The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows where
But I'm strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain't heavy, he's my brother
So on we go
His welfare is my concern
No burden is he to bear
We'll get there
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain't heavy, he's my brother
If I am laden at all
I'm laden with sadness
That everyone's heart
Isn't filled with the gladness
Of love for one another
It's a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we're on the way to there
Why not share
And the load
Doesn't weigh me down at all
He ain't heavy, he's my brother
He's my brother
He ain't heavy, he's my brother.
I used the words to this popular Hollies song from the 1960s in a speech I wrote as a junior high school student about brotherhood. In reality, my speech was about selflessness in the guise of brotherhood. I have always been intrigued by the issue of selflessness. Carol and I spent the break between Christmas and New Year back in 2009 indulging in watching movies on the internet. We saw several that really got me thinking about selflessness and self-sacrifice for the sake of others.
One, Will Smith movie called “Seven Pounds” caused me to pose this question: can a selfless act be a selfish act in disguise?
The movie starts out with the main character, Ben Thomas (Will Smith), making a 911 call to report a suicide. When dispatcher asks who the victim is, Ben responds, "I am." The film then goes through a series of flashbacks to show how he got to that point.
Will Smith is reported to have confirmed that the title refers to Shakespeare's “The Merchant Of Venice”, in which a debtor must pay a pound of flesh. In this case it amounts to parts of his body donated to seven people deemed worthy by Smith's character. They are the recipients of his heart, a lung, part of his liver, and his eyes, among other things. Smith’s character passionately insisted that people he was to donate to were, as he said, “good” people.
It turns out that the character, although obviously passionate about being so selfless, actually had another reason to do what he did. He was obsessed with the notion of making atonement for something he caused to happen at an earlier time. I won’t say any more about the film, which I highly recommend. It is, however, interesting to see how critics have reviewed the film.
Critics gave the film generally negative reviews. Variety's film reviewer Todd McCarthy predicted that the movie's climax "will be emotionally devastating for many viewers, perhaps particularly those with serious religious beliefs", but characterized the film as an "endlessly sentimental fable about sacrifice and redemption that aims only at the heart at the expense of the head." Other established reviewers were more critical; A. O. Scott, writing for The New York Times, said that the movie "... may be among the most transcendently, eye-poppingly, call-your-friend-ranting-in-the-middle-of-the-night-just-to-go-over-it-one-more-time crazily awful motion pictures ever made.”
Another movie we saw, also dealing with the theme of selflessness, was the Clint Eastwood film called “Gran Torino”. Eastwood’s character, Walt, is a widower who lives in a changing Detroit neighborhood, one that is dominated by immigrants. He calls his Hmong neighbors "gooks", "chinks", "zipperheads" and "barbarians" and his black neighbors "spooks". Walt begins to grudgingly have warm relations with his Hmong neighbors, especially after the two teenagers need his help. The neighborhood is besieged by gang members, who eventually try to recruit the male teenager, and brutally rape the female.
Walt, having been to the doctor and realizing he is dying, decides the only way to save his friends is to have the entire gang arrested at once. He does this by allowing himself to be murdered by them. I can’t tell you anything else about the film out of fear I may give away too much. Suffice it to say that “Gran Torino” is a wonderful film that will leave you thinking a lot about selflessness. Unlike with “Seven Pounds”, critics have been very positive about “Gran Torino”, although I personally think “Seven Pounds” was a better film.
One can argue that Eastwood’s character was more “honest” in that his self-sacrifice was a truly selfless act to protect people he loved. Smith’s character was driven by his “film noir”-like obsession to his ultimately self-serving mission. In either case, both characters made the conscious and deliberate choice to commit suicide to benefit others. Again, I wonder, can a selfless act be a selfish act in disguise?
We all immediately rush to the spiritual or religious conclusion that selflessness is a good thing. Others might disagree with that notion. A blooger identified only as “evanescent” wrote the following:
“Selflessness is irrational. It is irrational because it demands that the beneficiary of your actions be others. Does it suggest who these others should be? That is a decision an individual would make for himself based on his personal values. But, since altruism dictates that we should hold our interests or values in no regard when acting, altruism actually states that the personal value of the beneficiary be irrelevant to our action! By this ‘logic’ not only would giving money to a drug-dealing rapist be just as moral as giving money to an orphanage, it would be more moral!
