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Thought for the Day: It Is Possible to Act With Altruism, and I Am Betting My Entire Life On It

I can remember when we got our first color TV.  There we still plenty of shows that were still in black and white, though.  (Some people used to turn the color adjustment knob just to force green or magenta tinging of the picture -- "I paid for color; I am going to see color, darn it!")  Besides the shows being broadcast in black and white, they also mostly addressed issues in black and white; that is, either avoid it completely or say something that had unanimous approval of the viewing public as understood by the corporate sponsors.

One show that was a little different (to my young, impressionable mind) was Father Knows Best.  One show made particularly strong impression on me, was when Bud came home spouting that no one does anything except for selfish motives.  Father was horrified and set out to prove him wrong by directing their old-time house painter to use cheap paint; it only needed to look good enough to fool prospective buyers, father told the painter.  The painter, of course -- true to character -- used high quality paint.  Score one for the good guys, right?  No, the painter admitted to having a selfish motive; he didn't want to tarnish his reputation.  As usual in that show (and real life.. sigh...), father thinks he knows best, but is usually wrong.

I learned later that this idea -- that altruism is a myth and all human actions can be explained as selfishly motivated -- was part of the mid 19th century zeitgeist.  On the surface it was just part of the behavioral approach to psychology that was so popular then.  Underneath, though, the idea is part of an insidious hidden agenda.  If everyone is motivated only be selfish concerns, then morality becomes a convenient consensus and nothing more.  One person wants to marry his goldfish, the other dedicates his life to charitable acts of helping the poor.  The would be goldfish spouse says, "Listen you charitable guy... you happen to enjoy doing charity, while I happen to enjoy cuddling up to my goldfish.  At the end of the day, though we are both just expressing our selfish desires."

The Torah demands that we break our selfish desires as the only path to living in Reality.  The Torah requires us to look to altruism as the goal of our lives.  A stretch goal, to be sure, and a constant struggle.  Their way is certainly easier, and they get what they pay for.  No demands, no reward.

I'm glad I learned that lesson from a TV show when I was eight... it made it a lot easier to see through the veneer of easy idealism and realize the core of evil; to see the black and white in the rainbow.


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