I’m trying to put my finger on it – the reason or reasons why we help other people – but there’s a complexity to the issue that needs exploring. I have a feeling it may raise more questions than it answers…
First, let me say that I am by no means a Mother Teresa figure, but I try and do my bit to help others when I am able to. I’d like to think that the majority of people hold a similar view, but what is it that drives us all to be so altruistic?
On a conscious level, I don’t normally expect anything in return when I help people out, and I’m not sure whether or not I believe in karma, so, at first glance, I don’t think this is what drives me.
Part of me thinks that I am spurred on by the knowledge that I can make someone that little bit happier. Maybe I can relate to the stress and worry that often resides in those who need help, and I simply wish to alleviate them of such feelings.
So, while karma is still something I am unsure about in the strictest sense, there is something in me that wants to treat people like I would wish to be treated. If I was the one in need of help, I sure hope that someone would see this and reach out their hand to me.
Another possible explanation for my desire to help is that I am aware of the extremely privileged life I lead. I live in one of the richest countries on the planet, I have a secure roof over my head, and more than enough food on my plate. I enjoy the relative comforts and luxuries that so many of the world’s population do not have access to. Could it be that, by helping those in need, I am expressing my own gratitude for being born into such a favorable position? I believe there is some truth in this, particularly in my charitable giving.
Or perhaps by helping other people with their problems, I am actually diverting my attention away from the things that I would like to change in my own life. Could helping others sometimes be a form of procrastination? I can certainly see some truth in this too, especially when it comes to my working life.
I also wonder what determines the lengths I am prepared to go to for someone. If I saw a stranger whose life was in danger, would I be willing to help them if there was a risk to my own life? What if it was a family member or friend? If I would help the latter, but not the former, what does this tell me about why I help people in the first place?
It’s interesting because help can be given via the tiniest of acts, or it can require a much greater upheaval in your own life. Sometimes just listening to someone’s troubles can be enough to help them, while other situations may require you to really go the extra mile. Neither act should be underestimated.
I wonder whether any act of help is greater than another; if the recipient feels the same sense of appreciation, then surely this is all that matters? And if you really can’t place different acts of kindness at different points along a scale, if you can’t assign a value to them, then why do we see things so subjectively?
Maybe this does suggest that the helper expects something in return; maybe the warm feeling you get from helping someone is not enough by itself to really go out of your way.
And yet there are selfless acts happening all the time; there are countless examples of people who have given everything – in some cases their own lives – to help, or to try and help, those in need. Why do they do this?
Who knows, perhaps it can only be considered help when there are no expectations in return? Is anything else simply an exchange?
There have been instances where I’ve certainly felt additional stress when helping others out, so maybe this can be labelled as genuine help. While it could be that I have been driven, in some way, by self benefit in other instances.
Do we put a value on what we expect to receive in return – whether this is a reciprocal act or the warm feeling we get – before deciding whether the cost of helping is higher or lower than this figure.
And what about when we are asked for help, do we give it because we feel required to, or because we want to?
Heck, maybe it is just our individual moral systems that determine when and how we help people; we might only help when we consider it to be the right thing to do.