Is there any such thing as a truly selfless act?
Whether or not altruism is an illusion is a much debated topic and all I can do is look to my own experience for a guide.
Nanny McPhee & The Nipple Burning Incident of 2003
My first volunteering stint was part of my Duke of Edinburgh award when I was fourteen years old. For six months, twice per week after school, I’d walk along to a local after-school kids club to spend a few hours playing with a gang of five year olds. We did jigsaws, hand painting and built castles out of lego, which as a teenager who never wanted to grow up was my idea of fun then anyway (and still is).
A few years later I started offering up my Saturday afternoon to Oxfam, working alongside Mavis and Dot selling second hand wares to cunning consumers on Allerton Road.
Oxfam seemed to be doing good in the world and despite probably overpaying their staff in the upper echelons, they needed free staff to do the hard graft on the ground. They sold fair trade chocolate and unloved garments to people who may not be able to afford them brand new, plus they stopped mounds of unwanted stuff from going to landfill – or at least that’s what I thought then.
So I helped out every Saturday, taking deliveries, preparing clothes for sale, sending others to the collection pile to be shipped to somewhere in Africa and chatting to Mavis and Dot. Oxfam is where I learnt to balance the books and found out that you can’t steam clothes while wearing them unless you want third degree burns on your nipples.
Just Cook Will Ye
The next organised volunteering I can think of has been much more recent; over last couple of years I’ve occasionally been giving up my Wednesday evenings to cook and host at Foodcycle Liverpool. It’s a volunteer led organisation that takes donated foods from local supermarkets and restaurants to whip up a vegetarian storm for those who need it.
Not all of the dinner guests are homeless, some may be living on the breadline without any bread in their cupboards while others may just need a bit of a helping hand. Then there are a few people who are just terribly lonely and fed up of dining solo.
It’s a whole mix of ages and mostly made up of regulars who’ve now made friends which is nice to see. A few of the guests you’d walk past in the street and not bat an eyelid as their hair is clean and their clothes are fresh, but others you can tell are living in real poverty; they’re covered in scabs and skin rashes, and clad in tattered cloth that’s never seen a washing machine.
The best thing about volunteering here is getting to talk to everybody when you’re hosting, or more importantly to listen. It’s what makes it one of the most humbling things I’ve ever done.
Batman & The Saggy Trousered Philanthropist
Over the years I’ve mostly been pottering about the planet and busy working for money, not for free, so it’s been difficult to get involved with regular charity work, but I have dabbled whenever I could.
I’ve abseiled down the Cunard building dressed as Batman, jogged 5k in a completely deflated (and see-through) sumo suit, skipped through Pretty Muddy, laughed my way through Tough Mudder and cycled 100km overnight. I march around Liverpool city centre at Christmas with whatever spare food I can get my hands on and I always empty my pockets whenever I can.
The Theory behind Altruism
According to Darwin and many other scientists and researchers, there are different reasons for our moral behaviours towards others that are wired deeply into our genetics.
First, there’s the protection of kinship. In basic terms, evolutionary we’ve wanted to help out our relatives so that they will survive and, in turn, we will too. Second, there is reciprocation; the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in anticipation of payback. And, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness.
Others add that we experience a neurochemical high, a dopamine hit, when we do something charitable. Although we may not even realise it, a positive feeling flows through our veins and it makes us want to do it again. They also add in the factor of personal pride in that we’re creating our own positive self-identity. And lastly, a slightly more sinister stance is that we help others to affirm our own sense of power and control.
Acts of Kindness
I can hands down say that not one of my “acts of kindness” were truly selfless; it wasn’t all out of the goodness of my heart.
I knew that volunteering at Oxfam looked good on my CV when I was searching for employment after university. Plus I was heavily into “vintage” at the time and I knew I’d get first pick of the dead peoples’ deliveries.
For all of the sponsored activities, I was more excited about the exercise challenge and the fancy dress – the philanthropic donation was just a bonus. And as much as I attended Foodcycle out of genuinely wanting to do something good for others, I guess it gave me those dopamine hits I mentioned earlier.
Same goes for my volunteering here. I’m helping out at the meditation centre, which helps Kadampa Buddhists host their retreats to make money for the upkeep of their temples and accomodation… but nobody would die if I wasn’t here. And as for me, although my first shift was pretty hard work, I am on a Spanish paradise island, with free meditations, tasty vegetarian meals and plenty of time to explore.
It is a love based on giving and receiving as well as having and sharing. And the love that they give and have is shared and received. And through this having and giving and sharing and receiving, we too can share and love and have… and receive.
~ Joey Tribbiani