It was 5:44 a.m. Our dog, Bear, had just woken me up for the eleventh time over the past six hours. We had a storm in St. Louis, and with every thunder clap, he came running to smack me with his paw as if to say, “Did you hear that? Those bastards are lighting fireworks again! This isn’t the 4th of July!”
Only this last time, with his nerves shot, the smack had more to do with, “My stomach is in knots; if you don’t want a mess on the carpet, please let me out. Now.”
At this point of the… is it considered morning yet?… I figured that while I’m up and somewhat compos mentis, I should write a blog. And there had been a fun one running around in my head.
The other night, a few minutes before a young adult cancer get-together at the Cancer Support Community here in St. Louis, my friend Renata and I got into a bit of a rhetorical discussion that was born from an old episode of Friends. The basic gist was, does anyone ever really do anything for someone from a truly altruistic perspective?
At first, I argued that the “feel good” was just a side effect of doing nice things for other people. But then, as I thought about it, I wondered if it was really altruistic when the euphoria you get from seeing the other person’s face was one of your main objectives.
This molted into me saying, “Well, it’s really altruistic when you do something for people when not only can they not return the favor, but they didn’t even know it was you helping them.”
But that Renata is a smart one, and she probed deeper… not because she thought I was wrong, but because she had started my gears turning and now they couldn’t stop. My stream of consciousness had transformed from thoughtful to manic. The train wreck was just too much fun.
“Okay, so to be truly altruistic,” I got going, “Number one, you have to do it with no expectation of getting paid back with anything, even karma. Number two, the person can’t know you did it. Number three, you have to be an asshole. You have to hate doing things for others, yet at the same time, not enjoy misery. Because if you enjoy misery and you hate doing things for others, then you’ll take pleasure in your own discomfort.”
Renata looked at me as if to say, “Your medical marijuana card just came in, didn’t it?”
Oh the epic comedic heights this blog would achieve.
As I sat down to write a couple of minutes ago, I woke my computer screen up to see a Facebook post. My friend Richard shared a video with the quote, “This will make the ladies choke up a little… you have been warned.” And then I watched the video and I discovered what the true definition of altruism would become for me.
The story, reported on the CBS Evening News, is about a little boy of six named Jaden Hayes who lost both of his parents. Instead of giving in to the power of an extinguished soul, he turned his tragedy into a personal mission that not only helps his heart heal, but the hearts of others, as well.
His only payment desired from each encounter: a smile.
And like that, my theory of “And an altruistic act can only come on a Tuesday, which is the worst day of the week because…” evaporated. A little kid taught me that the selfless motivation to help others, married with the desired outcome of a shared joy, is a truly remarkable thing.
Because let’s face it… especially at this moment in our history… shared joy can be a hard thing to come by. We really do learn the most amazing lessons from the little ones, don’t we?
Oh, and Merriam-Webster, you may want to augment next year’s edition with this:
altruism /ˈaltro͞oˌizəm/ n.: the act of making others, both known and unknown, happy in the face of utter despair. Neither a self-serving motivation to be happy by sharing happiness, nor the expected extrication of a joyous repayment of love or kindness, makes the act any less altruistic.