Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Altruism Myth

When I was a youngster, tying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I knew a few things.

The first was that I didn't want a job my kids couldn't explain to their friends. (I used to hate when I asked a friend what his dad did for a living and the kid would respond: "I don't know -- he goes out and comes in with a briefcase.") I wanted a job that you could sink you teeth into: teacher, policeman, baseball player, assassin. That kind of thing.

Second, I wanted a job in which I could use whatever talents I might have had. 'Nuff (as they say) said, on that. Pretty straight-forward.

Third, I wanted a job that meant something; a job in which I could affect others positively.

So now I'm a teacher, as my main gig. Mission accomplished, on all three counts. Except, I tend to doubt my motivation for the third criterion.

Mother Theresa; a rare breed, indeed.
At some point, I came to an understanding about myself -- that I became a teacher in order to contribute positively to those around me, because, you know, a job should be important and people should not pursue careers that are selfish. It just ain't Christian. The question is whether or not this understanding is just a myth I have created in order to bolster my own sense of self worth.

We like to pretend life is about making choices, but, in reality, so much of it is about dodging falling rocks and scooping up free cookies. It's cool for me to swagger around, smooth my eyebrows and say: "Yeah. I became a teacher out of concern for the youth of America. I wanted to give of myself to my fellow humans."

But did I? Or did I become a teacher because I like books and wanted to talk about them and think about them for a living? Truth is, it was kind of an accident. And the truthier truth is, maybe I was thinking more of myself than of the poor, culture-starved youth of America.

When I went to grad school, people used to ask me if I wanted to be a teacher. I used to look at them as if they had spontaneously sprouted a Bonsai plant out of their foreheads. No, I would inform them -- I just wanted to read books and study poems in dark, dusty candlelit rooms among teetering piles of old tomes. Then, Rutgers dangled free tuition and a whopping twenty-grand a year paycheck for teaching some composition in front of my soul's windows. I did it. I liked it. I liked teaching, much to my surprise, though, in retrospect, it's not surprising.

Teaching is creative and it is performance-based. Why wouldn't I like it? So, here I am.

I'm not, however, going to even allude to my Mother Theresa-ness any more. This is not to say
The astounding Caravaggio's rendition of
the guy none of us can hope to be
that I don't care. I do. I care deeply about my teaching and about my students. (So much, that my seniors are currently not thrilled with me for the work they still have to do in their last week of classes.) But if there is one thing I can't stand, it is teachers who allude to their holy, life-altering selflessness. (I don't know about you, but, for me, a good three-quarters of my teachers stank on ice. Out of the remaining quarter, a few were competent and a handful were influential. Only one ever "changed my life" in any way.)

I think it is okay to admit that there is no such thing as altruism -- at least not among us non-Jesuses. In fact, I may be a little proud of having pursued that which pleases me and then having found out that it pleases me to have some effect on the lives of others. I'm not wallowing in myself, but I'm certainly not leaving who I am behind.

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