My dad was sometimes very cynical. He claimed that people only do good because it makes them feel good. Any act of generosity according to him always has a self-centered motive. I remember when I was fourteen and a friend telephoned to say that she needed help looking after her mother who was ill. I immediately replied that I would go over and have never forgotten the look in my father’s eyes or the cool tone in his voice.
‘Don’t fool yourself that you’re doing it for her,’ he said. ‘There’s always self-gratification.’
Doing good and self-sacrificing for our families, for our clans and for our species, say some biologists, is a genetic and evolutionary imperative. They suggest that this is the instinctive drive of the ‘selfish gene’ ensuring that its gene pool survives, even to the cost of its host carrier. This is why, they say, that parents are prepared to sacrifice themselves for their children.
Similar to this, one of the most startling of all religious symbols is the sacrificial symbol of the Rosicrucians, a sixteenth century European mystical society. This symbol is of a pelican, pecking at the flesh on her chest in order to feed her young. This spiritual imperative to self-sacrifice, for many, is the core meaning of Christ on the cross, dying in order to redeem all God’s children. In fact, there are many traditions in which deities sacrifice themselves for the benefit of their communities.
So why do we do good? I don’t like the three answers that I have just described above.
- Genetic imperative
- A religious impulse to self-sacrifice
They may all be part of the equation, but I prefer to think and to feel that something else is at work — something more direct and inspiring.
When Copernicus and Galileo said that the Earth was a spinning globe and that the sun was the centre of our system, their colleagues did not believe them. I can easily understand this because my actual second-by-second experience is that I am standing on something flat and stable. It is flat. It is not moving. Surely if the Earth were really spinning and orbiting through space at thousands of miles an hour, I would fall over or fall off. The reality is of course that, because of gravity, we do not experience or feel the movement.
But there are more profound and powerful dynamics in the cosmos than just spinning and orbiting. The universe exploded and emerged from some single incomprehensible event. In fact, everything in the cosmos is perpetually emerging, expanding, growing, developing, changing, flowering, contracting, recycling and re-birthing. We ourselves emerge from single cells to grow and expand. Plants emerge from seeds. These are universal dynamics.
But unlike the motions of the Earth, planets and Sun, which we do not feel, we can and do feel the dynamics of emergence, change and growth.
Within ourselves, if there is no flow, no flexibility and change, we experience physical or psychological stiffness and a loss of good health. When we are open, flexible and developing, we experience physical and emotional wellbeing.
It is the same with how we behave and feel towards those around us. If our feelings and behaviour are frozen, then it does not feel good. When our feelings and behaviour are flexible, supportive and creative, it feels good.
Generosity and service, helping things to grow — these activities put us in harmony with the fundamental dynamics of nature and the universe. It feels good to do good because we are then on the same frequency as spirit. We are cooperating with it, congruent with it, dancing it, enjoying it. This is so very different from behaviour that is frigid, greedy and obstructive.
When we live and behave with generosity, something happens within our chemistry and our consciousness. To be creative and in harmony with the thrust of existence feels good.
We do not do good because it brings self-gratification. We do good because that is part of the natural order of things. It is a way of being fully alive.
Of course, to cooperate with this creative cosmic dynamic is difficult when we are lost in illusion, frightened, hungry or insecure. But in times of crisis, heroes emerge who demonstrate poignant courage. Barack Obama’s life is one such inspiring story and I recommend both of his books. At the same time, I pray that the more negative forces of politics and history do not corrupt his instinct for service.
Doing good and being of service do not, however, have to be dramatic or visible. Just having a good attitude is of benefit. Moods and attitudes ripple through social networks “like pebbles thrown into a pond”, wrote Nicholas Christakis, a professor of sociology at Harvard Medical School, in a recent British Medical Journal. ‘A friend who lives within a mile (about 1.6 km) and who becomes happy increases the probability that a person is happy by 25%.’ His research over a twenty-year period with over four thousand people concluded ‘People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.’
Being of service to our communities, being congruent with the fundamental dynamics of emergence and change, then is not just about overt and recognised acts of benevolence. Doing good is crucially about the type of people we are and the ripples that we send out into the pond.