Fanana Alofu Kalunde Africa Chimpanzees Displaying Give and Take Behavior

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I’m feeling philosophical today. It happens every so often. I wake up, go to brush my teeth and think, “Wow, there are so many brands of toothpaste, what a strange free market where we go berserk on a niche rather than simply meeting a need. How much waste could we avoid if we just had a single brand of toothpaste?” Then I think about the implications of that thought. “Americans need choices. What about people who have sensitive teeth, or who want whitening power? What about those poor souls?” Then I sit there over breakfast contemplating the world economy: needs vs. wants, the privilege of choice, the wastefulness of the free market, and my navel. I’ve brought this philosophical day right around to today’s blog post with the following question: is volunteering reward enough without the recognition, without the cultural A+ that we get for helping others?

Governor’s Volunteer award winners, Portland, Oregon:

Portland, Oregon Governor's Volunteer Ceremony

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First, the question has an innate problem: we get an A+ from ourselves for helping others. Culture matters because giving is valued and we learn that when we’re young. We are taught to feel good about ourselves for being charitable, and that makes essentialist altruism an impossibility. You can’t truly be selfless when you’re getting something out of it, even if that thing is your own pride or sense of accomplishment. But, ignoring that obvious flaw in the premise, I’d like to explore the contradictory media culture of volunteering: celebrating volunteer heroes and giving awards for “selfless” service.

Angelina Jolie as Goodwill Ambassador in India

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It’s strange that we are taught to be selfless and yet we celebrate selflessness in others, transforming selfless to self-centered. We are supposed to do something because it’s right, not because it helps us or makes us proud, teaches us about the world or enriches our lives. Those are all supposed to be side effects of the real work, which is the helping. Yet, as soon as we see someone actually doing that thing because it’s right, we leap to attention, alert the press, and slap him as hard as we can on the back. How can he help but feel pride? But pride is one of the deadly sins! We can’t have it both ways. I think we should acknowledge, even celebrate the self-centeredness that defines us as human beings. I think, the more we embrace and encourage the doing of good deeds for the pride and sense of self-worth they inspire, the more people will do good deeds.

Just look at Angelina Jolie. It’s easy to give her a hard time because of her fame even when we see her in the tabloids spending time with her family or in a foreign country working to make the world a better place. Whatever we might think about her motives (and none of us really know what’s going on in someone else’s head) I guess it’s not really important why she cares. In the end, for the people who are helped, it doesn’t matter if volunteering is enough on its own. What matters is that we do it.

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