Saturday, July 18, 2009


Altruism is self-sacrifice which individuals perform for a cause greater than themselves. These actions often are done despite great personal risk. As such, altruism is a characteristic of much intrigue in science, since at face value it seems to be inconsistent with natural selection. From an evolutionary stand point, one could predict that such altruistic traits would be selected against. Oddly, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Something must reinforce this type of behavior. I believe the driving force behind altruism is to better the world around you. A prime example of altruism is seen in the life of George Frideric Handel. The work defining Handel’s life was Messiah, his most famous piece, yet, Handel didn’t accept a cent of payment for his masterpiece. He donated everything to an orphanage. Interestingly, altruistic acts are not seen to be inconvenient, but a responsibility one shares with the world around them. Perhaps evolution’s hand is at play then, since helpful service would increase the fitness of a species overall.

In my own life I have found great satisfaction in giving of myself to others in need. I did so in a dramatic fashion serving a full-time two year mission for my church. That instilled within me a spirit of charitable service. Later I discovered what that meant in real life. As an undergraduate preparing for medical school, it is easy to fill you time with self-serving activities. These selfish acts can be draining. It is important to have an avenue with which you can escape your own interests and focus on helping others. For the past eight months I have tutored Gerardo, a Mexican gentleman in his late thirties. Meeting twice a week for a couple hours, Gerardo and I study English reading and writing. I have been impressed with Gerardo’s desire to succeed and provide a better living for his wife and children. He recognizes the need to read and write proficiently in English as a tool to better succeed in America. His drive to learn has pushed me to teach him the best that I can. Since the time that we started meeting he has progressed immensely. Being part of this man’s life has been rewarding to me and I enjoy our visits each week. By helping Gerardo realize his own dreams, I find myself more motivated to work towards my own. As one so often finds, my attempt to serve selflessly has ironically given my own life more joy and meaning.

While my desire to serve others comes from my Christian upbringing, I am quite confident that altruism is a consistent personality trait seen across the board. The English poet John Donne observed that “no man is an island. entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Mankind is connected. One person's actions has an influence on others. This profound insight is telling of man’s desire to help one another. Within each of us is contained an acknowledgment that life is bigger than just one person. In order for society to function properly we must fulfill our responsibilities one to another.