In Offense of Altruism

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All my life I've been told to be wary of my selfishness. Tame the desires of the flesh and Put others' interests above your own. The underlying message I received was that I cannot trust myself because what I want is usually bad, rarely biblical, and hardly appropriate for polite conversation over cookies after church. However, anything I could talk about in the self-sacrificing language of the gospel-denying myself to take up the cross of inner-city poverty, being a missionary in a distant developing country, or being a pastor to help shepherd a congregation-now that charmed the socks off the old ladies at my church.

Consequently, I developed a volunteer rap sheet that might have made Mother Teresa blush. No, seriously: if volunteering and helping out were Olympic events, I am pretty sure I would have had my heyday on the front of a Wheaties box. Writing up my résumé often gave me trouble because the section for service always seemed to eclipse my work experience. But it didn't matter. If I was applying for a job shoveling popcorn at a movie theater, they would know that I'd been shoveling kids around in Sunday School since eighth grade, and that I would do a darn good job at their theater too.

You can maybe imagine how hard it was for me to hit bottom. For me, running on altruism as a motivation is a little like the theory of Peak Oil: it's a finite resource that eventually runs dry. The more you depend upon a finite resource, the harder it is to be weaned off of it. Don't get me wrong, while you're still running on it, there doesn't seem to be any limit to the supply. But as deep down as you can dig and as much as you can refine it as a motivation, it's still polluting the environment and only delaying an inevitable burn-out. Altruism, for me, is not only unsustainable: it makes relationships harder.

This is the story of my repentance (Gk. metanoia, literally to be given an after-mind, to understand things differently) and my conversion (Gk. strepho, literally to turn). Thankfully both were done to me, not things that I accomplished myself.

Hebrew of Hebrews
At the ripe age of fourteen I was tapped by large suburban church to begin volunteering as a Sunday school assistant. At that point I was helping out with children's ministry and Vacation Bible School because the church told me I had to in order to complete my confirmation. However, I remember the rhetoric was more subtle, something to the effect of changing diapers in the nursery and being tackled by toddlers would teach me how to contribute to something bigger than myself.

It was probably in the midst of my divvying up the Sunday morning snack-red Kool-Aid poured into shot-glass-sized Dixie cups and handfuls of animal crackers evenly distributed among the white napkins placed before squirming toddlers,-that I realized I really dug this gig. All the praise I received from adults for being "such a good help," the sense of purpose and responsibility infused into my previously meaningless Sunday morning church experience, and the thrill of feeling like I was doing something good, totally fed into my good kid complex. Symptoms included a rush of exhilaration when receiving praise, usually for exhibiting good behavior or correctly answering Sunday school questions. Side-effects usually entailed an intense sense of disappointment and questioning of self-worth when reprimanded, corrected, or when delivering the wrong answer. It may be a fair bit of revisionist history, but I would say I was addicted to praise, and this volunteering thing promised to always keep me supplied with my drug.

It wasn't that I was consciously trying to take advantage of people for my own sense of gratification. Had you asked me then, and if I were honest, I probably would have explained that I was dutifully responding to an external pressure to do "something good," conforming to the pattern of service and volunteerism that was being prescribed by my church and the people I admired. I didn't realize the extent to which my identity was wrapped up in that pursuit.

So I blissfully milked it. I was one of the star students in my church's youth group. I participated in every mission trip and even became a leader for the junior high ministry. I loved it. In fact, when it came time to graduate from high school, I decided to volunteer for an entire year in an inner-city neighborhood in West Oakland, California. Not only would I be serving the poor in a racially segregated and potentially violent neighborhood, but I experienced the gratification of doing something different from, and in my eyes better than, my college-bound peers.

Stumbling Down the Road to Damascus
For the next five years, my passion was the city and the youth that resided there. Of course, my neighbors and fellow volunteers weren't as impressed with my boy-scout attitude toward service, but I quickly learned that a privately smug sense of being right was a ready replacement for the drug of being good. With righteous indignation, I pored over biblical texts about the poor that I had somehow missed in all of my years of church attendance. At the same time, I devoured liberal Christian literature1 that lambasted the complacency of the church and cried out for social justice. Armed with these biblical and ethical mandates to help the poor, and after five months of sustained lifestyle sacrifice-no TV, internet, or soda; lots of brown rice and tortillas; a measly monthly stipend; and free-time spent organizing games and curriculum for my after-school tutoring program-I came back to my affluent, suburban home loaded with judgments and self-righteousness. It was Christmas and after roughing it for so many months in "solidarity" with my inner-city neighbors, I wouldn't accept any glitzy gifts and decided to give my family mukluks from Berkeley. And I no doubt told myself that if they didn't like their homely, scratchy footwear, it was probably because their tastes were too bourgeois.

