Altruism – An excerpt from “Standing at the Edge” by Joan Halifax

The entire following passage is an excerpt from “Standing at the Edge” by Joan Halifax:

“May I do a great deal of good without ever knowing it.” – Wilbur Wilson Thoburn

In the early seventies, my passion for biology and the sea led me to serve as a volunteer at Lerner Marine Laboratory in the Bahamas.  I assisted a biologist from Brandeis who was researching the ever-so-brief life cycle of the intelligent and wondrous Octopus vulgarism, which we know as the common octopus.

My work afforded me the rare chance to witness a captive female octopus spawn her eggs after she was fertilized.  Hundreds of thousands of translucent, tear-drop-shaped eggs, each the size of a grain of rice, were spun out of her mantle into long, lacy strands that hung in the water of the aquarium where she was captive.  As the weeks passed, she floated like a cloud above them, not hunting or eating, just gently moving the water around the knotted thread of eggs that were slowly maturing.  Hovering over her eggs, keeping them aerated, she hardly budged, and her body slowly began to disintegrate, becoming food for her brood as they hatched.  The mother octopus died to feed her offspring, her flesh the communion meal for her hatchlings.

I was puzzled and moved by the strange sight of this beautiful creature dissolving before my eyes.  Although her sacrifice was not true altruism per se, but part of the natural life cycle of her species, this octopus mother brought up a lot of questions for me about human behavior—questions about altruism, self-sacrifice, and harm.  When is human altruism healthy?  When do we give so much to others that we can harm ourselves in the process?  How do we recognize when our altruism might be self-centered and unhealthy?  How do we nurture the seeds of healthy altars in a world where being hurried and uncaring is so often the order of the day?  How does altruism go off the rails and over the edge?

To act altruistically is to take unselfish actions that enhance the welfare of others, usually at some cost or risk to our own well-being.   When we are able to stand firm in altruism, we encounter each other without the shadow of expectation and need lurking between us.  The recipient of our kindness may discover trust in human goodness, and we ourselves enriched by the goodness of giving.

However, when our physical and emotional safety is at risk, it can be challenging to keep our feet planted on solid ground; it’s all too easy to lose our footing and free-fall into harmful forms of serving.  We might help in a way that undermines our own needs.  We might inadvertently hurt the one we’re trying to help by disempowering them and take away their agency.  And we might “appear” altruistic, but our motivation is not well grounded.

Standing at the edge of altruism, we gain a view of the vast horizon of human kindness and wisdom—so long as we avoid falling into the swamp of egoism and need.  And if we do find ourselves stuck in the swamp, our struggle doesn’t have to be in vain.  If we can work with our difficulties, we might be compelled to figure out how we got there and how we can avoid falling of the edge again.  We might also get a good lesson in humility.  This is hard work—but it’ good work that builds character and helps us become wiser, humbler, and more resilient.

by Joan Halifax, “Standing at the Edge”

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