The Truth About Altruism: Part II

The congregants (or participants) at St. Gianna’s Wednesday evening SSS meeting seemed energized and especially happy. The previous Wednesday’s meeting ended with everyone milling around, getting to better know each other, talking, laughing … just having good, healthy fellowship. It was terrific, Joy thought, especially since Morris and Angelica Graver stayed, and Justin Case as well! Now, however, it was time to get back on track … or, maybe, a new track altogether.

“Here we are again, presumably to tackle altruism, but I’d like to make an amendment, if I may,” Joy began. “Although the definition from last week was fine and every part applies, for our purposes here I would like to narrow the definition…” She paused for any possible reaction from her comic relief crowd, or pastoral pundits as she sometimes called them, but nothing came. “I think we should narrow the definition down to ‘the belief in and practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of another,’ and of course by ‘another’ I include the non-human world, such as dogs and cats and the even the environment. Another is other than self. Now … let me get some feedback. Tell me what you think?”

Joy didn’t have to wait at all. Forgetting to raise her hand, an attractive, slightly gothic high-school senior popped up. “It sounds great but, ya know … I mean, why does it have to be so … you know, intellectual and all? I mean, to me this just means not being an arrogant ass-hole.” Several people laughed, Joy was rather shocked (but amused), and the girl just chortled before continuing. “You know, my God, I’ve known a lot of jerks in my life. Ya know, the stuck-up pricks that just walk right by you like you’re not even there. Or, like, the bubble-headed divas who won’t even say ‘hello’ when you speak to them.”

“But you’re talking about what altruism is not,” Moxie, who was sitting nearby and knew the girl, jumped in. “What about what it is?

“Sorry, Mox, I can’t give your kind of grand, philosophical definitions … hell, half the time I can’t even understand what you’re saying!” Moxie half smiled but let it go. “What is it? It sounds like it’s just, you know, being down to earth … ya know, kind, courteous … polite. And it’s, like, helping when you can, not just, like, saying ‘Oh God, man! I’m so sorry! That’s some real …” she caught herself, “that’s a real bummer, man.’ It’s really caring and helping when and how you can, ya know. To me, that’s altruism plain and simple, but Moxie could probably put all of that into some huge, monstrous definition for the intellectuals here but, anyway, that’s my simpleton definition.”

“And my dear Dracula maiden,” Moxie looked her square in the eye, “you need to, like, ya know, sit down now, cause the Mox is about to box and, like, that would really be a bummer, ya know.”

“O.k. O.k. That’s enough!” Joy jumped in immediately. “I don’t know why you two do this. You’ve practically lived side by side and known each other for years, and like each other whether you want to admit it or not.” The girl sat down and Moxie turned around without saying another word. Joy was right, of course; they did like each other but sometimes… sometimes!

“Anyway … yes, that’s an excellent way of looking at altruism. Yes, it’s a very down-to-earth way of understanding altruism with, of course, some nicely provided illustrations of what it is not.” Joy had wondered for about two years now why Aggie – Aggie Tate was her name – always downplayed herself. She made good grades; she was smart; she had a lot of abilities… “Anyone else? Yes, Aura.”

“Really, then, altruism is both a state of being as well as the actions that proceed from that state of being,” he offered. “Ah, but I see I may be corrected again.” Aura Amity smiled broadly as he noticed Moxie’s hand held high. “Shall I learn another valuable lesson now?”

“No, not really,” Moxie smiled back at Aura. “Actually, you’ve hit on an important point. I believe you are right, but I would expand and just slightly modify what you’ve said to include virtue itself, which I’d like to define now, if I may take a shot at it?” She looked and smiled at Joy, who shook her head.

“Where, oh where would I be without my Moxie?” she moaned while most everyone else freely expressed their amusement. “Woe is me! I forgot again! What will become of me? Yes, Moxie! By all means, define our principle term…! Or better yet, come take the podium!”

“Oh no! Not me, Mother Joy! You keep the clerical collar, podium, pulpit and everything else ecclesiastical, ‘cause this girl’s sure not ready for any sacred vows!” Everyone, including Joy laughed, except Able. “Oops! I mean, there may very well be one exception.” She looked at her fiancée and smiled. “At any rate, back to virtue and virtues. I think the distinction between state of being and action made by Aura is important, but I would define Virtue – in the singular, with a capital ‘V’ – as the soil, if we might use last week’s analogy, from which the virtues – plural, lower case – grow. To elaborate just a bit, Virtue is, one might say, the Soil of the Soul, the Disposition of the Spirit, the Heart … the Whole Character-Inclination of the Whole Self. This is Virtue as a state of being. Out from this good works, or deeds – the virtues – spring forth, or grow.”

