Communicating Value: The Altruism of Writing

gift-of-the-magi-final-higher-contrast-darker-hair      There are a number of reasons to write—profit, and communication of ideas or values being two of the biggest motivations for making public that dirty habit we just can’t quite seem to give up. For most writers, it’s true that whether anyone ever reads what we write, whether we ever send anything to a publisher or format copy for our own purposes, we will continue to practice our craft. One of the motivations for writing that receives far less scrutiny, due to the profit-driven nature of the publishing market, is the urge to give, to share, without a consideration that we, the creators, might seek remuneration.

But, royalties notwithstanding, consider what you know about the best writing, the most memorable stories. What is it about an emotional connection between the writer and the reader that renders the work somehow better? As Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” How does this impulse to share, beyond ideas about making a living, render our work better? In what way can the written word function as a conduit for emotional connection, the communication—not just of values, but at a foundational level—of Value?


The Human Bell Curve and Socialized Compassion

 Hark back to statistics class, if you can. Remember all that talk about standard deviations, bell curves, and outliers? It’ll come in handy here. When we think about human behavior, it’s better to simplify and generalize. Yes, there will be outliers—groups or individuals that may not conform to the general trend—but they’re outliers or exceptions precisely because their appearance is rare. Most people now, in the past, and likely in the future, as well, tend to lump together in the middle between two extremes of complete self-interest at all costs and total altruism. A few will skew to one end or the other, but for the most part, we are a species with a capacity for self-interest or compassionate giving which is largely dependent on the context in which we exist.

That’s the Human Behavioral Ecology (HBE) perspective on human nature, simplified. The Question of innate selfish or unselfish behavior is made into one about how our environment influences us—and most of us possess the capacity to swing either way. But how does this relatively recent invention of writing play into that variability? When we write, for whatever reason, we are forming a connection via an accepted means of communication. You’ve probably also seen the sentiment that a favorite book is like an old friend, and may even feel this way about your private library. The point is, the act of writing and the related activity of reading are two halves of a process of connection between human beings.

The reasons this connection is vital are becoming more apparent as psychologists examine the physical and psychological impacts of social isolation on human beings. Loneliness, it seems, can actually kill. In this age of proliferating virtual interactions, what we’re often missing is the substance of satisfying social interaction—real friendship, in which ideas and values are expressed or discussed, activities shared, and small but meaningful acts of compassion exchanged. This sense of isolation can have effects of raising blood pressure, the body’s production of stress hormones, insomnia and other very physical side effects that impact the quality of life.

What it also does to us is rob us of social intelligence over time. We lose our ability to experience empathy. When we do not practice meaningful connections, we experience a loss of what makes us emotionally human—and eventually find creating those connections almost impossible. This is what it means to be socialized, and Human Sociality is built on our need to express as well as to receive the expressions of others. This is where we see the incalculable value of the writing-reading exchange. It transcends considerations of an economical nature and reaches the core of our human need to feel, to think, and to connect with others of our species.  Here’s a nice article that offers more in-depth explanation:


O. Henry and the Value of Softness

In 1906, an American author writing under the name of O. Henry published one of the most-repeated holiday stories about love, the act of giving, and the true gifts of the human spirit. Quite beyond considerations of cultural traditions, holidays, or religiosity, the story centers on the meaning of love between human beings, sacrifice, and how the act of giving fuels some vital portion of our consciousness. Project Gutenberg offers it for free, here:

The use of pathos, appeals to ethos or logos, that we see in stories and texts exists for good reason. It keeps us in touch with our value systems—emotional, ethical, intellectual or social. This is one reason why simple stories, teaching tales, cultural myths, and even children’s stories that have survived the test of time continue to have an impact on us as individuals and as cultures. They aren’t just tools of indoctrination, they are mechanisms by which we reinforce social values that keep us alive on various levels. Real, substantial connection—whether it be with other people directly or through the judicious reading of texts that keep these emotional and intellectual pathways open—helps to keep us in a receptive state. It keeps our souls soft.


The Importance of Fiction to Human Emotional States

While the dissemination of information and rhetorical stance are definitely two very important reasons to both write and read, there are other, more elusive human reasons for this cycle of communication. Allow me to set this next part in context of a personal nature. During my undergraduate studies in history and anthropology, I read a lot of very dry or disheartening articles and books. All of these were written as factually based, scholarly prose. But reading about how Colonialism destroyed indigenous populations, dislocated cultural traditions and continues to impact economies and the evolution of cultural expression in formerly colonized regions in both subtle and overt ways doesn’t make for a happy outlook on life. As well, I spent an entire semester reading about the gross actions and the horrifyingly skewed social politics, military actions, and delusional cultural manifestations of the Third Reich in 20th century Europe. This was coupled with a historiographic examination of the evolution of European anti-Semitism.

You might imagine that my psychological and emotional state of being suffered for this. It did. What I chose to do to salve my hurting soul and take a large step away from my assigned reading was to dive into a fantasy world. I read fluff, and enjoyed every word. I read the Kushiel Series by Jacqueline Carey—erotica blended with historical fiction and spy-thriller intrigue—and Juliet Marillier’s novel adaptations of The Wild Swans fairy tale. I read Heinlein and Sagan and Bradbury. While none of these may be your cup of tea, I think they illustrate the need for imagination, for emotionally recreational reading in the midst of dry or distressing scholarly reading. I think the important thing is to find what works for you and keep it handy for when the world seems especially bleak.

I’m reminded of Carl Sagan’s quote about the importance of imagination in the human quest to explore and develop through the hard sciences, that it “will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

Fiction, or the pure pursuit of story, does something for us as a species. To be engaged and entertained is to be receptive—which is why so many teaching stories in pre-literate human cultures are framed as “fiction.” This brings us back to the importance of the communication of Value, though from an oblique angle. The human capacity for imagination must be kept active, just as our ability to identify with others of our species, our culture, our community must remain soft.

I might very well have still finished a double undergraduate degree with high honors without the comfort-brain-food of science fiction, fairy tales, and erotic-spy-thriller-history-human-agency-stories. But I would have been brittle-brained. I probably would not have adapted so well to moving across the country for graduate school three months later, to a place where I knew no one and had no ties. Fiction enabled me to keep the roots of my spirit in good health while my brain was a constant reel of human atrocities and all the ways we’ve discovered to be horrible to each other. I think, also, that when life hands us a raw deal in terms of interpersonal interaction, fiction can soften the beating.


It may sound corny, but hope that people are better than the news or history would have us believe keeps us looking for the good things in our fellow human beings. It’s that hope that there are still things worth working for, allowances that can be made for others, understanding to be gained, that the best stories offer us. Fluff, as I call it, serves an incredibly vital role in the maintenance of empathy, too. Writing those stories is a form of altruism, whether the author makes a living from their pen or not, because they are offering readers the chance to believe in the value of other human beings, the chance to be good to others and keep working towards a better world. So, whatever you feel you want to write, do it. Don’t let the thought that no one will “need” it or it’s not an important contribution to any field stop you—


human choice, and consequently human history, has been swayed by single lines of poetry, by silly stories or fairy tales, as much as it ever was by great and sweeping sagas or in-depth scholarly inquiries in any field.


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