Sunday, July 31, 2011

Altruism- Guilt and Obligation, or Compassion and Contribution?

This post will be very eclectic, a bit of another UU Blog, a bit of Tim Minchin, with some Marshall Rosenberg thrown in for good measure. The general theme is 'altruism, motivation and guilt'. I really enjoyed reading an article posted this week on UU World Online, “Stopping For Everyone; How Responding to Panhandlers Has Become One of the Most Delightful Spiritual Disciplines”. I hope you’ll read it, but to summarize: The author, Victoria Weinsten, writes about how several years ago she made a policy that when someone asks her a question, she will give her full attention and a response. This frequently has come to include “street people” who ask if she has any change. Not only does she often stop to give them money, she engages them in conversation and has found that many “street people” say most people do not even stop to look at them. After talking to a man who thanked her for looking at him, and after her feeling outraged on his behalf, she writes, “What we determined that day, my friend and I, is that it is exhausting and depressing and lonely to be on the street asking for money, and that it is also exhausting, depressing, and lonely to be the one who walks by averting her eyes, feeling guilty for ignoring the human being asking for help and angry for being confronted and discomfited by such need.”

I admit I felt a twinge of guilt after reading this. Although I have given to people on the street in the past, more recently I’ve become one who walks by without looking. I’ve thought about, (and probably have, to be honest), saying, “No, I’m sorry. I don’t have any”. This is often a lie. I’ve thought about stopping to explain that while I wish I could help, I’m really short on money myself and my family is here in this big city as our vacation and we really looked forward to hot chocolate from that famous chef’s Mexican street food restaurant and I wouldn’t have the money if I gave it to him. This is where the truth does hurt. After reading Weinstein’s article, I realize that I need to find a balance, in which I may choose to not give to someone on the street, but I may choose to still look them in the eye, and give them an answer (much shorter than babbling about hot chocolate). I would like to treat all people with respect and value their inherent worth and dignity!

The Tim Minchin song that popped in my head while pondering this (because Tim Minchin songs pop into my head whenever I ponder anything) was “The Guilt Song (Fuck the Poor)".

So, simply, this song questions our motives of why we help people. Is it only to assuage our guilt? Here is a quote from Tim Minchin, on altruism, from 2009:

“In its pure sense, I don't really believe in it because I think people only act altruistically to make them feel better about themselves, thus rendering the act selfish. But I still think it's much better to make yourself feel good by giving away your toys to poor kiddies than to make yourself feel good by sniffing cocaine off the back of a dead albino dolphin.”
“The Good, Bad & Ugly; Tim Minchin, Entertainer” The West Magazine, April 25th, 2009 (still searching for electronic link)

I’m not big on guilt. I try to practice Non-violent Communication, which is really more of a credo of peacefulness in all thoughts and actions, than specifically about communication. Non-violent Communication (NVC) asserts that we choose our actions based on trying to meet our needs. Further, we will be happiest if we do things with the intent of bringing joy into our lives, and not out of a sense of obligation. In my house, we have a magnet on our refrigerator, with a quote from Marshall Rosenberg (founder of NVC). It reads, “Please do as I requested, ONLY if you can do so with the joy of a small child feeding a hungry duck. Please do not do as I request if there is any fear of punishment motivating you, out of hope for a reward, out of guilt, shame, duty, or obligation.” When I ask my kid to clean the litter box, I hope that he does it, not to prevent my anger, but because he loves our cats and wants them to be happy, with clean litter boxes. He then cleans the littler box with a sense of contributing to our cats’ well being, rather than grudgingly out of an obligation to do a chore. The task is more pleasant that way.

This is how I think of altruism as well. When I give (money or time) to charities, it usually meets my need to contribute something positive to a child’s life, or to help promote justice, or to simply be compassionate. So is this still “selfish”? Maybe, but it feels different, and more affirming, than to do something out of a sense of obligation, or to avoid guilt. By the same token, I then am free to NOT give to charities, when I find that doing so would hinder my own need for safety, or security, or connection with my family, or any number of needs I may not be able to meet if I took the time or money to give, in that particular instance.

That is my balance and I hope I can just try to be honest with myself, and with people making requests from me, about why I choose to help or not to help in any situation.

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