Friday, April 24, 2009

Advocating Selfishness

"It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

I hear about it in radio commercials, gallows humor in sitcoms, chatting with the person next to me in line at the post office. Unless you live in a cave, it's hard to avoid the topic of the tumultuous state of the current world economy. On his show, "Real Time", Bill Maher mentioned that somebody even recently had his cave repossessed.

When faced with such adversity, it can be easy to flip the switch on "self-preservation/survival mode." Ayn Rand books touting individualism are flying off the shelf which is incredible for two reasons: 1) Americans are showing enthusiasm for reading books 2) Americans are buying stuff. But despite the fact that most of us will be challenged or affected by the economic trends in some way, this is actually the perfect time to volunteer some of your time.

In the above quote, Ralph Waldo Emerson Recognizes a truth which I'll even take a step further. I say that volunteering in one's community is a means to self-preservation because of the tangible and emotional benefits that the volunteer receives. In short, it is selfishness but a laudable selfishness.

Humans, like all animals are shaped by natural selection and evolution. Camaraderie and cooperation is how we have survived and thrives as a species. Electricity, medicine, poetry are all the results of collective knowledge. No one person could have started from scratch in any of these fields and advance to modern levels of expertise. We each owe our survival and quality of life to our communities. In helping our communities, we help ourselves.

Helping another person also instinctively creates an innate sense of reciprocity in that person, essentially an ally. We are each others' mutual insurance policies. You may not need your ally's help today but you may need their help tomorrow. It is the same with community organizations which rely heavily on volunteers. You may not need their assistance today but you or someone you care about may need them at some point in the future. Now especially, is the time to get stuff done and make sure that organizations which benefit our communities aren't forced to shut their doors due to lack of funding or support (a very real threat given that resources are tight all around).

In addition to tangible benefits, a volunteer reaps emotional benefits as a bonus. Again, over the years of our species existence, natural selection has favored humans who fell good about being cooperative and performing "selfless" tasks in their communities. Human beings are social animals. We need positive relationships with other people in order to be happy. It's a hardwired, basic need like the need for food and water.

So what is you help others in order to make yourself feel good? Is this selfish? Yes, by definition but it is also compassionate by definition. Good feelings, happiness, optimism - these things are contagious and can pull us out of a depression (both the psychological condition and the global economic slump). When you make someone else feel good, you feel good, you make those around you feel good and they make you feel good. And you've created an echo chamber of positivity and productivity.

Now especially, is the time for us to volunteer. Watch the news for 15 minutes and you can see that there is a lot that needs to get done. The flotsam and jetsam of idle bodies and minds would sink this ship. There are so many problems and services that industry alone will not solve. The nonprofit and donation/government-funded organizations which take up the slack are likely to be particularly underfunded right now. We are all in this together and selflessness is selfishness.

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