The True Meaning Of Altruism

Altruism challenges us to embrace acts of kindness in our daily lives and take time out of our schedules to make a difference for others who might need it. I experienced this firsthand when I worked at a college in Boston, which required me to cross one of the busiest roads in the city every day to get to my office. I wasn’t the only one crossing, of course. Hundreds of tourists hustled off their tour buses to take photos in front of the college, while students and professors rushed across the street to classes. At rush hour, cars honked and taxis pulled up too far into the crosswalk. Amid this rat race of to-and-fro commuting, it’s easy to put your head down and simply worry about getting where you need to go.

One Wednesday morning, however, I couldn’t help but notice a blind man in the crowd using his white cane to cross the street. Originally within the crosswalk, he slowly veered into traffic as he walked forward. If he kept on moving in that direction, it seemed likely that he would bump into a car.

I panicked — I wanted to offer assistance, but I wasn’t sure of the appropriate way to act. Would I be overstepping my boundaries if I ran up and helped him get to the sidewalk? I worried that he would interpret my effort as judgment, and for a few seconds, I froze, assuming (or maybe just hoping) that someone closer to him would step up. Despite my self-doubt and frazzled thoughts, I reacted to my natural concern. I took a few fast steps and lightly said, “Excuse me? Can I help guide you to the curb?” He replied, “Of course,” and thanked me. It was that easy and simple.

I always think of this moment when I question my instincts to help others, which happens all too often. A voice pops up in my head that doubts any altruistic choices — “Who am I to help? How do I know that my intentions are clear? Maybe I’ll make a mess of things.” Such questions are always a reminder to stay true to myself. Instead of overriding my instincts to do good, I went back to my original feeling of compassion and took action from there. In a few seconds, I considered what I would want if I were in his position. I tried to honor his personal boundaries by asking for his permission before I lent a hand. And in the end, it worked out for both of us.

As Steve Taylor, Ph.D. and lecturer of psychology, reminds us, “True altruism stems from empathy, our ability to emotionally connect with other people. This ability to empathize means that we are part of a shared network of consciousness.” It’s so easy to go through our normal day without considering the plight of others, but by staying true to our hearts — rather than getting muddled in our self-doubt or assumptions about other people — we usually come to a decision that ends up being for the greatest good.

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