hate and egotism. Our founding fathers codified the principles of justice and integrity in their Declaration. Upholding the truths they found self-evident should be self-evident: decency will always trump narcissism.
The writer is author of Melodies of the Mind (Routledge Press, 2013) and Managing Stage Fright: A Guide for Musicians and Music Teachers (Oxford University Press, published 9/17). Visit her website blog at www.julienagel.net where she writes on stage fright, music and emotion, and music lessons as life lessons. She is a graduate of The Juilliard School, The University of Michigan, and The Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and is in private practice in Ann Arbor.