Altruism in the Age of Self-Promotion

I have a personal rule that I try never to break. If I do anything to help others it must remain private. Any hint of attention removes all or most of the value of the action. This may sound inspired by religious belief but I have no faith in such matters. A good deed should never be motivated by hope of reward from some mythical entity. Do it for its own sake and without personal benefit. But is there really such a thing as ‘pure’ altruism?

This is far from a new debate. The issue reappeared in my thinking recently when I was asked to speak with a journalist about a particular volunteer activity I am engaged in. The details don’t matter. I am uncomfortable saying even that much. I declined with reservations. Speaking about the organization as a whole presented no real problem. It would probably have been beneficial in promoting their cause. However, the topic would include a special relationship I have developed with a family.

I explained to the organization that I never wanted the story to be about me. Ironic, given that I am writing this. But, more importantly, I explained that observing a relationship presents the danger of changing it, of making it seem artificial. I want to avoid ‘playing to the camera’.

This is the dichotomy that all organizations seeking to improve things have to face. What kinds of self-promotion are acceptable? Promotion is vital if an organization is to survive. But there are limits.

We have all seen those ‘feel good’ moments on the evening news. It seems that every ‘kind’ act has to be on video. When they appear is usually the point at which I change the channel. Why do I find them so troubling? Many appear to reflect sincere attempts to help others. An argument that could be made in their favor is that they encourage others to also offer help. And I would be willing to concede an exception in such cases. But many appear contrived.

My attitude will likely appear strange to many who read this. We live in the age of the selfie. Recording everything has become part of the culture for many. So much so that there does not appear to be much, if any, self-reflection about it.

To some extent we all present an inauthentic face to the world. Our public behavior often does not reflect our inner selves. We all know that there are good reasons for filtering our thoughts. I would argue, though, that we should also be more self-reflective in how we express our intentions. One way to get closer to altruism in a purer form is to derive personal satisfaction from doing the right thing without drawing attention to ourselves or seeking it.

In life there are many ways to be kind. Many require little more than maintaining an understanding of the difficulties so many people face on a daily basis. A kind word, a little more patience, showing the other person that you see and acknowledge who they are. Many are doing this without fanfare. A simple attempt to be decent can ripple out through society in ways we may never see, that does not need to be recorded, and may not even be recognized as important. But being kind on a regular basis, helping where you can, and doing it again and again without any interest in reward, or notice, that is what will do the most to change and improve our society.

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