How Altruism and Cooperation Help Us Survive

Evolution by natural selection is blamed for promoting ruthless competition as a way to succeed in life — hence concepts such as “survival of the fittest” and “Social Darwinism”, which are seen as rooted in evolutionary theory but, are in fact perversions and misunderstandings of it. Take it from the man who formulated the theory of evolution:

The conclusion that cooperative groups will flourish at the expense of more selfish ones, and that as a result moral instincts will gradually evolve, was at the heart of [Charles Darwin’s] evolutionary writings. In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin wrote about loving and cooperative behaviours in dogs, elephants, baboons, pelicans, and other species. He thought that sympathetic and cooperative tribes and groups would flourish in comparison with communities made up of more selfish individuals, and that natural selection would thus favour cooperation.

Another tendency that Darwin shares with more recent scientists is his willingness to leap from the world of natural selection to the language of morality. Writing of the evolution of human cooperation, Darwin predicted that “looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe, and virtue will be triumphant.”

The idea that evolution makes selfishness and immorality pivotal to survival is not only factually wrong, but a key reason why so many people — particularly the religious — are so reluctant to accept it as true. But mounting scientific evidence has verified Darwin’s early observations that prosocial behaviors are vital to our species’ flourishing: Continue reading

On Depression, Suicide, and Being a Good Person

The psychologist Rollo May once noted that “depression is the inability to construct a future”. Whatever the scientific merits of that observation, I believe it offers a reasonable explanation for how someone could do something that most of us would find impossible: consciously ending their own lives, often regardless of their seemingly positive circumstances. If one is unable to see any point to their lives, or to conceive of any future beyond the painful past and present that is all they know, then what other choice to they have, as far as they can see?

Obviously, depression and suicidal ideation are fundamentally personal matters that affect each individual differently, so I am reluctant to generalize about how it feels, where it stems from, and so on. Please take this as the uneducated stream of consciousness of one person and nothing more.

All I can say is that as a sufferer of depression and anxiety (both thankfully far milder than most), as well as someone familiar with the subject through loved ones and personal research, I have learned one valuable thing: no expression of love or validation is too small. Every little bit counts. No matter how futile it may seem, at the very least we must try.

I have heard too many stories of people being brought back from the brink of suicide and despair by the spontaneous phone call of a loved one, or the random act of kindness from a stranger. Humans inherently seek out validation and meaning in their lives; as a social and sentient species, we require both love and a sense of purpose. Simply being acknowledged by another human being, or being given something to work towards — a charitable cause, the making of art, the caring of others — is enough to enrich our lives and keep us going.

There is little I can say that is not already known: that suicide is irreversible, that depression and mental illness are nothing to be ashamed of and suffer alone with, that the people around you care and want you to stay. The unfortunate reality is that no matter how much we remind ourselves of these things, or how much we try to be there for others, the tragedy of the human condition continues. Many of us will be or feel powerless to help ourselves or others. In response to tragedy, we will reflect, act accordingly in the short term, but then move on until the next grim reminder.

Of course, this is not to discourage people from seeking help or offering it — doing good is still valuable and necessary regardless of whether bad things continue to happen. Over the years, I have learned from both personal experience and the accounts of others, that no matter what your mental status — depressed, suicidal, satisfied, etc — doing good for others feels deeply uplifting and self-actualizing. After all, we need to start somewhere, and in such a cruel world, no act of goodness is too small. It will always matter to someone, perhaps enough to save their lives. What have we got to lose in the process?

Ultimately, my point is that we must remain vigilant in our goodness and conscientiousness, to be kind and loving to as many of our fellow humans as possible. As the Scottish author Ian Maclaren rightly advised, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”. In doing so, we can better our chances at enriching, if not saving, both others’ lives and our own. Even if it does not work out — if people continue to suffer, act self-destructively, or remain unmoved to act morally — at the very least we can say that we did very sincere best, and will continue to do so as long as human suffering on both an individual and societal level remains.

If you have read up to this point, thank you, and remember that I am always here for you, whether you’re an acquaintance or my very closest loved one. Your value as a person is all the same. Try me, you’ve got nothing to lose and no judgement to contend with. I know I can seem distant and unavailable, but believe me, I can and will make the time. It is hardly an inconvenience. On the contrary, it would be my honor. Be well my readers.

Suicidal Ideation and Attention Seeking

Whenever I’m helping out someone who is suicidal or struggling with mental illness, I’m often advised not to bother, because such individuals are most likely trying to draw attention to themselves, and I’ll only be wasting my time.

First of all, I’d rather make the mistake of assuming an attention seeker is serious about their problem, rather than the other way around – a lot of people have lost their lives that way.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, the fact that someone is so desperate for attention is itself a problem worth addressing. Anyone who threatens drastic actions such as suicide in order to get others to care about them clearly needs love and help. Obviously, their tactics will need to be confronted and addressed eventually, but ignoring them isn’t going to help.

