The Helpers

A few weeks ago, I was at Camp Cranium (which is an awesome summer camp for children who’ve suffered brain injuries, strokes, and other neurological complications; you can check it out here if you have any interest in learning more or volunteering next year).

During the week, in light of the mass shooting in Orlando, our camp director said something that caught my attention. It was a quote from good ol’ Mr. Rogers. To loosely paraphrase, the gist was something like: “When there is some kind of catastrophe, look for the helpers to remember that there is hope.”

In other words, realize that despite the fact that a few people may have decided to throw the middle finger to living together peacefully on this planet, there are usually a lot more people than that rushing in to help out when the shit hits.

It’s really easy to sit back and indulge in pessimism—to watch our species shoot and stab and bomb the living hell out of itself and think, “Yeah, we’re probably screwed…”

But if we channel our inner Mr. Rogers and look to the helpers, a lot of us will probably start to feel a little better about the world. But that goes far beyond times of catastrophe and calamity.

It can be something as simple as looking to your garden-variety random act of kindness—one person just taking a few moments and maybe going a smidge out of their way to help a stranger out. “Altruism”, as they call it.

Of course, a good cynic will make the argument that humans are not capable of altruism and that people who serve others do it to fulfill their own selfish desires to feel good about themselves.

That’s fine by me…

Faking It

In my mind, the question of whether or not people can really behave altruistically—while interesting—is ultimately unimportant as far as the well-being of the human race is concerned.

If everyone always chose to help their fellow humans out (even at their own expense), I have a feeling that the average, ehh… suffering per capita, if you will, would be significantly diminished, and that whatever “suffering” the helping parties took on would be minuscule in comparison to the suffering that would be alleviated worldwide.

In short, if everyone tried to at least pretend to be selfless, I think there’d be a net gain in happiness and well-being for pretty much everyone (even for those who sacrifice a lot to help others). Presumably, we could “fake it until we make it”.

Even if that process were completely driven by shitty, self-serving human greed (i.e. the desire to feel good about oneself), the end result could still be “better” than the alternative.

Now, I doubt that many people would outright disagree with much of what I’ve said so far. The difficulty comes in taking the leap and actually incurring “loss” in order to help others. Most of us are willing to do this for friends and family, to some extent, but that willingness seems to diminish when it’s perfect strangers we’re dealing with.

On top of that, it might be tempting to think about this all as a zero-sum game—a situation where every bit of suffering that’s alleviated must be balanced by the incursion of an equal amount of suffering in the helping party. As I kind of suggested above, I don’t think that’s the case.

Two and Two Gives Us Bananas

If we look at systems where a lot of stuff is happening all at once (two examples I like are human brains and the world economy), we can often see what we call emergent properties, which are basically properties that exist in a complex system despite the fact that their individual members do not exhibit them.

Going back to the human brain example, we can think of the occurrence of thought and emotion as emergent properties, as we can’t really achieve these phenomena with single neurons.

The point that’s more important in this example, though, is that if we never focused on studying anything more than single neurons, we might miss the fact that thoughts and emotions and such could even be produced when enough of these individuals throw their voices in.

Now, clearly we already know that we experience thought and emotion, so its not something that we could really miss. On the flip side, though, if we failed to recognize that things like thought and emotion are emergent properties that arise from the small inputs of hundreds of millions (or even billions) of individual neurons, we might fall into a fallacy of division, whereby we’d imagine that each one of those individual neurons must itself be capable of some manner of thought and that each neuron must be more or less carrying its own proportional weight in the system.

Clearly, these things don’t have to be true. But back to the point:

How does this fit back into the idea of helping others?

To pull that all into a neat little summary, my point is that sometimes it’s pretty hard to look at what an individual can do and accurately predict what would happen if many individuals interacted, exhibiting the same behavior. It’s also not necessarily good practice to look at an end goal (or an emergent behavior) like, say, a happy, healthy world (where people aren’t starving and killing each other) and assume that the only way to get there is if everyone is totally on the same page and pitching in with one seven-billionth of the effort.

In even more condensed terms, if everyone were game for routinely doing just a little bit to try to make someone else’s day a little better (even—or, maybe, especially—if it’s a complete stranger), I think the worldwide feel-good payoff would be something more than the simple sum of parts.

Maybe we could even get people to stop shooting each other.

Worldwide love and peace might sound like a laughable fairy tales, but it might also be that arriving somewhere in that ballpark would take a lot less effort than we’d think on the individual level.

I’m not saying everyone needs to go start volunteering or donating to charity or what have you. I’m not really saying anyone needs to do anything, really. It’s not like I’m some kind of great public servant, myself.

I’m just saying that maybe, just maybe, if everyone happened to be willing to put on their helper hats (or at least be mindful to leave off their asshole hats), the results might just compound quite miraculously.

So if you happen to decide to go just a little out of your way to help someone the next time you see an opportunity, then good on you. If not, I guess the world will just keep on turning anyway.

Annnd there’s my wishy-washy two cents on public service. Now I’m gonna go bury myself back in my fictional worlds for a while.

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