I was a terror. And I realize now the extent to which I was acting out my own drama, unable to recognize or articulate the sense of shame that surrounded my privileged upbringing. All I knew was that I had gone to a great high school, had two loving parents, and that I would probably need to spend the rest of my life repenting for all the racial, social, economic, and cultural capital I had unwittingly acquired as a sheltered suburban kid. The altar for my sacrifice was the inner-city, and whether they liked it or not the only people who could forgive me were the poor, under-privileged neighbors who resided there.

As that first year in West Oakland drew to an end, reason and practicality persuaded me to return to Tacoma to go to school. After all, Tacoma was a city too and getting a degree as an educator would no doubt be of assistance in my life of inner-city service. Somewhere though, in the midst of school and hanging out with kids in Tacoma's notorious Hilltop neighborhood, the façade began to crumble.

The critical eye lent to me by academia aided the process of my breaking, and I began to manifest the early symptoms of burn-out. Old motivations littered the lawn of my heart like spent tires. I couldn't get my same fix doing good or being right, and the guilt gnawing on my conscience only grew with each successive year of school. The university challenged me to put names on the phenomena I'd experienced and witnessed in the city. But, cynicism, the bastard child of academia, wrapped me up like a wet blanket, simultaneously smothering my idealism and paralyzing me with doubt and the fear that deep-down, I was just another penitent do-gooder working out my issues among the urban poor.

Around that time, I was given a book written by James Alison that articulated too well the bind in which I found myself. "It was as though I was not dealing with a real place and real people, but with some sort of sounding board which I needed at which to hurl my own white...middle-class, etc. etc. angst."2 I finally had to admit that my work with the poor had much more to do with me-my needs and my issues-than with them.

Wanting to save face, but realizing that I was dying to an old way of being in relationship, I fled. Initially signed up for the Peace Corps, I moved two hours north to Burlington, Washington to wait for my departure date and to try to imagine what being in relationship with others could look like when stripped of helpful agendas and guilty motives. Taking time to sit in the ashes of my now smoldering idealism, I realized that I hadn't been doing the poor any service by marginalizing myself. I would never be able to be in true solidarity with the people I was serving and hating myself on that account was sounding less and less attractive. As Alison describes it,

...part of the tension of marginalization as demand is that relaxation into being loved is felt to be something selfish, something that detracts from the sacrificial giver that I ought to be. And I have experienced this as a kind of fear that if I had it good, if I were loved and contented, then I would be insensitive to the marginal other, I would quickly become invulnerable to the demands of the victim. ...If, as I say, I start to relax into [being loved], then will I not in my complacency lose my anguished sensitivity to the other? Will my ears not become dull to the cry of the oppressed, and my eyes blind to the sufferings of the victim, and will I thus not miss out on salvation? 3

Unable to shake my persistent attraction toward society's margins, I began volunteering with a ministry that works with migrant farm workers, inmates at the local jail, and campesinos in Honduras. I left behind as much as I could-totalizing ideologies, my bible, even the title of "Christian"-and hoped that this community would accept me as I was, which at that point wasn't very much. At the end of the day I needed to sink into being loved no strings attached. After all, how would I really be able to like anyone else if I didn't like myself or see myself as likeable?

My Ananias
If it was mercy that compelled God to send one of the persecuted, Ananias, to heal a persecuting Paul4, then it had to be a sense of humor that compelled God to send me a cripple who spoke Spanish only slightly better than me.

The first time I met Hernando, he was laid-up on the green couch of our Family Support Center. In those days, I would wander into our front office with tussled hair, yawning and bleary-eyed from sleeping almost an hour past our nine o'clock opening time. The scene I often encountered in my semi-conscious state was usually a variation on a theme: migrant mother with baby waiting for a diaper coupon; young tattooed guy getting help with his legal problems; entire migrant family picking out clothes and blankets to take back to their cabins, etc. But this morning I was genuinely surprised to see someone monopolizing the office's only couch, kicked back with a cushion under his head and his leg propped up on one of the arm rests.

