Generosity & Altruism
By Molly Murfee
Once when I was hauling gaggles of college students in a school bus modified to carry a 500-volume library and enough camping gear for 20 over high mountain passes, we landed in the San Luis Valley looking for some volunteer work for the holidays. Soup kitchens were our logical first stop. I called the local food pantry coordinator to see if she had some spots for an aspiring group of decided do-gooders and tree-huggers who wanted to spread the love of generosity during the holiday season for those struggling or less fortunate.
“Oh honey,” she says, “We’ve been booked for a month.”
I was aghast. I didn’t think there was such a thing as too many volunteers.
The kind lady went on to say that volunteering at soup kitchens during the holidays was outrageously popular. Seems though, at other times of the year, there was virtually no one.
The holiday season puts us in a generous spirit. We beam altruism like the north star. We make cookies for our neighbors, hold the door open for strangers. We pay special attention to little subconscious hints our loved ones drop about wants and needs, rushing out to the store to fulfill their desires, smiling to ourselves at the perceived pleasure they will have upon receiving the gift. We throw money at charities, buy or donate bundles of toys and clothes to organizations like the Salvation Army, who give it all to families who would not otherwise be able to afford such luxury.
Generous and Generosity have some lovely words attached to them when you look them up in the dictionary: liberality in giving, abundance, characterized by a noble spirit, magnanimous, kindly, openhanded.
Altruism is even more alluring with “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others” and “behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to itself but that benefits the survival of its species.”
When I stopped to think about it, I had noticed the same phenomenon as the soup kitchen lady. During the holidays we’re all generous and giving. We don’t want anyone to be left out of the food or presents so indicative of the season. “God bless us every one,” “Peace on earth and goodwill to men,” and all that. We fa-la-la along feeling good about our good deeds.
And then … something happens. Once the tinsel and twinkly lights have been put away for another year, we seem to forget about all this, and fall again into the world of “other.” Those damned dualistic perceptions of difference strike again. Now assuring health care is available to everyone regardless of their income is an abomination, rights of love and marriage are withheld from members of the LGBTQ+ communities. We wonder what that homeless person did to end up needing a soup kitchen – “surely nothing good” is the unspoken sentiment. Bootstraps are brought up. The folks in line at the store you overhear expressing a different belief than yours, are no longer deserving of your open door holding.
This always befuddled me, to tout the need to love thy neighbor during the winter holidays, but not have this love extend into supporting those that might be different, have different beliefs, different needs, the rest of the year.
Turns out, it has to do with the psychology of tribalism. We’ll do anything for those inside our tribe - extend all the generosity, kindness, and altruism we can possibly muster. But if the person in need is outside our tribe, it’s like the need can’t even be seen. The generosity, turns out, is only for those of like-kind. The holidays just provide us a venue to step outside of this norm. You might say the whole charade is human nature. But I believe that us with our big brains can do better than this.
To be truly generous we must pick our heads up and pay attention, notice the needs of others. It means we step outside of our individual selves and look at the larger picture. I think back to the definition of altruism, and what a marvel the second half is: “behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to itself but that benefits the survival of its species.” A rising tide floats all boats.
Truth is, we’re all the same tribe. Sure, we might have different factions. In ecosystems it’s called diversity, and it’s crucial to that ecosystem’s survival. Strength is in diversity in the natural world, which, by the way, we’re a part, and so the rules apply to us too. Yet despite all of our differences we are a tribe that lives on this earth together. The divine creative spark lives in us all. Each and every one of us. We are Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and more. We are Bear and Crane and Sea Turtle and Hawk and more still. We are dirt and air and water.
Peace on earth. Joy to the world. And not just to those that look or behave or think or have like us. All. The whole world. One world. We’re on this one together.
Creative non-fiction and place-based author Molly Murfee specializes in nature and environmental writing cut with cultural and societal critique. Her current course – Writing Through the Changes – celebrating the seasons through journaling, meditation, creative writing and nature immersion is open for registration. Molly is also a Nature Writing Concentration faculty with the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Western Colorado University. Sign up for Molly’s Earth Muffin Memos Blog & Newsletter for more on her ongoing book project; field-based Writing & Connection Workshops; online advertising and syndicate column opportunities; and freelance writing services at www.mollymurfee.com.