Altruism: The Hard Truth About Helping


I have some advanced version of a nasty cold: bronchitis at best (pneumonia at worst) so I have been in bed mostly. Thinking.

Have you all read this post from Justine? Newtown and the holidays have made me think a lot about work that can be done to help others. I’ve been attached to various causes my whole life (helping animals when I was young: I worked at the local Humane Society as a pre-teen) and I’ve helped with various charities over the years, sitting on the board of one for a while, and working full-time for a non-profit. I’ve worked on political campaigns and for politicians as an intern for a political consultant throughout college. He worked mostly for the underdog. (And frequently lost.)

A lot of my pursuits were fruitless. Maybe (MAYBE) a few more animals were adopted because of my efforts. (Mostly to my own family! We had a zoo growing up basically.)

When the kids were born, I didn’t have much time to devote to altruism anymore: we gave money as a family where we could on a pretty limited budget. The community we live in is heavy on volunteering for things that are in my mind, not essential. They are mostly raising money and volunteering to promote even more services for children that are already pretty privileged. That’s how I feel, but the truth is I don’t have the time to volunteer for these causes even if I wanted to. My husband works crazy hours, so I hold down this fort alone without help. Faces of ALI has done some educational work, it seems, so there’s that.

There are other ways to do good. You can live a life true to your beliefs as a vegan or vegetarian. (Something I’ve tried but it turns out I can’t be a vegetarian for various health reasons that would bore you but mostly have to do with extreme anemia and an intolerance for a lot of vegetables and iron medication.) You can live a life as a self-sustaining homesteader, like Soulemama. (If you go over there, I warn you: you might be there for hours. She’s a fantastic blogger/photographer.)

I live a life of trying to “do the best I can.” I compost, I recycle, I grow some of my own food. I really limit the amount of landfill we produce. I buy local and organic when I can. I try to smile and say hi to people. I tip heavily. I try to foster community here at this site. I try to comment on blogs of others when they are struggling and when they are rejoicing. I stand up to bullies when I need to. I try to raise my kids to be kind, responsible children who question things that are unfair.

Then something like Newtown happens and I feel like there’s NOTHING I can do that will matter.

I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” this year, as I do every Christmas Eve. Each time I view it there’s a different issue that speaks to me and this year it was George’s spectacular burnout from doing too much for the good of Bedford Falls. I found an AV Club article called “It’s a Wonderful Life Shows the Unending Cost of Being Good” which discusses this topic in detail.

From the article about the famous ending where George Bailey’s friends and family raise the debt he owes:

“The money won’t last. It’ll cover the debt, and the Baileys will go right back to being broke. At best, George will just stay out of jail. The memory of his reverie will fade in time, as all memories must, eroded by the passage of life itself. There will always be Mr. Potter, there to take advantage of every moment of goodness and perceive it as a weakness, just as George Bailey will always stare out the window at the snow-capped roofs of Bedford Falls and wonder what’s out there beyond the world he can see. He’ll never fix the banister, and the house will always be drafty, and Mary will always love him. He will be good, because he must be good. And maybe that will be enough.”

This explanation speaks to me.

In the end, I keep coming back to Justine’s theory. I like the idea of altruism partnered with action.

What do you think? What altruistic acts to you perform? Do you think they make a difference?


Filed under Family, Fear, Parenting After IF

10 responses to “Altruism: The Hard Truth About Helping

  1. I also live my life trying to do the best I can. In fact, I struggle so much just to keep my meager life together I can’t really fathom how people like soulemama manage what they do so expertly, and seemingly so easily.

    The truth is, I haven’t really worked for any causes in my life. I keep thinking that time will come later, when we’re more financially stable and when I have more time for the causes I care about. In the meantime I assuage my guilt by convincing myself that being a middle school teacher is my altruistic work. But I know that is a cop out.

  2. Amy

    CASA/GAL – court appointed special advocate/guardian ad litem for kids in the foster care system due to abuse/neglect/dependency. I do think it makes a difference, though sadly not as much as you’d hope in some cases. It can be heartbreaking, but the heartwarming parts are so rewarding.

    Sidenote – I love Dawkins’ view on altruism in The Selfish Gene.

