Does altruism exist?
Is there such a thing as altruism? It’s an old question, with a contact high from so many dorm room debates and jittery after too much time in coffee shops, but I’m wondering if you can help me with it.
All of the earnest high schoolers writing “Volunteer work in Costa Rica” on their college applications, remembering the joy of going to that beautiful country, having so much fun with their friends, and helping those people build that library. Are they inspiring examples of how the precious few lucky enough to be born into sufficient affluence and power can help share the gifts of their birth? Are they ambassadors towards a better tomorrow? Are they exploitative colonists using the Third World for their own gain?
I remember an Australian I met a couple weeks before K and I went to Africa to lend a hand. With that beloved Australian gift for plain talk, he said with no malice or scorn “You’re not going there to help those kids. You’re going there because it makes you feel good to do it.” He leaned back to wait for my response.
I wasn’t sure what to say. “For starters, I don’t know how much help we’ll really be, but I hope we can do a little something useful. And yes, I do expect it will feel good. But I don’t think that invalidates anything. I think it’s okay for someone to feel good about helping others.”
He nodded and bought me a coffee the next morning, but the issue of exactly who was benefitting the most never did sit easily in me, and it feels extravagant and uncomfortable to use the word “altruism” when talking about myself.
Tomorrow I have an interview about a position teaching English to refugees. I’m not going to lie, a big part of why I want the job is to feel like I’m doing something useful, and to get out of my stale routine. I will benefit from the classes. Will they? I’m not sure; it remains to be seen if I can be an effective teacher in those circumstances. What if they don’t learn much? Does it matter if I feel good about helping? Are we all just using each other? (I look forward to your comments.)