Eric Gibson, the editor of the Leisure & Arts page of The Wall Street Journal, once wrote that “Anonymity is the truest expression of altruism.” I do agree with this statement but, from my point of view, altruism is much more than that. It is to help a stranger in need even at the expense of your own well-being. A true act of greatness! Altruism, unfortunately, can neither be learnt nor taught, but rather stems directly from the individual’s heart.
To make it even simpler, altruism is a behavior that opposes egoism, and is generally understood to be an act that benefits others at a personal cost. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines altruism as “feelings and behavior that show a desire to help other people and a lack of selfishness.” Coined in the late eighteen hundreds by French sociologist Auguste Comte, the term refers to those social acts that are “an expression of an unselfish desire to live for others” (Comte, as cited in Batson and Shaw, 1991).
I just read on the digital edition of the Scotsman a story that epitomizes altruism in the animal world. A dolphin – nicknamed Moko by local residents, who said it spent much of its time swimming playfully with beachgoers – helped two pygmy sperm whales swim to safety. In an act of selflessness which has astounded experts and confirmed the friendly nature of the species, Moko came to the rescue of the two whales that were facing imminent death after becoming stranded on a sandbar on a beach in New Zealand.
Until Moko’s arrival, rescuers feared the mother and calf would have to be put down to prevent them suffering a prolonged death. However, just as it seemed all hope was lost, Moko appeared. The dolphin approached the whales, leading them 200m along the beach before navigating them out to the open sea. Mr. Smith, one of the rescuers, believes the dolphin heard the whales’ distress calls and came to their aid. He said: “It was looking like it was going to be a bad outcome for the whales … then Moko came along and fixed it,”.
Later, he added: “They had arched their backs and were calling to one another, but as soon as the dolphin turned up, they submerged and followed her”. Wonderful and amazing, isn’t it? But altruism is a behavior present also in our own species and, luckily, it is worldwide spread. Let me tell you a story that I read at the Huffington Post and involves Reddit, a social media website. A 23-year-old man with terminal cancer called Jake Villanueva invited Reddit users to ask him anything about how he was dealing with knowing that he had less than a year to live. When one user asked Jake what had made him happy, he replied that he’d enjoyed being on holiday with his family. Shortly after, people from all around the world began to offer to let Jake stay at their house, just so he could experience the world in his final months. This included users from Scotland, Switzerland, Canada and Australia.
One user, named ElementK, tried to make the trip a reality by offering Jake his 25,000 flight miles. Suddenly this world trip idea crossed over from the realm of harmless discussion and became a possible reality. The call to send Jake on holiday grew in momentum and a fund was set up by user z3phyr13 and the donations began to pour in. All of this was, in fact, taking place whilst Jake was asleep, meaning he was entirely unaware of the generosity that was taking place in his name. In an interview following the event, Jake reflected, “so when I woke up, there was $9,000 in an account”. $9,000 was chicken feed in comparison to the sum Reddit users eventually amassed – $30,000, and all within just 24 hours. People from all around the world shared their money with Jake, just as he’d shared his story and feelings with them. Jake unavoidably passed away from his cancer but not before he got the chance to travel and, more importantly, got to feel loved and supported by a global community. Pretty cool, huh?
Last, but not least, the story of Lorena Rodriguez. I found this amazing story in the website of a health provider called SHARP. They report the story of Ms. Rodriguez, who, to me, personifies what altruism really means. Lorena was no stranger to the challenges that kidney failure patients endure, because she works at a medical office in San Diego that focuses on caring for people with kidney disease. Through her work she had witnessed the bravery of patients facing grueling dialysis treatments and the desperation of waiting on the transplant list. That experience prompted Rodriguez to call the Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Center at Sharp Memorial Hospital and offer to be an altruistic kidney donor. Her donation started a chain that provided much needed kidney transplants to three people, including a patient across the country in New York.
As altruistic as it gets! Some people still ague that true altruism does not really exist. For instance, psychologists have long assumed that the motivation for all intentional action, including all action intended to benefit others, is egoistic. Individuals benefit others because, ultimately, to do so benefits themselves. Nevertheless, and from my point of view, these three examples prove this idea wrong. True altruism, the act of someone who does not hesitate to face difficulty in order to help others, does exist. Altruistic individuals act without thinking; they simply have kind hearts and generous spirits full of empathy. Altruism is indeed very important. Our world needs it more than ever!
Batson, C. D. & Shaw, L. L. (1991). Evidence for altruism: toward a pluralism of prosocial motives. Psychological Inquire, Vol. 2, No. 2, 107-122. Coe, J. (2013, May 28). Altruism online: five uplifting stories from Reddit. The Huffington Post. Retrieved September 11, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/james-coe/reddit-5-uplifting-stories_b_3343346.html Merriam-Webster (2014). Retrieved September 12, 2014, from http://www.merriam-webster/ Sharp. (2014). Lorena’s Altruistic Kidney Donation Story. Retrieved September 12, 2014, from http://www.sharp.com/transplant/lorena-altruistic-kidney-donation-story.cfm The quotations page. (2014). Retrieved September 11, 2014, from http://www.quotationspage.com/ The Scotsman. (2008). Dolphin answers whales’ SOS call. Retrieved September 12, 2014, from http://www.scotsman.com/news/world/dolphin-answers-whales-sos-call-1-1159638