  3. I work at a non-profit and most of the families are on public assistance. For me, the biggest struggle is doing too much hand-holding and just doing things for them rather than showing them how to do it themselves. Teaching someone to fish is so much better in the long run than just handing them a dang fish, even if handing off the fish is easier for me.

  4. I also work for a non-profit, and a big part of my job is teaching families to advocate for themselves and their children. It’s exhausting. And as much as I’d like to do more, volunteering outside of work, it never seems to happen.

  5. Good things happen in the home, and that means that sometimes the little things we do add up to big things over time. It can mean more than volunteering once a week or donating money!

  6. I think for someone who doesn’t work in non-profit, and who is a full-time parent to kids who aren’t yet in school full time (or who are, just barely), there isn’t a lot of time in the day for activist altruism (if we can call it that). And I think there’s a lot to be said for “doing the best you can.” If we love deeply, only good can come of that. And good in the world ripples outward. Slowly, sometimes, but surely, nonetheless. It’s a Buddhist principle, isn’t it?

    You’re not going to stop Newtown from happening again by yourself. But you can be part of a movement that creates a culture in which we give a shit (sorry) about each other. And participation in that movement can manifest itself in as many ways as there are people, I suspect. As long as we do it with intention.

    I also think that involvement has to be organic; it has to evolve from the things you already do and love. Because otherwise, it’s not sustainable. I suspect that for you, it may happen through your kids, as well as through things like Faces of ALI. Because those are important pieces of who you are: a parent, and an infertility survivor.

    Anyway. All of this is to say don’t be so hard on yourself … and know that every contribution matters.

    Thanks for the shout-out, by the way. 🙂 If it makes you feel any better, I’m unlikely to get the Nobel Prize for Peace any time soon, either. 😉

  7. I’ve done quite a lot of volunteer work with my Buddhist organization as well as some in the past for an AIDS organization. Whether it’s for your church or with a friend, I think it does make a difference. You can write a cheque or you can spend the time or offer your home or your services. I agree that making the effort to step outside of your comfort zone can be really beneficial – to others and to yourself.

  8. “I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” this year, as I do every Christmas Eve. Each time I view it there’s a different issue that speaks to me and this year it was George’s spectacular burnout from doing too much for the good of Bedford Falls.”

    So interesting! It’s a Wonderful Life is my all-time favorite movie and I watch it multiple times each year. I totally appreciate how it (and other movies, books, songs, musicals, etc.) can speak to you differently each time you take them in… I had a similar experience watching Les Mis on Sunday on the big screen. The song “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” took on a whole new meaning for me, as it was the first time I watched the story of Les Mis since an old and dear childhood friend (who was like a younger sister to me) died in April 2011. I was bawling appreciating the words in a whole new way. But I digress, I am fascinated by the article you found and the premise/conclusion.

    I am probably naive and an idealist, even a “greater fool,” but I believe that George might one day fix the banister… Or maybe he won’t but I do agree that either way Mary will love him and he will be good, because he must be. Which is why I am good and probably why I love the movie so much. Definitely food for thought… Thank you.

    Also, before I got to the part of your post about how you and your blog, especially Faces of ALI, helps others I was thinking about how many people I know that you have touched through both. I remember so many times when a fellow blogger is struggling with something and you and your incredible memory will say, “I know I have read a blogger before who dealt with the same or a similar situation.” Let me put you in touch with them. I know you have also contacted me to reach out to someone in a situation similar to what I have experienced in the past. Anyway, I think you get my point and I know others have said similar things. I think you and your actions and the ripple effect are huge. Maybe they won’t stop something like the tragedy in Newtown from happening, but we can’t ever really know that and I believe that in your own way you stop things like that from happening all the time by the kind of friend, blogger, mother and human being you are. xoxo

  9. I think we all do the best we can. Sometimes, we have the time & other resources to share, sometimes we don’t. I think it all helps. Dh & I spent 10 years facilitating (& giving money) to the pregnancy loss group that helped us so much after we lost Katie. For a number of reasons (some of which I blogged about), we are no longer involved — burnout was definitely part of it! — but I am still in touch with a number of our former clients who became good friends, and I KNOW we made an impact on their lives. I’m not currently doing any volunteer work, but we continue to donate to various charities, and perhaps in a few years when I’m retired, I’ll find another volunteer opportunity that speaks to my heart where I think I can be useful. : )

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