Altruism

What motivates someone to perform a selfless act which benefits another? Perhaps there are many reasons why this might happen. I would be fascinated to know the answers.

According to Wikipedia, altruism is described as the principle and moral practice of concern for happiness of other human beings or other animals, resulting in a quality of life both material and spiritual.

It feels like this is a fancy way of saying that a person’s primary concern is for someone else, rather than their own gain.

I believe I witness this to some degree every day. I see folks letting others get in line in front of them in traffic. I see people open doors for others, especially when they are weighed down with something. And I have seen folks pay for the coffee of the next person in line.

I enjoy observing these intentional acts of kindness and usually join in some way. It makes me feel alive and engaged in the world around me.

And then there are the incredibly beautiful and sensational acts that show up in the news and social media.

They are about everyday people who come to the aid of others, often with no concern given to their own safety.  They do it because they feel it’s the ‘right’ thing to do at the time.

They ran into traffic to push someone out of the way of an onrushing bus. Or they help shove a car off the railroad tracks before a train crushes it. Or they swim into the ocean to pull someone to shore. These are heroic acts of love and compassion and wonderful statements about the character of human beings.

But the altruism I’m thinking of right now transcends these marvelous actions. It moves beyond, to the level of sacrificial, heart-centered majesty.

In my travels in this life, I have only encountered one person who demonstrated this kind of altruism. She donated one of her kidneys.

She was reluctant to share much about this, but I discovered that she didn’t even know the recipient. They were not close family to her, nor a dear friend. In fact, she had no relationship with them at all, other than knowing that their life was in jeopardy.

I don’t know all the facts, so I can’t tell you a great deal about her story or that of the person she saved. I’m not sure that’s even relevant, because what has stayed with me all these years is her uncomplicated view of the situation. They would die without a kidney, and she was a match for them. That was enough for her.

I don’t know of a greater sacrifice than this.

Recently I signed up to be an organ donor…when I die. She signed up to be an organ donor…while alive. That’s a big difference to me.

I wonder to myself, could I do this? I realize we have two kidneys and humans can live with only one, but how do you get past the idea that you have two for a good reason. They function together. They keep your body healthy and if, for some reason one fails to function properly, the other is able to continue your life.

I am amazed at her courage, her compassion, her strength, and her love.

It seemed as though the sharing of this selfless act with me slipped out of her. A momentary lapse. I truly do not believe she had intended to tell me about this, nor has she told others. It’s her personal story.

She remains one of my hero’s, not because of what she has done, but because of who she is and the love she carries inside of her. I live in awe of her.

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A Different Kind of Hero

There seem to be all kinds of heroes in the world. Most of them appear to share certain qualities like; bravery, conviction, courage and determination. Others exemplify honesty, strength, moral integrity and protection of the defenseless. And then there are those who offer themselves as a sacrifice for what is often considered, the greater good. Heroes seem to possess a selflessness and inspire others to do the same through their actions.

Several dictionaries believe a hero is a person who is admired or idolized or endowed with divine or mythical characteristics. They may be a warrior or one who has achieved unusual success, far beyond normal people.

I decided to check out the internet and see who is listed as a hero. This is one list I found; Minnie Vautrin, Norman Bethune, Alan Turing, Raoul Wallenberg, Chiune Sugihara, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Oswaldo Payá, Óscar Elías Biscet, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

I was surprised to discover I only knew four of the eleven names on the list. Why was that? Am I that out of touch with the idea of a hero?

And where were Mahatma Gandhi, Jonas Salk, Winston Churchill, to say nothing of all of the divine spiritual teachers who have lived and walked the earth?

I wondered what would happen if I went to a crowded place and asked people, as they passed by, who they considered to be a hero? A famous sports figure, a nurse or doctor, a musician, a super wealthy person, perhaps especially if they donated large sums to charities?

My heroes are closer to home. They are simple people who decide that it’s important to form deep relationships with others. They understand that listening is the key. They suspend their own opinions and beliefs, in order to understand another person’s point of view.

And, after listening carefully, they ask lots of questions. Ones aimed at revealing what is important and meaningful. They express empathy, so that they feel what it must be like to live in another’s world.

They consciously choose to explore. To move outside their own world and imagine a different kind of life. And yes, they choose to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’.

To me, that’s a great image because it prompts a person to realize what it is like physically, to either squeeze into smaller shoes or slid around in larger ones, while still trying to walk. Neither is comfortable and both present their own complications.

Sometimes I can do this, but most of the time, I can only take a few steps before I fall out of the shoes or kick them off.

In my world, I see and have seen heroes, who brave others worlds. They move into and beyond the struggle of truly knowing the challenges others face and they stay with them until they understand. They stay and help figure out the best way forward.

Somehow, they make their feet fit into others shoes. They are splendid people who show a kind of daily courage I find extraordinary.

For thirteen years I worked in the field of assisting and supporting those with physical and developmental disabilities. There were incredible heroes I came into contact with every day. Those who received services and those who provided them, both walking a mile in each other’s shoes. It was truly an amazing experience and one I carry with me wherever I go. I salute them all.

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