“So modesty and altruism are virtues that grow up from the rich, healthy soil of Virtue, capital ‘V,’ much like the wonderful vegetables I grow in my garden?” Aura offered and Moxie nodded. “Very good, very good. I understand … so, if one does not possess the good, rich and healthy soil, one will not produce the good, hearty and healthy vegetables. This is akin to what Jesus said about the tree bearing fruit; that is, one will know the tree – the person – by the fruit – the good works, or virtues, being produced.”

“Bingo!” Joy called out. “You hit the nail on the head, Aura, and thank you Ms. Moxie for your very clear and erudite definition and explanation.” Both Aura and Moxie smiled and said “thank you,” then sat back down.

Now for the first time, Justin Case held his hand aloft … and with rather a serious, even somewhat sad, look on his face.

“Yes, Justin, please stand.” Joy Brighterday was happy he felt comfortable enough to participate.

“If Virtue is the Soil of the Soul, as Moxie has put it, and it must be good and healthy, rich and fertile, as Aura noted … What of the person whose soil is mere dirt, deficient of minerals and nutrients, or … maybe just sand? Is that man precluded from any and all virtuous actions? And if so, what is his fate, then? Is it possible for him to … well, I suppose, somehow change the Soil of his Soul, the Disposition of his Spirit?”

“Ah … Now I am going to be strictly pastor, and perhaps even theologian,” Joy replied. “First, Justin, very good question. Thank you so much for asking, too, because it’s an important question that was bound to come up or, at any rate, it needed to be asked. Secondly, as I know you know, analogies only go so far, although this analogy is an excellent one. Thank you again to Moxie, and also Aura for both his horticultural and scriptural contributions.” She nodded to both of them. “But now I’m going to turn this analogy on its head and say, thirdly, the Soil of the Soul can most certainly be changed. In fact, the Soil can be transformed by the plants, so to speak … the fruits and vegetables themselves.”

“What I am saying is simply this: You work good works – exercise the virtues day to day – no matter the Disposition of your Spirit, and your Disposition – the All-Encompassing Character of your Self – will change over time to accord with your … produce, so to speak. Of course, you also know that if you do something long enough, it becomes habit. I’m taking this one step further. You see, I honestly cannot believe that someone without good, rich, fertile Soil – say, a philanthropist – can practice philanthropy year after year after year without cultivating within her Self some degree of genuine altruism … and, perhaps of course, other virtues as well. Now I know some of you want to protest the likelihood of someone being a philanthropist if s/he has no sense of altruism whatsoever, and that’s a valid objection.

However, I’m asking you to trust me on this one; I’m submitting to you that, in fact, there have been and are individuals who can rightly claim to be philanthropic yet possess not even a kernel of altruism in their hearts. Why are they philanthropic? Probably for many reasons, often having to do with tax write-offs and/or their public image … and it is also, I believe, an unseen spark of divine goodness with an attendant heavenly whisper-call to be something, someone better. So, I am saying I believe it is extremely unlikely that they can practice philanthropy for years upon years without the Soil of their Soul being transformed, at least to some degree, for the good, if only for two reasons: 1) the foundation of all goodness is God and 2) ultimately all good actions are, knowingly or not, directed toward the God who made them possible in the first place. Of course, I may very well be wrong; but in spite of this possibility, if one intentionally begins working good works, practicing good deeds, living out the virtues, then it’s almost inevitable. The Soil of the Soul will change. The Disposition of the Spirit, the Heart will eventually be Virtue.”

“There is only one thing lacking in this process,” Joy continued, scanning her listeners, then returning her attention to Justin. “No one is able to do this … on his or her own. Period. Before anyone gets discouraged, though, there is the Helping One, who is able and willing to help – or, really, to ultimately initiate, guide and make transformation possible – with our necessary cooperation. And what is our cooperation? It is prayer and work… Work and prayer; prayer and work; together, hand in hand. You see, in order to change the Disposition of our Spirit, we need the Spirit … that is, the Spirit of God; therefore, we pray and we ask the Spirit of the Everlasting One to initiate this vital transformation, then to guide us in our transformational work, and finally to bring it to completion… Does this all make any sense?”

“Yes … yes, it does.” Justin answered soberly. “Thank you,” he said as he sat down with the same serious, concerned look on his face. Evidently, he hadn’t counted on struggling through this short series on four random virtues, but only half way into it Justin was having to look at himself and really take stock.

“You’re welcome,” Joy replied. “Anyone else?”

*

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