There is an old Charlie Brown cartoon that goes something like this: “We are put on this earth to help others…. Okay, but what are the others here for?” Part of what makes this funny, as with most jokes, is that it contains a little piece of odd truth.
What the joke touches on is the circularity in the idea of altruism, of living life in the service of others. Because if we’re only here to help them, and they’re only here to help us, then what is the point of all of us together? Don’t those two purposes seem to cancel each other out? Saying I’m here to help you implies that I must be here to help you do something – but if that something you are doing is that you are helping me, then aren’t I actually just helping myself?
What’s up with altruism?
Somehow the idea behind that joke ends up making altruism seem almost hypocritical – am I helping you only because it’s going to help me, ultimately? In which case, I’m not really doing it for you at all, am I?
Looking at the world today, altruism might seem to be in decline, anyway. Thanks to the internet, all the world’s disasters are right in our face, and this information overload can make us feel that nothing we do will ever make a dent in the global misery, so we stop caring.
Instead, we focus on our own immediate wants and needs. Me, me, me is the order of the day – or at least the theme of social media. It’s all about what I want – how to get more money, more respect, more attention. But more love is probably what we’re hoping for, deep down.
Was it always like this? Were people more selfless and community-minded, in the past? It’s hard to answer that. Certainly, particular aspects of modern life seem to encourage self-obsession. But perhaps it’s just how you use these things. Social media can clearly be used as a tool for self-promotion – for some, it’s all about how many followers you have, how many people know your name. But it can also be a tool for connectedness, for sharing. On one of the final pages of the book Legacy of Love, we find these words, quoted from Rumi:
The current of love from the one God is flowing through the entire universe. What do you think when you look at the face of a man? Look at him carefully. He is not a man but a current of love, the essence of God which permeates him.
Perhaps, after all, the circularity of us each being here to help others does make sense – if we recognize that at the centre of that circle is love. If I help you and you help me, not only is it love that motivates us to help, but the thing that we are helping each other to do is also, in fact, to love. What is more, when we really immerse ourselves in love, then there is no more you, and no more me. The circle is not a fragmented collection of many individuals but a solid circle made of soul. We are all one.
By helping each other, we can learn to understand the truth that we are all connected, that we are all one. That what I do for you, I do for me. That you are me, in a sense, because we are all part of the same circle of love. The Dalai Lama has said that if you want to make others happy, the answer is compassion, whereas on the other hand if you want to make yourself happy, then the answer is … compassion. In other words, it’s in serving others that we best serve ourselves and find true happiness.
We all know how the experience of helping other people, without thinking of our own gain, can make us feel better about ourselves. It makes us feel happy, in fact. But do we understand why that is? We can easily assume it’s just because we feel pleased with ourselves for doing something good. But perhaps it’s something much bigger and better than that.
By serving others we actually come to know ourselves better. Doing something for someone else gives us an immediate and intuitive understanding of how we and that other person are joined: that we are part of each other, in both being part of something bigger, which is the divine. Serving others is perhaps the most reliable of paths to truly seeing ourselves in others, identifying ourselves with them and thereby all of us with God.
So let’s all help ourselves by helping each other. Whether that is through seva, or through fulfilling our responsibilities to others at home and at work, or through random acts of kindness. By doing so, we bring ourselves closer to God.
At some ideas you stand perplexed, especially at the sight of men’s sins, asking yourself whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide: “I will combat it by humble love.” If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you may be able to conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force, the strongest of all, and there is nothing like it…. Brothers, love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is acquired with difficulty, it is dearly bought, one must spend a great deal of labour and time on it, for we must love not only for a moment and fortuitously, but for ever.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov