Archive for the 'altruism' Category


December 23, 2014

I liked reading in today’s Daily Meditation from Richard Rohr about how spirituality involves freely given service.

When such freely given service is confused with coerced service, even if the coerced service is coerced from one capable and willing to give (other) service freely, we end up, I think, with trouble.  Or at least in the realm of the taffy-pull of more mundane human social relation dynamics.


Mourning ring

February 22, 2013

My dad was a big fan of Wagnerian operas and, of course, the Ring Cycle.  That may be part of why I’ve been thinking about rings lately.

There are other contributing factors.  My mother lost her wedding ring, she thinks at the hospital, during one of my dad’s stays last fall.  It seemed to me (and I think to her) like a harbinger of his death.

After his death, she gave me some rings, including my father’s wedding band.  Its facets are still sharply defined, unlike those on her lost band, which had been worn much smoother because she had worn hers.  (She had one period during which she wore a substitute ring — when crime was high in New York City and arthritis made it difficult for her to get her ring off, and she was afraid of what would happen if someone attempted to rob her of it on the street or in the subway and she couldn’t get it off fast enough or at all.)

One of the other bands I am wearing.  It’s too big on all of my fingers, but I can put it on my left index finger and wear another ring above it.  It’s a soft gold in color, not really rose but not really yellow, it’s plain and simple.

My mother also gave me a ring that had belonged to her mother, one she calls a dinner ring.  It’s art deco, and I think she must have had it sized down for herself, because it’s only a little too big for my right ring finger.  If I wear it, I put on another ring as a guard.

I want to note that one of the reasons my mom gave me the rings is her concern about people coming into the house taking them, and lo, she discovered someone had gone through things of hers recently.

When I wear the dinner ring on my right ring finger, it almost looks like an engagement ring.  I was looking on line about such “dinner rings,” or “cocktail rings,” to see if they ever get sold or worn as engagement rings.

That’s when I came across the concept of a mourning ring.  I don’t know much about them, but the notion resonated for me, because I, and many other widows I’ve known, have struggled with what ring, or rings, to wear after bereavement.  So I bought a mourning ring on line, and once I had paid for it, it occurred to me that I need(ed) to move through my mourning before I can wear a dinner ring.  Or an engagement ring — even one I haven’t had to pay for myself (that’s a ring I won’t buy for myself).

I’ve had a sense before of a saga about rings that’s not the one celebrated in Wagner’s operas.  In the one I have in mind, a young widow mistakes a ring receives from a mourner as an engagement ring that is really a widow’s ring.  She waits in futility for the man who gives it to her to return to marry her.  There is a language and culture barrier involved.

This time I heard a more hopeful version.  There is a man who loves her enough to help her through her mourning, to give her prompts that help her do what she needs to do to get unstuck and move through it and out of it.  He trusts that if he does, she will move through it, and not wither and die herself (the equivalent of throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre) — and that if he does provide the help out of the deep love in his heart that expects nothing in return, that she will then afterwards fall into his arms, so to speak, and be ready to wear an engagement ring, his, if he wants.

That, to me, is a deep love — love enough to help someone mourn a predecessor in the role one might harbor competitive feelings about.  That is enough to open a widow’s heart to another man.  And that is enough to help the man locate his own deep and abiding compassionate heart.

Unconditional love

November 11, 2012

I’ve never quite been sure I understand the particular emotion to which people are referring when they talk of unconditional love.  Not that it doesn’t exist or even that I haven’t felt it or expressed it, just that I’m not sure which subset of “love” they’re talking about.

I don’t experience intimacy as having a subset of loneliness — for me, loneliness is related to loss, mine or somebody else’s, and how I am powerless to make up for it.  Intimacy with my husband, spiritual intimacy, even love for friends, relatives, acquaintances, when I’m loving with no reservation there’s no loneliness, in fact it leaves me feeling quite at peace with myself and the universe.

