Selflessness -Altruism: the quality of unselfish concern for the welfare of others. This is the first definition of selflessness I find when I type the term into my web browser and ask the interwebs for an answer.
Altruism is defined as: 1. The belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. 2. Behavior of an animal that benefits another at its own expense.
It’s the second definition of altruism and selflessness that I think is the most poignant of the three definitions above, because it extends beyond humans and incorporates animals as well. At the end of the day we are, after all, just complicated animals with larger brains we use more of than other animals. But I feel there is a deeper meaning with that more general definition: even less evolved animals are able to demonstrate selflessness.
This is demonstrated very often in the wild – look at Emperor Penguin and the lengths they go to in order to protect, first the egg, and then their fuzzy, young offspring. They take turns guarding their progeny, travel hundreds of miles to the ocean to feed at the risk of their own lives, then travel back to take over parenting responsibilities. Meanwhile the other parent is basically in an undecided death march where the stakes are their lives.
If only humans had this instinct programmed into each and every one of us – but unfortunately we don’t. Emotion guides us in our selflessness, and emotion is not instinctual, which makes selflessness hit or miss in our species. It takes love, a feeling of protectiveness, a feeling of genuine concern and caring for us to muster this selfless state of existence. Deep at the heart of selflessness lies unconditional love, but unlike penguins, it’s not bred into us.
I have met many selfless people, but three times as many selfish people in my lifetime. The one observation I can make is those who are selfless have more meaning in their lives and receive the love back that guides their selfless actions. It’s in the heart of selflessness that you will find real, unconditional love. Love of a good mother or father, love of a good spouse or a good sibling, or a close relative, but that level of love is still rare.
If evolution has given us larger brains and more complicated lives and emotions, maybe we’d be better off as penguins – at least they have instinctual love… even if they don’t know the name for it.