I keep coming back to this concept of altruism. The word beats on the door of me, and refuses to leave me in peace. In fact, recently, I spoke of the way in which my perception of its existence has shifted over time. Years ago, I saw human beings as a herd of selfish, shoving animals who were only in the game for their own enrichment. By and large, I still see those qualities in people. But they are not exclusive. Selflessness is as much a part of us as selfishness. These qualities balance us, and if Nash is to be given credit for multi-player Game Theory, each of us possesses the potential to display both.
Noblesse Oblige and Amour Propre
A friend of mine told me before I began my donation initiative for Ahimsa House that what I proposed to do was noble. First, I don’t believe that. Second, if I could afford to, I would give 100 percent of my book royalties to Ahimsa House, instead of simply half. It’s not as if I’m making a great deal from sales, in any case, so I just might, if I can draw a bit extra from other sources of income. That’s neither here nor there. My response to my friend was,
I have shelter, some income, enough food to eat. In my estimation, this makes me obligated to help those who lack these basic assurances. Because those who have enough should look to those who do not. It isn’t rocket science, nor do I feel it’s particularly extraordinary behavior. I’m not out saving starving children, foiling poachers, finding a solution to the rather dramatic problem of climate change. My book of dog essays isn’t the Great American Novel, and it won’t sell a million copies, as much as I might love that. All I’m doing is trying to help a group of Helpers. I’m just using the tools I have, a sort of in-trade bargain, because I lack sufficient funds to do so directly.
Defining the two terms at the head of this section, I find myself laughing a bit. Noblesse Oblige is a concept dictating that those who are more fortunate or wealthier should show kindness and charity to those who are not. I’m certainly not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, unless you want to apply absolute values to my student debt. But amour propre speaks to something I know I do have. It’s the sense of self, your personal code of ethics, your you-ness. This, I have. I may have no clue as to where I’m going, but I know who I am. I also accept that this body of knowing will change and grow as I experience the world.
At 34, I still feel so very new. I know myself to be naive in some ways, but I’d like to think those are good ways. It’s my hope that I’ll still be idealistic and fresh at 80, should I live that long. That said, I hardly think of myself as noble or particularly sweet, mostly because I have to hear my least charitable thoughts, even if you don’t. I’m human, and possess both the light and shadow of the species.
No Good Deed
Now, if you were to ask my 23-year-old self to complete that phrase, she’d likely give a caustic chuckle and say, “goes unpunished.” Here’s the thing–I’ve learned a great deal about us since that time. True, I’ve seen people behave in greedy, craven self-indulgent ways. But I’ve also come to understand that when they say that a good turn is its own reward, you can take that to the bank. We are wired to get a jolt of happy juice whenever we’re nice to each other. If you’re in a bad mood, do something nice for a random stranger. You’ll immediately feel better, because your brain has just rewarded this behavior with a dose of dopamine and norepinephrine.
When I set out to do this thing, I wasn’t really thinking of that. Rather, I was operating on the principal that the more good done in the world, the better off we’d be, overall. All 7+ billion. No, you can’t really chart it or track the impact statistically. However, think about it for a moment. I’ve read studies that show rudeness and cruelty are contagious–these behaviors, once observed, spread to the observers. They are passed on, like a cold or the clap. Talk about a social disease.
Do the Wave
So, what if we all started doing nice things, small kindnesses? Holding doors, saying ‘please and thank you,’ looking people in the eye and acknowledging their existence. The wonderful thing about that is, while it runs along the same lines as a Pay It Forward behavior, it’s not big. These are behaviors that can become habits, and we’ll all feel really nice about it, too.
Who knows where it could lead? People being nice to each other, doing kind things, showing gratitude, smiling…the horror. It might spread. It might jolt us out of that mental fog we’re walking around in, so that we start paying attention to what our public servants are (or aren’t) doing. We might see ways in which we can better spend our money and time. We might do our particular jobs with a better will, secure a promotion…just take that and run with it.
The Donation Initiative Update
So, this week, there hasn’t been a great deal of activity on the sales front. Two nice people purchased a copy of No One Has Such a Dog, and No One Should, and I was pleased that they let me know about it. Thank you, because I love knowing that. As of today, the donation total is very nearly $25. A couple of people were kind enough to share my news with their social networks, which is also a big help, and I would like to offer my thanks for that, as well.
Below, I’m going to include some links to both Ahimsa House and my book page on Amazon. While I would love it if you would purchase my book and join ranks with me, it would also be wonderful if you’d visit them and read about what they do. Perhaps, if you’re local, you can donate a bit of time to transport or foster a pet in need. If not, they’re always very appreciative of direct or in-kind donations (food, leashes, litter boxes etc.)
I think what’s most important about this is understanding how domestic violence and animal abuse are linked, and not turning away from it in your own community. This isn’t me being noble or playing to a crowd. I see myself in every coldness, every unkind action, every rude behavior. Not necessarily because I would do such things, but because I feel the interconnectedness of us all at odd moments. It makes me feel responsible, even if I am not. It makes me itch with the need to shine a million watts of light into all the dark cultural corners our disdain fosters.