Matthew Cohen, MSW

Matthew Cohen, MSW

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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Altruism and The Ego

I was struck by the story of the man who gave the a space heater to hurricane victims without power. The very people he helped had helped him many years before. It illustrates the concept of pay it forward so well, because the time between the help and the return was a large span of years. Generally people do not do something unless they expect to reap the benefit, especially immediately. The story was touching because I truly believe that this gentleman was helped without any expectations of return at all. There is a trust in the universe, a faith if you will, that is the most indispensable commodity that human’s have. Yet, we go about our lives never tapping into this treasure. The figures in this story experienced it, but many of us can go an entire lifetime without even a glimpse of altruism.

I’ve experienced this fundamental change when I began venturing into Buddhism. Buddhist practices are very clever, they leave little room for self deception. As I have adhered to them everyday for 5 years, I have been forced to face a million of these sort of deceptions; the experience makes it very difficult to turn away. Something needs to be done, the deceptions become obvious; how they affected my life did as well. This is especially true with patience and my expectations of others.

Giving without expectation of rewards is a central tenet of Buddhism. It is easy to understand in theory, impossible to understand in practice. It goes against everything I have ever been taught. I had studied philosophy, political science, psychology and all these disciplines were clear, survival of the fittest and self-interest rules. Buddhism counters with a simple yet powerful question, “what is the self?” That turned my life upside down. When I assumed there was an existent self, identifiable, unchanging, the idea that there was anything other than self-interest could not make sense, when the coherence of the self came into doubt,  possibilities opened up. Had I just been conditioned this way?

I’ve had the benefit of 5 years of daily practice and I can safely say that yes indeed I have been conditioned, but out of necessity. The self plays an important role in society, it marks the entrance into consciousness and is also the means by which one can go beyond the self.

There is a misunderstanding here that the self “does not exist”, but the main point is that the self is a temporary phenomena, flexible, contextual; in other words not permanent. This is the entry to point to giving without the expectation of a return. A permanent self would make this impossible? When the self can extend beyond flesh and bones, giving to others is akin to giving to oneself. The act does not change, but the motivation does. Altruism is based on the ability for a person to transcend the ego as one being, reconceptualizing the self as a collective. This is a very mature way of understanding the world.

People are already bound , they extend their ego flexibly and naturally. We assume different roles depending on circumstances, in other words there is no fundamental change in ones existential nature, but in the attitude toward existential nature. Every human being does this without thinking about it. In fact, I believe certain mental illnesses arise when a person gets caught by the idea of a “fixed” self.  Trouble arises when they dig in, insisting that the “real” person cannot accept the situation as it is. This is the barrier to a society based on giving; we are conditioned to return to that conception of self that is small and lonely. This is not some trippy metaphysical doctrine, it is hard, concrete, and verifiable. All that is lacking is a collective commitment and a greater understanding of what it means to be human. I can tell you from my experience, it is one hell of a ride.

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One Response

  1. 97socialworker November 15, 2012

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