Not wanting to be off-putting, I tried to ask this guy who he thought he was that he could sack-out in our office while other people were left standing around. I asked in polite Spanish that roughly translates, "Have you been helped, Sir?"

"Oh, yes. It's just that, I came because I twisted my ankle while working and I haven't been receiving my time-lost compensation."

Realizing that this guy had a legitimate need, I looked around to see if someone else could help him. With no one available to bail me out, I took a chance with my broken Spanish and attempted to ask the man, "How'd you twist your ankle," only I couldn't remember the words for "twist" or "ankle," so it was something more like, "How did you pain your leg?"

Getting my drift, the man explained how, when he had been carrying a crate of strawberries, his foot had landed on the edge of a small depression in the middle of the row. His being a sizeable frame, combined with the weight of the crate, a heart-wrenching crunch had resulted.

Oh, no biggie, I thought to myself. Like a two-week paid vacation. "How does it feel now?"

Wincing as he pulls up his pant leg, I could see better the shiny blue air cast he was sporting. As he reached down to un-Velcro the straps holding the cast on, he offered, "It is still really swollen, and it hurts to walk. But now I have these two lástimas."

Lástima hadn't made the short-list of Spanish medical terms in my college textbooks, so I peered with interest at what he was attempting to uncover. I have since learned that lástima can be roughly translated as "an uncomfortable pain, as from a small cut," or as "a hideous red, puffy abscess leaching pus and blood way too near our office couch cushion." Unfortunately for Hernando, he was suffering from two of the latter.

Being Given New Eyes to See
Over the next two months I was drawn deeper into Hernando's story. Through countless visits to the doctor, social worker, and claims manager, I saw how hard it was for him to be out of work at the height of berry-picking season. I learned of his wife, his three-year-old daughter, and his aging parents in Oaxaca that he was unable to support, as well as the long days he spent laid-up in a stuffy cabin trying to decipher the legalese and appeals process for his Labor and Industry compensation claim.

As a freshly graduated sociology student, I relished in the opportunity to get some mileage on my expensive education. After all, I'd spent a lot of time reading books and talking about different theories, but I'd rarely seen the things put into practice. My conclusion after many hours spent on the phone and accompanying Hernando to various appointments is that critics of the inequitable distribution of social capital in our country have at least one thing right: it doesn't matter who you are as much as whom you're with. In fact, having a gringo along was better than a good luck charm because it didn't just affect the outcome, it changed the entire experience. Hernando and others have often shared how people's tone of voice, attitude, and willingness to help, change when a white person is present.

On a superficial level, all this advocacy and accompaniment with Hernando seemed like a relapse into my old way of being in relationship. I'm the educated white guy with the things to offer, you are the needy marginalized person whom I should be helping. But somehow it felt different this time. It was only through getting acquainted with Hernando's story that I felt drawn into the relationship. As a result, my advocacy and accompaniment on his behalf flowed out of a genuine liking of the guy, rather than an altruistic response to an internalized ethical, biblical, or emotional mandate.

At the same time, I found myself experiencing the truth behind a refrain that I had previously only heard: "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." 5 In the past, the sense of self-hatred associated with my being a privileged "insider" tended to pollute the relationships I had with "outsiders." Now I could at least admit that our fates are intertwined and that I need Hernando. His exclusion from many of the structures and privileges that I take for granted-citizenship, language proficiency, education, degrees, etc.-continually invites me to question the source of my own sense of security. In this way Hernando and I are both discovering what it means to live in the face of societal structures that do violence through exclusion, marginalization, and discrimination.6 My identification with Hernando gives me new eyes to see the forces that are stealing life and invites me out of my unwitting collusion with their violence. In short, Hernando has been helping me be more human.