Why is that? It comes down to personal values. To suggest that some people are more worthy than others to benefit from acts of generosity implies that one has made a value judgment oneself in such matters based on a personal evaluation of worth. But acting in accordance with one’s personal values is a SELFISH act. Choosing to help your friend over a stranger is a selfish act. Choosing to save the life of your lover over the life of an enemy is a selfish act. Going to work and spending your hard-earned money on yourself and not giving it to every beggar in the street who asks is a selfish act. Conversely, giving help to an unknown over a friend would be selfless. Giving up the life of your lover so that a hated person could live would be a selfless act. Coming home from work and handing out £50 notes to people you see on the street would be a selfless act. Selfless means ‘otherness’; it means the defiance of personal values.”
Nietzsche, writing in The Gay Science, Book five, Section 345 would seem to agree with evanescent:
“’Selflessness’ has no value either in heaven or on earth. All great problems demand great love, and of that only, strong, round, secure spirits who have a firm grip on themselves are capable. It makes the most telling difference whether a thinker has a personal relationship to his problems and finds in them his destiny, his distress, and his greatest happiness, or an ‘impersonal’ one, meaning that he can do no better than to touch them and grasp them with the antennae of cold, curious thought.”
Oh, these cynical existential intellectual know-it-alls! They twist a perfectly fine ideal like selflessness into a thought pretzel. What good are they? Well, they kind of nudge us along this almost heretical question I keep asking: can a selfless act be a selfish act in disguise?
Well, it turns out that science might provide a somewhat surprising answer to my question. Just a few weeks ago, on December 22, 2008 an article appeared in Science Daily entitled “Selflessness -- Core Of All Major World Religions -- Has Neuropsychological Connection”. In that article, it was flatly said that all spiritual experiences are based in the brain. That statement is truer than ever before, according to a University of Missouri neuropsychologist. An MU study has data to support a neuropsychological model that proposes spiritual experiences associated with selflessness are related to decreased activity in the right parietal lobe of the brain.
The study is one of the first to use individuals with traumatic brain injury to determine this connection. Researchers say the implication of this connection means people in many disciplines, including peace studies, health care or religion can learn different ways to attain selflessness, to experience transcendence, and to help themselves and others.
This study, along with other recent neuroradiological studies of Buddhist meditators and Francescan nuns, suggests that all individuals, regardless of cultural background or religion, experience the same neuropsychological functions during spiritual experiences, such as transcendence. Transcendence, feelings of universal unity and decreased sense of self, is a core tenet of all major religions. Meditation and prayer are the primary vehicles by which such spiritual transcendence is achieved.
Professor of health psychology in the MU School of Health Professions, Brick Johnstone, said, “The brain functions in a certain way during spiritual experiences,” We studied people with brain injury and found that people with injuries to the right parietal lobe of the brain reported higher levels of spiritual experiences, such as transcendence.”
This link is important, he said, because it means selflessness can be learned by decreasing activity in that part of the brain. He suggests this can be done through conscious effort, such as meditation or prayer. People with these selfless spiritual experiences also are more psychologically healthy, especially if they have positive beliefs that there is a God or higher power who loves them, Johnstone said.
Johnstone continued, “This research also addresses questions regarding the impact of neurologic versus cultural factors on spiritual experience. The ability to connect with things beyond the self, such as transcendent experiences, seems to occur for people who minimize right parietal functioning. This can be attained through cultural practices, such as intense meditation or prayer or because of a brain injury that impairs the functioning of the right parietal lobe. Either way, our study suggests that ‘selflessness’ is a neuropsychological foundation of spiritual experiences.”
So, there you have it, my friends. The most direct means to achieve a greater sense of selflessness is to find a safe way to damage the right parietal lobe of your brain. Then you too can have higher levels of spiritual experiences. However, most of us might prefer the less traumatic methods of minimizing right parietal functioning through prayer or meditation.
But, I’ve got to tell you, I didn’t see Will Smith or Clint Eastwood’s characters doing any kind of meditation. And not once did they pray. So, has science answered the question that it is selfish to be selfless? Ultimately, do we perform acts of selflessness because it makes us feel good? Do we get some kind of self-generated neuropsychological high that masquerades as a spiritual act?
Selflessness is defined as follows: altruism: the quality of unselfish concern for the welfare of others acting with less concern for yourself than for the success of the joint activity “Unselfish concern for the welfare of others”…that’s probably as good a definition as any. I can’t help but wonder if selflessness is a uniquely human attribute, or if other animals exhibit this trait.
