The Truth About Altruism: Part I

“Well, until after our last meeting, I hadn’t really thought about this week’s subject,” Joy Brighterday began. “But Wednesday night I thought, ‘Whoa! Altruism?’ That’s a mighty big subject to tackle in one, one-hour session! I mean, let’s look at the definitions. It is defined as ‘unselfish regard for or devotion to others; the belief in and practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others;’ and very interestingly, ‘behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species,’ which I thought was a really cool definition, and we’re going to talk about that some more, for sure!”

Justin Case was present again at the Wednesday evening SSS meeting at St. Gianna Church, just like he said he’d be, and he was actually smiling now. He understood perfectly Reverend Brighterday’s conundrum. It wasn’t the lack of understanding, or comprehending the word; it was the fact that the definition of the word was so broad … that it covered a lot of territory, and quite possibly more territory than Joy could cover tonight, just as she said. But she wasn’t one to come unprepared or to be easily shamed, so he eagerly waited to see how she would handle this.

“I suppose one additional note might be interesting … who knows? May turn out to be important. But anyway, ‘altruism’ ultimately comes from the Latin alteri huic, which simply means ‘to this other.’ And so it appears that altruism’s very roots are ‘other-oriented.’ Yet here we are still left with an enormous word with an irritatingly general definition… So, I think I’m going to need some help tonight.”

“Someone call the paper,” a voice rang out from the congregation. “Joy Brighterday unprepared for lecture!” This elicited some rip-roaring laughter.

“Mark it on your calendars!”

Suddenly dozens of phones were snapping shots of Joy standing to the left side of the podium, with her head part way down, laughing, with her left arm on her hip. She was blushing just a bit, too, but laughing nevertheless. Yes, she prided herself on always being at least adequately prepared, even if some sermons and lectures were worse than others… That’s just reality at play. But here she was tonight, asking for help before her lecture even began!

“This’ll go viral,” another voice rang out; probably a college student because the Reverend Brighterday was periodically ask to guest lecture on a variety of topics. Besides, she’d made it a point to especially get to know junior and senior high-schoolers and college students. It paid off in rather high dividends, actually. She was very popular in that age group, but far more importantly was the trust factor. Over the course of her six years (and counting) in Splinterbit, she’d had dozens upon dozens of students confide in her and counsel with her. No, most of them never attended St. Gianna on a regular basis … or even sporadically, but they loved Joy and Joy loved them, so … yeah, the snapshots would end up on Facebook®, all in good nature, of course.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Joy spurted out. “You guys go ahead and have your fun, but I know where to find you,” she mockingly threatened. “I can be pretty rascally when I wanna be, you know…! So … o.k., you got me, but will you help me?”

There were plenty of heads nodding and voices replying with “yes,” “sure will,” “gladly,” or something along those lines. Actually, everyone seemed kind of energized, because they knew if Joy Brighterday was asking for help and inviting their participation, it wouldn’t be anything puerile or superficial. This would be good, substantive, and intellectually beneficial (if not spiritually, too, which was always Joy’s prayer.)

“Alright, then, let’s break it down first … I mean the definition, of course. Now, a lot of you here tonight – and it looks like our fairly regular group, although I see some new faces … again, welcome to each of you – but many of you are students. Oops! Excuse me, I mean scholars.” The crowd chuckled “… so you know what I mean in breaking down the definition. So let’s have at it, and to keep decorum we’ll use the hand-raising rule like we’re elementary school kids. O.k.? O.k.” She paused and looked around. “Important to keep good notes, right? Even with modern technology… Some of you are wrestling to remember the definition. Fear not, I have it written out on my flip chart.” With that, Joy stepped over to an old fashioned flip chart and flipped the cover to reveal the definition, written somewhat largely. In all honesty, Joy rarely brought in the flip chart, and the only notes she brought in were an outline of her presentation (or sermon), endnotes and bibliography, and maybe some suggested reading. She wanted her “class” – be it the SSS, the congregation, or college room – to listen hard, struggle to remember rightly, and learn deeply without having to depend on technological “crutches.” Tonight, she bent a little … and smiled.

“O.k. Who’s on first?” She looked around as hands went up and, thank God, she noticed Morris Graver (with his mother, too). “Mr. Graver.”

Morris stood up and answered, “The first significant phrase is ‘unselfish regard.’” He then sat down again.

“Very good, but stand up again,” Joy smiled broadly. “I’m not through with you quite yet.” Morris complied, smiling a bit nervously, but the look in his eyes said he was really glad to be here … and participating.

“Tell me about ‘unselfish regard,’ and in so doing, pay particular attention to ‘regard’ and what that means.”

“Well, first, ‘unselfish’ means to be ‘kind, charitable … unstinting, and … to be so as a matter of … inner character.” Morris was sweating just a little bit, but felt like he’d at least taken a good stab at it and hadn’t embarrassed himself.

“Very good, very good.” Joy approved. “Now onto regard. What does it mean to have regard?”

