Sunday, July 26, 2009

Excessive Altruism

In my novel Shelter, I wrote somewhat satirically -- but only somewhat -- about a near future in which self-sacrifice has been pathologized, resulting in a psychiatric diagnosis known as "excessive altruism." The excessively altruistic, derisively nicknamed "the exalted," are people whose desire to help others outweighs their regard for their own safety, who provide help in ways that somehow seem, to outside observers, to hurt the helpers. In the world of the novel, this is considered a form of self-harm.

I came up with the idea after various conversations with people who seemed to view altruism as deeply suspect, surely only a cover for some mental ailment. Witness, for instance, the long-time friend who informed me sternly that I had a "neurotic need to be a good person." Witness the title of this bog and its derivation (explained in the sidebar).

One of the reasons I love the church is that no one there views trying to be a good person as a form of mental illness. Strangely enough, church folk seem to consider altriusm a good thing, and in fact try to cultivate it in themselves and encourage it in others. (But hey, everybody knows we're crazy.)

Still, most of us feel some need for limits. One can't be self-giving if there's no self left to give. Hence the emphasis, especially for clergy, on boundaries and self-care. And a few weeks ago, when I wrote about my sudden interest in being a living organ donor, I was suspicious of my own motivations, even though, by coincidence -- or not -- I learned shortly thereafter about an acquaintance who might one day need an organ.

A few days ago, the July 27 issue of The New Yorker arrived in our mailbox. Coincidentally -- or not -- it contains an article by Larissa MacFarquhar about people who donate their kidneys to strangers. The article talks at some length about how suspiciously these folks are viewed, both in the medical community and outside it. While acknowledging the many ethical and emotional dilemmas posed by the situation, MacFarquhar also discusses broader cultural unease with altruism:
Most people find it uncomplicatedly admirable when a person risks his life to save a stranger from fire, or from drowning. What, then, is it about saving a stranger by giving a kidney, a far lesser risk, that people find so odd? Do they feel there is something aggressive about the act, as though the donor were implicitly rebuking them for not doing it, too? (There is no rebuke in saving a stranger from drowning -- you weren't there, you couldn't have done it. And you can always imagine that you would have if you had been.) Or perhaps it's that organ donation, unlike rescue, is conceived in cold blood, and cold-blooded altruism seems nearly as sinister as cold-blooded malevolence. Perhaps only the hot-blooded, unthinking sort can now escape altruism's tainted reputation, captured in the suspicious terms for what people are really engaging in when they think they're helping (sublimation, colonialism, group selection, potlatch, socialism, co-dependency -- the list goes on).
In April 2004, The New Yorker ran another article about a man named Zell Kravinksy who donated a kidney to a stranger, to the rage and horror of his friends and family. I'd already come up with the idea of excessive altruism by then, but I did use the Kravinsky article in a homily. I recommend it, and the MacFarquar aticle, to all of you. (If you don't subscribe to The New Yorker, your friendly local library probably does.)

I'd love to hear people's thoughts about all of this. We're naturally suspicious of altruism that seems self-serving, but we also seem to be suspicious of altruism that's not self-serving, at least as we define the term. What's a poor altruist to do?


  1. What a fascinating topic! And one that is not as simple as it might seem. Altruism *can* be a way of healing a wounded place in one's heart owing to earlier losses or tragedies, and this is where non-nuanced demands for altruism can conflict with healthy self-care and create an unhealthy self-identity in which one only feels OK if one is "good" or "seen as good." What can be unhealthy about this is that it can prevent us from accepting ourselves in the wholeness of who we are. This potentially unhealthy sort of focus on giving is actually not at all uncommon among religious folk and folk who work in the helping fields; even though it may look and feel like genuine, non-self-serving giving, there is enough of a piece of trying to heal ourselves that being present to others is impaired. I'd say that all of us fall into that sort of trap at times; getting to know ourselves well enough to understand the spots that lead us there is one goal of CPE. Where it gets complicated is that the same act by two different people can be healthy or unhealthy, depending. For some folks, spiritual advancement comes most prominently in giving to others, in self-sacrifice, because that is what gives them the challenge to think about others, to understand what they themselves want vs. need, etc. For some other folks, for at least a period of the journey, advancement may come through drawing boundaries, learning to say no, valuing self as much as one values the other. All of that said, I think that you are right in suspecting that we live in a rather non-generous world, a world in which standing up for Number 1 is a cultural value. I think it slides into greed, corporate as well as individual, and one can see that in a variety of places: the response to Katrina, the economic collapse and the factors that led to it, and the brokenness of health care being three obvious ones. Great topic!

  2. Thanks, Terri! I wonder if one can maintain proper boundaries while still healing both Self and Other; it seems to me that the most powerful interactions are mutually healing, often in ways that neither party could have anticipated. What do you think? And I also think, with Henri Nouwen, that Wounded Healers have unique skills and credibility (but maybe they need to have been healed first?).

  3. Well, Beloved, I don't think it's mutually exclusive to be altruistic to serve others and also to enjoy some secondary gain, taking pleasure in the appreciation and/or attention that it presents. Idries Shah presents the possibility of a spiritual style that is sufficiently detached in action as to appear arrogant, and still serve; but it would be the rare practitioner.

    No, I don't think that anyone's altruism is pure; but I don't think that devalues the service offered. And if it is apparently self serving - well, there is the story of the man in the mask.


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