Compassion, Altruism and the True Spirit of Generosity

I have an ongoing debate with my oldest son about pure altruism and whether it actually exists.  He believes that nobody ever acts in a purely selfless way; part of the motivation for altruistic behavior, he argues, is to feel good about oneself as a person.  If you get some reward from the supposedly altruistic act then it can’t be purely selfless.

I go back and forth on my position.  “You haven’t had children yet,” I once told him.  “If I had to choose between us, I’d die for you.”  This was a cheap and sentimental argument, trying to use my supposedly self-sacrificial feelings as his father to win the debate.  He would have none of it. “That’s just because you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself otherwise.”  While that isn’t the only reason, of course not, it is definitely a large part of it.  This question isn’t finally settled in my mind but I think my son is winning the debate. With the Christmas holiday approaching — “the season of giving” — I’ve been thinking about compassion and self-sacrifice, and what motivates people to engage in apparently altruistic behavior.

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‘Avatar’, Toxic Shame and Avoidance of Authentic Relationships

At the opening of the movie Avatar, Jake Sully has suffered a severe spinal chord injury that leaves him a paraplegic.  No longer able to perform as a combat marine, and because the military won’t pay for an operation to restore the use of his legs — that is, to return him to his former self — Jake volunteers for a specialized military mission to the planet Pandora.  Through the miracle of medical technology, he learns to psychically link with and inhabit an “avatar” or alternative physical self on that planet.  In contrast to his paraplegic self, this avatar is healthy, fit and stands ten feet tall, with enormous physical prowess and sensory capabilities beyond those of humans. Embodying this avatar allows Jake not only to regain the functions he lost but also to surpass his human potential.  His experience on Pandora ultimately proves to be more real, more meaningful to him than his actual life; at the movie’s end, he finds a way to transcend his human physical damage and move permanently to the realm of his superior Na’vi self.

This story perfectly embodies a dynamic I’ve seen with many clients, where they feel themselves to be so damaged, so filled with basic shame (or toxic shame) that they long to escape into the world of fantasy and become another person entirely.

It’s a particular instance of the dynamic I discussed in my post about hopeless problems, perfect answers. In these cases, avoidance of authentic, realistic relationships is strong; instead, they wish for a perfect relationship with an idealized partner. The Internet has enabled many people to pursue and act out this fantasy — in virtual form, of course, and for a limited time only.

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Love Junkies and Other Addicts

Next month, there’s a new movie coming out with Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal called “Love and Other Drugs,” so I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss the ways that romantic love can function as an intoxicant and how serial romance relates to other forms of addiction.

In an earlier post about different forms of love, I described one version where loving a person springs from the way he or she makes you feel and involves little concern for the other. What the “lover” wants is the heady feeling of intoxication, that blissful state where you feel as if life has become a sort of heaven on earth and all your troubles have disappeared.  Falling in love means living happily ever after.  Hollywood, that relentless pusher, pedals this drug in one romantic comedy after another.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to stay high forever.  As we come down, we begin to realize that the person we love isn’t so perfect after all.  Even worse, we find that we still hate our job, we still don’t make enough money, and nothing about reality and its frustrations has changed.  Obviously, we made a mistake in our choice of love object … time to move on. Lather, rinse and repeat.

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What We Mean When We Use the Word ‘Love’

(1) I love french fries.  (2) I love the way I feel when I’m on vacation in Mexico.  (3) I love my children. (4) I love my profession.

All four of these statements are true but the word “love” in each one describes a very different experience.  In the first, it means I enjoy having french fries inside my mouth, the way they taste and then swallowing them down.  Sentence number two describes a subjective experience of pleasure aroused by my environment.  The third sentence concerns emotions I have about other people, while the fourth applies to a value or ideal that I hold.

At first blush