If I had to speculate, I’d say the piece that may be at issue is what we call altruism — loving regardless of outcome, feedback, efficacy, recompense, reciprocity, etc.  By itself, hitting that note provides the internal sense of balance and peace — loving fully is its own reward, provides its own reward.  When you love fully, you feel equally good as the beloved, I think.

There are all kinds of other loves, and I can still get caught up in them.  Some of them seem to help in certain situations, others seem to lead to difficulties.  I’ve wondered, having hit that note of unconditional love, whether I will express that kind of love more frequently and not get caught up in the other kinds so often.  I honestly don’t know, and to try to decide what would be preferable I think would be doctrinaire of me — I don’t know what expression of love by me serves the greater good.  Maybe it’s the altruistic kind, maybe it’s not.

For me, at the end of the day, all I ever have is my willingness — that’s my touchstone.  It’s a touchstone I can always get back to, I think, and once there, I can await what’s next.   (I am working on learning to do the waiting more patiently, which includes not predicating the patience on there being a particular outcome to the wait.)  As I’ve probably said before, I do at times get swamped by other people’s ways of navigating — people who don’t navigate through willingness.  But I can clean the decks and relocate my willingness after these encounters.

Raking (other people’s) leaves

March 31, 2012

I’ve probably mentioned before that I had a neighbor here for many years who firmly believed that leaves from a tree rooted on my property were my responsibility to rake, even if they fell onto her property, and even if she chose not to trim the branches of the tree back to the property line to reduce the volume of leaves.  She was from another country, older, arthritic, and we eventually became friendly and dealt with the leaves and pruning issues without friction.

She moved away four or five years ago, but that concept of raking other people’s leaves had stayed with me.  Getting out on the porch roof yesterday to measure baluster spacing is a version of the idea.  At least there, even though I had an initially negative reaction to the thought of doing the measuring, I kind of knew what might help.  In other situations, I might also have the sense of how to meet someone more than halfway (from my perspective), or where they are, and without judging them or becoming angry or resentful, but in some situations I just don’t know what to do even if I am in theory willing to do more at my end to resolve an impasse.  Sometimes someone else clues me in on what I might do differently, like not assuming someone is blowing me off when it’s really anxiety preventing the other person from seeking clarification from me about how to do the task they’ve agreed to do for me.  With my dad I’ve learned not to ask general open-ended questions about financial matters — I get higher quality advice, I think from his improved focusing, if I can figure out enough first to be able to ask him some pretty specific questions.

But there are still times when I am willing to do more to meet the other person where they are but I don’t know what I can do that would constitute that.  I’m thinking that maybe I need to make sure I’ve cleaned up my own frustration first and have become open to doing what would help without noticing whether it’s something I originally thought I should need to do, without noticing which tree the leaf came from anymore.  Maybe when I’ve done that, it will become clearer what I can do that would move things along.

The “magic” behind the bobcat

January 22, 2012

This is a follow-up to my last post, the one about how a bobcat came and cleared the snow from the end of my driveway unbidden, and it felt to me like being visited by Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

Last night I heard a town plow go by, and I got curious whether it had pushed more street snow into the mouth of my driveway (when they used to send out two staggered plows simultaneously, this didn’t happen, but now they plow the middle of the street first and make another pass later to clear the street to the curb).  I couldn’t see, so when I saw the light of what I guessed would be a plow service for the neighbor across the street, I took a peek, hoping it would illuminate the bottom of my driveway.

It actually seemed to be cleaning up around my driveway, and it parked in front of my house, but I realized (from watching where the driver went when he got out of the truck) it was probably the (new) plow service of my adjacent neighbors, not of my neighbors across the street.

Which leads me to my point: I suspect this new plow service was hired by the adult children of my adjacent neighbors (who also bought for them and had rehabbed their house about four years ago).  I wonder if for them it was like receiving a gift.  If I picked up some of that “energy,” as I seem to do in other contexts, then maybe that’s kind of like the scaffolding beneath my experience of the bobcat.

