Altruism

“Other than genetics, why do you think you’re so altruistic?”

That was the question posed to me by someone this past weekend. And to be honest, it sort of threw me off a bit because I didn’t have an answer. Since I have never really considered myself altruistic by the definition as I know it to be self-sacrificing for the benefit of others, I never stopped much to consider much what made me that way. I have always tended to look at a situation, determine what needs fixing and then did what I could to be a part of the fix. And yes, I’ve always thought of it as nothing more than genetics.

But after talking a bit with him, I realized that it may go beyond simply DNA but still goes back to the same source: My parents.

It may not be exactly what you’re thinking when I say that. Yes, they set great examples for me and yes, they have always been extremely caring individuals, so yes, it could be argued that it’s because they led by example. And I suppose that’s probably part of it. But through more discussions with my friend, who, in my opinion, is quite altruistic himself, I realized it went much deeper. The answer was simple: I was given the gift of critical thinking.

As many of you know, I grew up in a fairly conservative church. I went to a fairly conservative church school for 12 years, and I lived in a pretty conservative neighborhood. By today’s standards, I guess it could be said that I lived in a bubble. We were middle-class and most of the people I knew were professionals of some sort, and university educated. We didn’t have a lot of money but we were pretty secure.

The game changer, for me, though, was that I was raised in a family where my parents allowed me to ask questions. They allowed me to argue, as long as I had a point (simply saying, “I don’t want to” never really flew, but being able to present a reason why I didn’t want to would from time to time). Looking back (and now that I have kids of my own), I know that I caused them a lot of grief, and yet, they still allowed for me to question everything, from religion to their authority (to a degree). In fact, one of my favorite books as a child, was a book my dad brought home on world religions. I was totally engrossed and fascinated by that book. It was mostly pictures with a paragraph or two describing the religion and its beliefs, but I must have read the book a hundred times.

My dad was a professor of foreign languages (French) and, as such, we had people from just about every culture imaginable in our home. I learned a lot. And once again, I was afforded the privilege of being able to ask questions. And learn. I was fortunate.

My mom was a nurse. She worked in everything from a methadone clinic for drug addicts to nursing homes. At an early age, she made it a point to take us there a few times so we could see, first hand, what drug addiction looked like. She never said anything but she let us figure it out for ourselves.

Because I was allowed to ask questions, argue, debate, figure things out on my own rather than have answers handed to me, and yes, even fight from time to time, I learned how to think critically. I learned how to resolve conflict. I learned what made the world go around. I learned to become one who saw the world in which he lived as a place that had greatness and a place that had misery. I learned that greatness was better. I was able to figure out that when we do well for others, we do well for ourselves. I learned that if there was a problem and that I could be, in any way, a part of the solution, no matter how small, that it mattered.

And this weekend, I learned (or realized) that the greatest gift my parents could have ever given me (besides their gift of unconditional love), was the gift of critical thinking.

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