Tears & Bowel Movements
The only time I've seen a migrant worker cry, I was holding his hand, offering as much consolation and comfort as I could muster while the doctor dug decaying tissue out of his two lástimas. Sitting in a chair at Hernando's side as he squeezed out tears and small cries of pain, I felt the powerlessness of his position. Lying on his back, while a foreign doctor-albeit with a caring bed-side manner and experience working in Mexico-probed those two aching apertures, Hernando was forced to trust. Forced to trust American medical practice, with its sterile hospitals, pill prescriptions, and dark x-ray rooms. Forced to trust the doctor's interpretation of those fuzzy bone pictures, his dexterity with those instruments of torture, and his assurance that things were improving even when they looked the same. Forced to trust me, the accuracy of my translating, and my faith in his ankle's eventual recovery.

After all, Hernando had heard a story of another migrant in California whose twisted ankle had eventually been amputated at a hospital. As a result, Hernando had expressed his fear of suffering a similar fate and his desire to abandon the slow and torturous treatments in the North for the more familiar and no less magical care of a Oaxacan curandero. For him, the crushed agave salves and sacred chants were no less mysterious than the powdery white antibiotics or pain-killers that he took with meals or before sleeping; at least in Oaxaca they could speak to him in his mother-tongue, Triqui, rather than the rough Spanish I provided.

But he continued to trust and over time I noticed something changing in me. Slowly the image I had of Hernando as a stoic, migrant farm-working, long-suffering Triqui Indian with a language, culture, and customs that were irreducibly Other to me began to be fused with this tearful, feeling, and trusting friend whose hand I could hold. Instead of always asking myself what I could do next to help him as the marginalized, incarnate form of Christ in my midst, I found myself falling into liking and being liked. I was slowly being invited into a relationship that was less about assuaging my white and privileged guilt, feeling good about being good, or evangelizing a particular agenda and more about affection, care, empathy, and benevolently dwelling-with and coming alongside. I liked it.

On one particular day, I stop by to help translate for the nurses who change the bandages around Hernando's substantially smaller lástimas. As they cut the bandages, Hernando reminds me to ask them about the stomach pains that he's been experiencing.

"Have you been taking your antibiotics with meals?" one of the nurses asks.

"Sí," he replies. "But I haven't been able to eat much because of the pain in my abdomen." She asks me to ask him when was the last time he pooped, trying to figure out if the antibiotics are making him constipated. I flip through my limited Spanish vocabulary, disregarding the vulgarities and slang I've learned and produce the one I'm pretty sure will make sense.

"¿Cuándo fue la última vez que Usted cargó?" He looks at me quizzically, which reminds me that cargar is to carry, not to poop. So I try again, "¿Cuándo fue la última vez que Usted cagó?" Nope. "¿Cagaba?" Still nothing. The nurses chuckle as I struggle with the question, trying my best to be cross-culturally sensitive as I ask him about his daily pooping habits. Feeling a little more comfortable with my urination vocabulary I try for a different angle, explaining the difference between number one and number two. He seems to understand when I describe going number one, but stares at me like I'm crazy when I try to describe number two as going to the bathroom, but not "number one." At this point I feel like I'm stuck in a real-life version of Taboo where I can't say the one swear word that I know will make sense and instead try every other alternative I can think of.

Ignoring the stifled laughter of the nurses, I recall a conversation I overheard while distributing coupons for baby diapers. "Bueno, Hernando, ¿cuándo fue la última vez que Usted hizo poo-poo?" The word sounds childish coming out of my mouth, something to the effect of "When was the last time you made a poopy?" but I'm desperate at this point and trying to get the point across without miming a squat or using sound-effects in front of the nurses.

"Poo-poo, ¿qué es esto?" By this time I'm exasperated and can't believe he's asking me what "poo-poo" means. Oblivious to the ruse, I yell in Spanish, "Shit, Hernando! Shit! When was the last time you took a shit?!"

Half expecting him to take offense at my vulgarity, I'm surprised when he rolls back on his bed chuckling. The nurses too, feel free to laugh. "Sí, Nico. I understood you. It's just so funny when you can't figure out what to say."