This explanation is not to deny the altruism of the bobcat operator, just to point out evidence for my sense of energy and energy-sharing.

Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Bobcat

January 21, 2012

I wrote once here about children’s belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and how when they come not to believe in them literally anymore, it doesn’t seem to me necessary that they stop believing in the concept.  Something like that (I haven’t reread the post).

So, today we are shoveling the snow.  I’m shoveling the driveway, we’ve done the sidewalk, Jordan is doing the side path (helpful if we want to receive home heating oil deliveries), and I’m thinking about the mouth of the driveway and all that heavy stuff from the plow.

I thought back, with gratitude, about how a couple of Mormon elders (young men in suits and ties) had helped Jordan shovel that stuff last winter, I think it was, after a very heavy snowstorm.  I didn’t expect the elders to show up again today (for one thing, it wasn’t a snowfall of comparable magnitude).  I had met them weeks or months earlier, and we had happily discussed religious beliefs for a few sessions, but when we got to the “why don’t we show you our temple” part of the program later, I told them that I didn’t want to lead them on, that I wasn’t looking for a new affiliation with another religion.  They asked me to pray on it, on what my relationship with Jesus is, and what I got back from my prayers was not what their belief system holds.  But we parted on good terms.  I can see the allure of the support of such a community, but unfortunately I don’t have the right ticket.

So, I’m thinking about this, when all of a sudden I notice one of those Bobcat-like miniature bulldozers that are used for, among other things, clearing snow, in the street, passing by my house.  I look, and the bobcat turns towards me.  It moves slightly up the driveway and drags back the snow.  It performs the same maneuver of the next section on snow, and, I think, then a third time.  The fellow has cleared most of the heavy snow from the mouth of the driveway, I am looking on in some amount of disbelief.  He finishes, and prepares to push the snow now in the street away and to the curb down stream from the driveway opening.  I wave and smile my thanks (it seems such an insufficient vehicle for my gratitude), he signals back, and off he goes.

And that’s when the thought of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy came up in my mind, because that kind and anonymous help reminded me of what those two figures, at least in part, represent to me.

I then thought that I can feel quite well taken care of by the universe, but I’m not sure how that help comes.  Sometimes I wonder if someone is praying for me or something.  Whatever, I am grateful, encouraged, and also tickled by the experience.

Conservative support

December 31, 2011

I didn’t understand David Brooks’s column today.  I started reading some of the later comments just now, and got some sense of what it meant to some people.

If it’s about how conservatives can be supportive, not just liberals, or moreso than liberals, well, I’m not buying that it’s a particularly helpful way of analyzing who helps who and why.  And if that is the point of the column, we are, as my deceased spouse would have put it, in violent agreement.

But I am tired of help based on a set of emotional motives involving attachments being paraded as altruism.  Especially because it is unreliable and selective.  I guess I think that focus on particular cases in this way keeps us from reforming our ways so we actually include everybody in our help.  In addition to being based on motives that don’t support sufficient generalization of the behavior, our usual approach also allows us to congratulate ourselves on doing only an imitation of what we should be doing, as if we were doing the real thing.


Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy

December 7, 2011

I was helping out at the place where I volunteer, with what they called “gift wrapping” (it turned out to be bags of sweets for medical personnel who make referrals, not gifts for patients), and the two other women I was doing it with this morning got into a discussion of the transition children often make between believing in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, etc. and adopting a new view when their parents tell them or confirm their suspicion, at some point, that they don’t exist.  What struck me is how not only the imaginary figure gets thrown out but also the notion of altruism and caring and whatever other emotions are involved in how we perceive receiving a gift from Santa or money from the Tooth Fairy.  Why do we do this? Is it that humans don’t possess this degree of altruism and we come to recognize this?  Is it that we think that a personal relationship with a figure is necessary in order to receive blessings?  I don’t know, but it struck me as dispiriting.