Live to Give

Is generosity an empathetic/altruistic response or is it self-serving?

If you have reviewed this website you may have noticed that I am a therapist who also happens to be a pastor. This week I’ve been preparing a sermon on the subject of giving. “Of course,” some might say, “that’s what preachers are always talking about.” I would do well to speak on the subject more often because generosity is life changing but I actually haven’t addressed it in quite some time.

I have also been tuned in to all of the talk in the news of late about narcissism and it made my therapist wheels start turning. Is generosity an empathetic/altruistic response or is it self-serving? Further, could our empathic responses be destructive to the very people with whom we want to help? Psychologist Paul Bloom thinks so. While I think his argument is more about naïve, superficial do-gooderism…a reaction to our environment where we solve problems on emotion. The bigger question is whether we really have concern for others outside of self-interest. And if we discover that all empathy is self-serving, does that deny the virtue of giving?

What is at the heart of our empathic, altruistic behavior?

We all have instances where we have witnessed sacrificial behavior. The reason these instances stand out in our memories is that they are unusual and somewhat rare experiences. But consider the more common expressions of empathy. You see a GoFundMe page for a friend in need and you give. The food bank is seeking donations for Thanksgiving baskets and you buy groceries. Your neighbor is sick and you mow her lawn. Do we do these behaviors for them? Or do we do it, in large part, for ourselves?

I believe there is a sort of continuum that can be found in the competing phrases: “Give To Live” or “Live To Give.” The first is a sort of contract…a transaction where I give something in expectation that good will return my way later. The second is a worldview that values generosity in and of itself.

I don’t think it is my calling to evaluate where one person or another falls on that continuum but it is a good question to ask myself. What I have discovered while considering that question this week is empathy and altruism may not be all that connected. I believe empathy could be better understood as feelings of “oneness” or connectedness to the other. When I identify more with someone, I’m more likely to feel empathy  willing to make sacrifices for them. Within that definition, there seems to be some sort of contractual obligation “giving to live.” That is, we have to have some sort of agreement and I’m giving because it will help me in my living.

Could this be the reason why more people changed their Facebook profile images last year to a French flag (people who look and live more like us) after the Paris bombings and far fewer chose a Turkish flag after the airport bombing… an airport where my wife was sitting only a few days before? Do we more closely identify with one group over another and thus feel more empathy and make more statements of support and care?

Does this proclivity to more strongly identify with some more than others reveal self-interest and self-concern? If so, does that make our caring of others all about ourselves and cause us to suspect the warmth and empathy we get from others?

Oneness and generosity in the created and the Creator

I believe empathy can be self-serving (give to live) but I do not think it must be this way. Rather, I would argue that we have been designed to understand our world by means of our experiences. Because I understand what it feels like to lose a friend I am moved to donate time and talent to help someone who is grieving. Because I see your humanness, I am able to empathize with your losses and then consider what possible ways I might respond.

Oneness does help us empathize. But empathy is not the same thing as altruism (live to give). Altruism flows from true love, which is an action verb, and requires a willingness to expend self for the sake of another. True love enlarges the population you are one with. So, straight people find themselves in the experiences of gay people; Christians in the experience of Muslims; liberals in the experience of conservatives. Altruism moves beyond simplistic understanding with oneness and best reflects the character of God who self-sacrificially loves beyond measure, choosing to take up our problems as his own.

Author: Eric Greer, MS LMFT

I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist and have been practicing since 1995. I am the sole owner of Restoration Community Counseling in Kingston, MA. My primary areas of practice include couples, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, and veteran's issues.

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