Altruism Lives

One of the bright and shining lights in the current dismal viral fog is the beam of human altruism.

During a crisis, and certainly during this crisis, the cynic might expect people to rush toward every-man-woman-for-himself-herself. And sure enough, the toilet-paper hoarders, the face mask price-gougers, the medication squirrellers, the hand sanitizer sudden-capitalists, the food marauders, and the rest who cannot share but prefer to profit at other people’s expense bear out the hypothesis that human nature acts only on self-interest, and that to believe otherwise is naïve if not downright stupid.

Until you meet the rest of humanity.

Until you meet my friend who works in an intensive care unit in Manhattan where he says, “I am 100% certain I will get the virus. I want it to happen soon so I can get it over with.” He is a doctor who could easily quit and immediately get a job in a low-risk area, rather than in his hospital which is the highest risk in the nation. But he chooses to stay.

“I’m no hero,” he said to me, when I told him he was one. A crusty cynic, he said, “Everything I am seeing supports my belief in how stupid most people are,” before launching into a story of how the chairman of his department, “who is way out of his league” sent out a memo that contained orders which, if followed, would put everyone’s life at risk. My friend shot back a note telling him he would quit immediately if the chairman did not retract that memo on the spot. Which he did.

So why does my friend lay his life on the line?

“I’m not falling on any hand grenade, believe me. I’m taking precautions, doing my best to make sure other people do, and then taking care of the patients who need help. There’s nothing noble about it. The situation sucks, that’s all.”

But there is something noble about it. No, noble is the wrong word. There is something human about it. Usually when we refer to something as human, we refer to a frailty, a shortcoming, a weakness. But I see in my friend a quality that I see in most people, an instinctual, natural altruism that emerges under stress. Rather than looking out for himself, my cynical friend who sees the weaknesses in humanity for sure, puts his own life in serious jeopardy by taking care of patients who need him desperately.

Why does he do this?

Why does he not protect himself and leave Manhattan? Why does he keep going into the hospital even though he is “100% certain” he will get infected?

Because he wants to. This is the part that’s so hard to believe until you see it. But we see it over and over again during crises. During 9/11. During Katrina. During fires every day around the country. During wars around the world.

Believe it, there is a streak of altruism, of love for others before love for self, that runs through human nature just as sure as there is a streak of selfishness.

Look around you these days. You will see it. Look into yourself. You will see it there, too.

Take heart from knowing that as bad as we all can be, we can just as much be good. Life-sacrificingly, life-savingly good. To love others, at least sometimes, more than you love yourself, that’s human, believe it or not.

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In this Psychology Today interview, Why Does a Crisis Make Us Want to Connect and Be Kinder? Dr. Hallowell shares his views on why a crisis changes us.

If these times have you feeling anxious and worried, read Dr. Hallowell’s blog post on Managing These Uncertain Times and Figuring Out A System.