Among the most moving of stories of acts of selflessness among non-human animals is the one of a dolphin called “Pelorus Jack”, who starting in the late 1800’s and for more than 25 years after, guided ships through French Pass, a channel through the D’Urville Islands off New Zealand. The area is dangerous to ships with rocks and strong currents but no shipwrecks occurred when Jack was present. So regular and reliable was the dolphin that when ships reached the entrance to French Pass they would look for him, and if he was not visible, they would wait for him to appear to guide them safely through the treacherous rocks and currents.
In 1904, an apparently drunk passenger on a ship called the "Penguin" shot Pelorus Jack with a rifle. Apparently the dolphin recovered and continued helping ships, all except for the Penguin, which was later shipwrecked, with the loss of all crew and passengers. Following the unsuccessful assassination attempt, he became protected by Order in Council under the Sea Fisheries Act on September 26, 1904. Pelorus Jack remained protected by that law until his disappearance in 1912. Pelorus Jack was the first individual sea creature protected by law in any country.
Of course, there are a great many stories of selfless and even heroic acts by all kinds of animals. I chose the story about Pelous Jack, frankly, because when Carol swam with a dolphin almost two years ago in Mexico, it was an event that she says is a high point of her life.
Experts studying altruism and selflessness, such as Scott Huettel at the Duke University Medical Center, says that altruism doesn't seem to provide individuals with any survival edge, so they question how and why did it evolved as a behavior. For decades, psychologists and neuroscientists have puzzled over the tendency of humans to engage in altruistic acts -- defined by Huettel's research group as acts "that intentionally benefit another organism, incur no direct personal benefit, and sometimes bear a personal cost."
I think science can only go so far with this research. It is nice to understand the neuropsychological aspects of this behavior. It is good to study this topic as a way of understanding a science of “peace” or “transcendence”. The skeptics like Nietzsche and “evanescen”, and even scientist seem to miss the point as far as I am concerned. It cannot be said, from a spiritual perspective, that selflessness does not provide the individual with personal benefit, or even a survival edge. That is because, in the spiritual realm, these aspects take on supreme importance.
Giving of yourself in selfless acts, in the ways that the Will Smith and Clint Eastwood characters did actually enabled the survival of the species, if you will. In fact, Walt, Eastwood’s character, sacrificed himself to ensure that the “good” triumphed over “bad” in his neighborhood. His young neighbors could go on to lead productive lives, and more importantly, could help others through his example. Ben, Will Smith’s character, actually gave physical parts of himself that allowed others to live. His prerequisite was that they were genuinely “good” people, who again, could lead productive lives in the service of others.
The Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, is the marching orders for selflessness. Distilled down to its essence, selflessness is an expression of love. Sometimes it means that you go out of your way to help someone else. Carry your brother or sister. You’ll find that they are no burden because your heart will be filled with the “gladness of love for one another”. You sacrifice for another, whom you may not know, but whose path crosses yours in some way. Yes, it makes you feel good. That is reason enough to practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.
But there is an even deeper spiritual reason for making a practice of these acts. They are the most direct way to change the world. Get your hands on a copy of the movie “Pay it Forward” for a demonstration of how selflessness can change the world. Watch the wonderful French film called Amélie, which follows a young woman who engages in various random – and often anonymous – acts of kindness. That film provides a wonderful example of how small acts can make big differences in the lives of individuals.
Perhaps the reason why such acts can change the world is because they are infectious. As you may know, I have deep spiritual and theological problems believing that Jesus is my Lord and Savior. Whatever your opinion is about Jesus in particular, and Christianity in the whole, one cannot argue the tremendous impact the ultimately selfless act of purposefully having one’s self crucified has had on humanity. People confronting the story of Jesus are automatically engaged, puzzled, confounded, and some are even given over to this extraordinarily powerful meme of a stranger dying for your sins because he loves you. Although I believe Jesus got on the cross because he thought he would be transformed into the Messiah, and others believe he did so to fulfill scriptures that prove he was the Messiah, you cannot argue the effect this has had through the ages.
What if everyone was so selfless? What if we all followed the example of Jesus? What would the world be like? What could it become?
Think about these things, then volunteer on the Caring Committee in our church, or donate to a charity, or give someone a bag of groceries, or pay someone else’s toll, or just call someone you know who needs to hear that you love them. Make selflessness a priority in your life. And you and I, and everyone around us, together, will change the world.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!