The Other as Gift
Without pooh-poohing all my past motivations, I agree with Alison that it's only in this space of liking and being liked that I'm able to experience this playfulness and enjoyment with another. Far from being numbed to the needs of marginalized communities, I would say that my awareness and appreciation of the other is growing, not diminishing, as I abandon my altruistic motives. As Alison describes it,

One of the fruits of discovering oneself in the loving regard of God is an ability to like and be liked, and thus to be curious and unthreatening and experimental and creative in relationship to others, but also to trust that I will be given both the things needed to assure me of being loved, and the irruptions of the other which will keep me vulnerable to gratuity; that I will, in my sense of being loved, become more sensitive to, and awestruck by, the other - the heroism, the achievement, the pain - and not less so. ...in fact it is only as gift that the marginal other really is other to me, part of my up-building by God, rather than part of my defense of a controlled being and an appropriation of goodness, the necessary sounding board to my own tale of tragic heroism.7

There's a certain feeling of freedom when I admit that I'm in relationship with others, particularly people on the margins, as a way of meeting my own needs. Not in selfless, sacrificial service to a higher principle nor because I'm held hostage to my own nagging sense of guilt. Au contraire, I'm drawn toward Hernando because our liberations are bound up together and because I genuinely enjoy the guy.

It's nice to realize that this isn't all revisionist theology. As one of my good friends and colleagues likes to remind me8, didn't Jesus say that he's telling us to love one another so that our joy may be complete? As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. And right about the time that I start freaking out that Jesus really just wants me to be keeping commandments, I read the next two verses: I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 9

Taking the guy's advice, I can gratefully say that I am less and less attracted to the disembodied ideas of good or right, totally averse to afflicting others with my privileged angst, but completely moonstruck with this foolish (and selfish?) pursuit of complete joy. Not only does it feel more honest-unlike the secret selfishness belying my apparently altruistic service-but this pursuit of what truly satisfies is liberating. In the internal kingdom of my heart and mind, I've undergone a coup d'état. The tyranny of Should has been overthrown, and with it the advisors of Duty and Obligation have been ousted from their previous spheres of unquestioned influence.

Suffice to say, the process of coming to work in Burlington has required a fair amount of soul-searching and even a re-imagining of the language I use to explain why I'm here. Not so much helping the poor and marginalized or redistributing economic and social capital-though these might be the inevitable consequences of heeding a more fundamental tug-but first recognizing how others' needs are best met when I pursue the things I love. For example, my love of diversity in community, to interact and be in relationship with people from a variety of social, cultural, and economic strata. My love of autonomy, to be present to the charisma and talents within me rather than be held hostage to the demands of job descriptions or organization perpetuation. Not to mention my desire to contribute to others in a way that truly satisfies their needs as well as my own, stripped as much as possible of the vestiges of violence or paternalism.

I am here because I am following my hunger. It's in this terrifying space of trust where I embrace my deep longings and no longer dismiss my desires as depraved that I discover my complete joy. As I begin to trust myself and the direction of my heart's tugging, I no longer depend on the prescriptions and admonitions of altruism to keep me going. Avoiding the inevitable burn-out of a life serving Should, I tap into one of the few renewable resources that makes a life of service sustainable: my own experience of enjoyment. This is what I both give and gain, this synergy whereby others' needs are met as I pursue the things that make my eyes bright.

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Curriculum Questions

1.  At the opening of the article Nick writes, "Altruism for me is not only unsustainable; it makes relationship harder." What have you been taught about being selfless, implicitly and explicitly? In general or from your faith tradition? Where has altruism played a role in your service, or not? How has your experience of altruism been similar or different from Nick's? Why or why not?

2.  As Nick's perspective and relationship with Hernando change, Nick begins using the term "accompaniment" to describe his recognition that their fates are intertwined. What does the concept of accompaniment mean for you? How have you experienced a shift in perspective and relationship during your service journey? What contributed to that change?

3.  How does Nick return not to the same place where he began, but to a new place of empathy and trust? How does Nick's relationship with his own privilege and background shift as well as his relationship with Hernando? In what ways do you understand your own background and identity differently through the experience of service? How does this impact your relationships?

A reprintable PDF of this article is available only to subscribers.

Nick Bryant (2007 Krista Colleague) serves with Tierra Nueva - New Earth in Burlington, Washington, as a pastoral advocate with migrant workers, exoffenders, and people off the street. Nick also spends part of the year in Honduras where he spends an unholy amount of money on ice cream and assists the Honduran Tierra Nueva staff in their promotion of sustainable farming methods, preventative health, nutrition, and appropriate technologies among small-scale rural farmers.



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