Saturday, February 03, 2007

Altruism, Jesus' Second Commandment

In August 2006, I joined the International Healthcare Volunteers to work at the Central Regional Health Center in Cape Coast, a coastal town in Ghana. I was called to the hospital's emergency room to see an 18 year old girl who was pregnant and was miscarrying. She was bleeding and was as white as paper. She needed blood. However, the hospital did not have enough blood for her. Her mother was called to get her relatives to donate blood for the patient. The relatives lived in another town and hence could not come to donate the blood in a timely fashion to save the girl's life. Two of my female colleagues (physicians) volunteered and donated 2 pints of blood for the patient. There is no way the blood donors did not benefit from their kindness. The feeling of helping a helpless teenager in no doubt boosted their self esteem and immune system.

A study in the US, designed to assess empathy, altruism, religiousness and spirituality, elicited various
responses from the people surveyed. Altruism is a healthy trait to develop. When helping others the helper also benefits from giving themselves unselfishly. It's like sprinkling perfume on a rotten carcass. The odor from the carcass is taken away and the person doing the sprinkling enjoys a better smell after the sprinkling of the perfume. Dr Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi were altruistic and paid for it with their lives. Dr King summed his idea of altruism as:

"There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet. Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few years ago, but most men and most women never discover it. For they believe in hitting for hitting; they believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; they believe in hating for hating; but Jesus comes to us and says, "This isn’t the way." And this morning, I think of the fact that our world is in transition now. Our whole world is facing a revolution." Martin Luther King, Jr.

Even animals are altruistic . It appears that we are all born with the capacity to be altruistic. Recent brain scans have been able to find a region of the brain responsible for altruism. Does it mean that if you grow up in an altruistic family, you would also become altruistic because of development of that area of the brain that is responsible for altruism? Does it mean that we can learn altruism in later life? In an article that appeared in the Journal, Spirituality and Science, healthcare givers were given spiritual training on altruism and the:

"Findings indicate the program significantly reduces stress and enhances caregiving self-efficacy, altruistic actions, compassion, empathy, and forgiveness of others and of self, and the effects persisted at an eight-week follow-up. The results support consideration of such a program in continuing education curricula for healthcare professionals."

Love of humanity has positive physiologic effects on the individual showering the love and the recipient of the love. If an altruism center can be found in the brain, then it means we are born with it and all of us can practise it. If we don't practise it now, we can learn to lend a helping hand to a stranger or to a struggling member of our family. This way, the perfume we sprinkle on our neighbor can be smelt on us too, for this is a gift Christ left us - to "love your neighbor as yourself."


RUTH said...

Thank you for your comment on my blog. I wish that some our our doctors could read your posts; your caring nature, no doubt strengthened by your beliefs, shine through in your writing.

Manny Essel, MD said...

Thanks for your comment. I am happy you enjoyed reading some of the words on these pages. We are all searching for the right path. I hope my contribution will shine a light to help someone.