“Whoa…” Morris breathed in deeply. “You know, at first glance the word seems easy enough to define, but I think it’s a bit of a challenge, really… But I’ll define ‘regard’ in this context as ‘respectful … estimation of someone or something…” Morris leaned over while his mother, Angelica, whispered in his ear. “It is also considerate awareness of someone or something.” Now Morris really was sweating.

“Excellent!” Joy responded enthusiastically. “Very, very good Mr. Graver. You may be seated. And sit down he certainly did, with a huge sigh of relief echoed by Angelica. “Now, who is going to combine these definitions for us into one, clear and cohesive definition of the phrase ‘unselfish regard?’?”

Joy chose an attractive, finely contoured, bronze-skinned young man with silky, wavy, chestnut-blonde hair and emerald eyes, who was dressed comfortably in an alluring, brightly colored kurta. He stood out from the crowd, but in an extraordinarily charming way, with mystique. He smiled and rose to his feet, standing very straight. “I believe the simple answer would be, ‘authentically considerate, compassionate awareness of someone, or something, followed by or associated with genuine respect for that person, creature, object, etc.,” he answered in an amiable, melodic voice.

“Excellent!” Joy offered. “And I forgot, here in our SSS gatherings, we like to know each other’s name … unless, of course, the person would prefer not to give their name, and we honor that, too. But may I ask yours?”

“Surely, and I’ll be glad to answer.” His voice was almost like song, and the more Joy looked at him, the more she realized this young man was truly beautiful. ‘My name is Aura Amity Splendor, and I’ve only recently moved into Splinterbit.”

“Well, then, by all means welcome, Aura Amity, and thank you so much for joining us tonight. I’m sure that afterwards plenty of folks here will want to introduce themselves and personally welcome you into the community.”

Aura Amity held his arms out somewhat, palms upward and kindly replied, “Thank you, and I look forward to meeting so many people, but may I ask a question now that we have settled on a definition of the phrase ‘unselfish regard?’”

“Of course,” Joy answered, slightly surprised. “You still have the floor, so to speak.” They both chuckled.

“Now with this definition in place, it would seem as if we are moving into levels of altruism,” he practically sang. “There is the first part, which, despite all of the wonderful and decorative words we have used, is really at heart simple, authentic awareness. One is actually aware of the other… Now what? The second part of the definition you have offered us this evening is ‘devotion.’ Of course, this does not necessarily arise from authentic awareness – no, not even awareness dressed in compassion and respect – as devotion involves the whole self in actual subservience. So the first level is cognizance of another, perhaps in kindness and compassion and, for the moment at least, without regarding oneself … but it is still only perception, cerebral awareness. This being true – if, indeed it is, yet someone may prove me wrongheaded – but if this is true, then I would like to submit to you and this company that the first part of the definition really does not count as virtue.”

The Reverend Brighterday was quite impressed, to say the least, and thought she must have a philosophy student on her hands. Justin Case was grinning from ear to ear, somehow imagining that Joy had just been humiliated – which was not at all true, but he was thoroughly enjoying the show anyway – and he almost raised his hand in hopes of jumping in himself. Someone else beat him to the punch, though.

“The one most important word we forgot to define at the beginning of this series was, sadly, ‘virtue.’” Moxie Keener had not actually waited to be called, but rather stood up as soon as Joy looked her way. She had, at least, raised her hand. “This is something we need to amend, but for now, I’ll simply disagree with you and counter that virtue is the healthy soil out from which good, or virtuous, deeds – and, indeed, lifestyles – grow. Therefore, being compassionately aware of someone else and genuinely respecting that person is as much a part of virtue as the following good act, whatever that may be. Point in fact, cognitive awareness along with the qualities of genuine respect and compassion are fundamentally antecedent to any and all good, or virtuous action, unless that good act is performed fully by accident, without realization.” Moxie stood and waited, politely looking at Aura Amity.

“Ah! Ha, ha!” Aura laughed with raised brows and light dancing in his nearly hypnotic eyes. “So I have been proven wrongheaded after all, and my worthy tutor even used picturesque language dear to my heart, because I am, first and last it seems, a horticulturalist. Well, then, having been so amicably corrected, I will now retake my seat.”

“And now having been so profoundly humiliated by my own, dear Moxie Keener…:

“Hey!” She shouted, with practically everyone laughing, including Joy and Moxie, “I did not. Besides, you’re the one who always emphasizes the importance of defining important terms, Madame Pro–fes–sor.”

“Yes, Moxie my philosopher, yes, and so I should have known better, but I committed an unpardonable sin,” Joy said as she crossed her arms over her chest. “I … assumed.”

Voices and merriment took over the 220 or so folks in the sanctuary.

“Oh no! Say it’s not so…”

“Not you! Surely not you!”

As soon as she could be heard again, Joy managed to say, “But in this particular case, I think I only made an ass out of myself, so none of you have to start braying!” Of course, just about half the young people there, and some old ones too, started doing just that. Joy wondered if the evening had been lost for any more serious discussion. But what the hell? Might be better to just have some fun this particular evening. Very, very good to do every so often!



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