Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Altruistic Myth?

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Today brings thoughts of altruism, by way of Camus, by way of myself by way of ... ?

Last night I received two phone calls from two different friends who were amidst a feud. I was put in the middle of the argument. At first, I felt confused. Why me? Why call me? What can I do?

The only real person these people were each connected to--the point man, as it were--was myself. I am friends with both of them. They were not actually friends, per say, but acquaintances. There was a feud. I will not go into the details of the feud, for the sake of privacy, but it was quite absurd, as it was about an act, or a mis-deed, though the crux of the argument was more about how each person had communicated or perceived the deed. The mis-deed was acceptable, the language used to communicate was not.

Okay. Fine. So. They each called me. Also fine. I happily took on the responsibility of trying to calm each one down, and talk through possible acts of emotional repair. At the end of each conversation, resolutions seemed to have been found. I had done my deed, and I had done it well. I had served my friends with grace. With care. With kindness. With a concern for each of their well-being, and for an attempt at healing the argument.

After a few different phone calls, and a few hours of personal brain-time this dilemma consumed, I began to wonder why I so readily accepted the burden of their problem.

Was this an altruistic act? A righteous act? Was it just because I was "good"?

In Camus' "The Fall", his protagonist lawyer speaks of his life as one of righteousness. The ideal life. The ideal man. He defends the poor. Helps the blind. Has compassion for criminals. He was a very honourable man.

In the Jewish faith, there is much talk of righteousness. The greatest act one can do, according to God and the Torah, is called a "Mitzvah". A good deed. A charitable act. To do for others.

In both The Fall, and The Torah, these righteous deeds are claimed by both to be the "way to be with others". In the Fall, however, after the protagonist witnesses a Fall, and does nothing (despite his righteousness), the truth of his own hypocrisy is revealed to himself--leading him to have to destroy his own personal image of his past self and enter into a more self-centred psyche.

I'm not as familiar with the Torah (old testament), but I do know that all our friends in the Torah struggle between good and evil. Righteousness and self-centredness. What I don't know, is how God would speak about hypocrisy. Or perhaps he can't really, because God seems to free us of the responsibility of recognizing our hypocrisies. "Its not me. Its God."

And so as I think about my righteous act. This "helping of friends", I am having a difficult time landing on why exactly I was so available. Eager, even, to help. I wanted to help solve this problem, perhaps, more than the culprits themselves. Who's problem was I solving? Theirs or mine?

I want these friends to get a long. They exist in different realms of my life, and to have them dislike each other would not be good for me. It would be awkward and complicated for me.

Also, the "bad feelings" each friend would have for the other, could somehow effect the way my own thoughts work in relationship to each of these people, who are both important people in my life. I did not want to be dissuaded from liking either, nor did I want to have to choose.

One is a newer friend than the other, and I am still amidst developing a relationship with this new friend. I have had only good thoughts of them until now, and I certainly do not want this altercation to effect the image of who I think this person is.

Same goes for my old friend, really. I would not want her negative reaction to keep me away from from wanting to speak to her (which is often about my own feelings, which proves to be an important therapeutic act for me).

And so on.. and so on..

I have to say, when I first got off the phone, like the protagonist in The Fall and his lawyer pride, I felt pretty damn proud of what a great friend I was. What a good person I was. What a caring, kind person I was.

And upon further examination, I wonder if I would have done any of that if it wouldn't in some way directly relate to my life, and more immediately, my thoughts. I'm sitting here writing this, so clearly, already my thoughts have been affected.

This was a disruption in my life. I did not want this disruption. It was not good for me. And so. I needed to fix it. Solve it.

I don't know if I have. I don't think so. Not for them, anyways. For me? Perhaps. I said what I needed to say. I gave my good advice. And now, my mind feels more at rest. More peaceful. I protected myself, and fixed my thoughts. Hell, I even contributed to my thoughts. I got a whole blog out of this whole thing! What a gift this argument was!

Was this all about me? Is my complicity an entirely self-centred act? I did not have to answer the phone. I did not have to call anyone back. I did not have to do anything to help anyone, but I did, because I knew it would make me feel better. No. I knew it would make me feel GOOD. To do GOOD makes me feel like I am GOOD. I am righteous. I am whole.

But the truth?


I have to give credit for this line of thought as a continuation from a long conversation I was involved in with some friends on Sunday afternoon. I have chosen to give credit to this conversation on the off chance that any of them will read this. I would not want them to think that I was claiming to have all of these thoughts all on my own. Its not that I care about their feelings. I care about how I will feel when I next see them. I want them to trust me, so that in their company, I can feel comfortable to once again rip of their thoughts to inform my own, and perhaps, blog about them. Or steal them for my writing. Or pretty much any other thing that will serve myself.

You see.

Perhaps I am just an asshole. Perhaps I do only for myself. If I serve you in the process, then hurray for you. But the truth? Do I care only about those that help me live my life in the most contented, satisfactory, self-serving of ways?

Does altruism exist? True Goodness. Does that exist? Do we ever do anything that does not serve ourselves? SHOULD WE?

I plea for your thoughts.



I've done things that were completely opposite to what I wanted to do, in order to be a Good Person. I've also said "screw it" to doing what I perceived to be The Right Thing...because I really, really didn't want to. Most times, I've truly wanted to do what can be perceived (upon reflection) to be The Good Person Right Thing.

A mixed bag. No conclusions. Excellent questions, Michael.

I think True Goodness exists but it isn't possible to take that path all the time. You have to take care of yourself as well as others; sometimes that is all goodness and sometimes selfish. But I think you took those phonecalls more out of concern for your friends and yes, the balance you all have...than out of concern for yourself. It was only upon reflection, not your immediate response, that you realized how it all benefited you, too.

Between Friday and yesterday I spent a total of one and a half hours and about $30 to secure a pirated copy of Adobe In Design, plus the necessary installation instructions for a man I've never met. He's a brilliant writer who has been having a hard time finding work, and just secured an opportunity under the condition that he have software that can be used to lay out newsletters. It was fairly easy to ask my lovely, geeky friends for this favour, and only cost me a beer or two, and it made me feel really great to help out.

Here's the rub...I met this guy on an online dating site just before Christmas. We've had a fairly brilliant email exchange, which resulted in some seriously fantastic writing, but for reasons that are still mysterious he won't meet me in person (I think he might be a recluse. or married.) I would be a big fat liar if I said I orchestrated this favour out of the pure kindness of my heart. Of course, the hope is that he'll arrange to meet to get the software. I think I'm well past any romantic interest at this point, but the curiosity is making me crazy.

I think anytime we do good deeds for others it is intrinsically self-serving. Even if we feel really put-out at the time, we come to feel better about ourselves as people, and/or relieved to be taken out of the landscape of our gray matter, or worse yet, our own asses.

p.s. Online dating is stupid.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Michael Rubenfeld

Michael Rubenfeld is a writer, director, actor and producer. His plays include Present Tense, Spain and My Fellow Creatures.

Go to Michael Rubenfeld’s Author Page