I’m not a psychiatrist. I don’t always have good advice, or any real solution for that matter. Sometimes I don’t even know what to say. But more often than not, all anyone wants – and I say this as a sufferer of depression – is just someone else to talk to, someone who cares. That much I can certainly offer. It may not be enough, but it may also be everything. It never hurts to try.

This is just what I’ve learned from experience. People are welcomed to share their own views and perspectives on the matter.

Reaffirming My Faith in Humanity

There was food left over from a luncheon at my job. I decided to take about a dozen bagels to give to some homeless people I often see while walking back to the metro. I came across a woman who was clearly malnourished. I offered to give her the whole supply, but she politely (and strangely) refused, and only with my insistence did she bother to take at least one. She did not want any more than that.

When I asked her why, she replied that there are other homeless folks that could you that food. That sort of altruism even in the face of desperation is Earth shattering. Would I have done the same in her position?

The Christmas Spirit

It is lamentable, if the data is to be believed, that acts of charity and compassion increase during the holidays only to fall precipitously thereafter. We shouldn’t devote a particular season or time period to acts of human decency – it should be a constant concern, to the best of our individual ability.

Granted, I don’t want to come off as a scrooge, in that we should certainly be grateful for any level of altruism no matter how ephemeral. The pragmatist in me knows to appreciate whatever good may come, even though I’d much prefer that such decency be more sincere and deeply-rooted. In the end, any light of good-will in this often dark world of ours is better than not.

But I don’t want to be to glum. Enjoying the fruits of our fortune and helping out others needn’t be mutually exclusive: religious or not, most of us spend this season with our loved ones, pondering all that we’re grateful for. To me, such gratefulness is best applied to bettering the lives of others in any way we can. Nothing lightens the soul of any decent person more than seeing others share in this love and kindness. Most people are good at heart in my opinion – we just need to make it a full-time consideration.

Random Acts of Kindness

Ultimately, most people just want someone to talk to, someone that will listen to them and care. It’s amazing how many issues can be solved or mitigated by a simple exchange of dialogue or the offering of a sympathetic ear. How many people of sound mind can truly claim to be devoid of this universal need? Discounting certain behavioral or mental conditions, even the most asocial among us require some means of interaction, no matter how indirect or passive: chatting online, playing multiplayer video games, or even blogging.

There have been many instances where giving someone a nice call to hello, or even posting a friendly comment on someone’s Facebook profile, can help raise spirits or provide momentary but valuable comfort. Sometimes, it can even save a life: people on the brink of suicide have been pulled back with nothing more than a well-timed greeting or polite gesture. By my personal experience alone, I can recall having helped others in these simple ways, as well as having been aided by these methods in turn.

Even when undertaken by a complete stranger, a gesture of kindness can have incalculable value – in fact, I’d argue it’d be of even greater impact, since the thought of someone who doesn’t know us caring about our well-being is tremendously inspiring and reassuring. Why should someone with nothing to gain from helping you, choose to do so anyway? The fact that would restores hope like few other things. The love of another person, no matter what their relation to you, or lack thereof, is a beautiful and highly-sought after thing. Few things validate our existence more profoundly than the acknowledgement and affection of others.

Never underestimate the value of something as seemingly insignificant as a hug, compliment, or friendly greeting. Never hesitate to check-up on old friends and acquaintances, even by text or email. Such expressions of concern, no matter how minute they appear or what form they take, can really make someone’s day. In the aggregate, they can even change your entire outlook and personality for the better.

I consider myself proof of that. I wouldn’t be as content with myself or my life if it wasn’t for the immense kindness of strangers and friends. Their collective goodwill and concern has driven me to give back to this world. The reciprocation of goodness – the “paying-it-forward” of good deeds in turn – is perhaps the most valuable outcome of an individual random act of kindness. Overtime, such deeds could have vaster implications for the well-being of society than we can ever imagine, although helping just one person have just one good day is worthy enough.

A Heart Warming Exchange of Altruism

Stories like this may seem few and far in between, but I like to think they happen more often than not.

You just never know when you’re going to need help in return for a good deed. For Victor Giesbrecht, it was almost immediately.

That’s because minutes after helping two women change a tire on the side of a Wisconsin highway, the 61-year-old Winnipeg resident suffered a heart attack. The women’s help, including a quick call to emergency services and some basic CPR, helped save his life.

“We’ll forever be in their debt,” Giesbrecht’s wife, Ann, said of the pair.

The two women, Wisconsin resident Sara Berg, 40, and her cousin Lisa Meier, were driving home Saturday night on Interstate 94 just east of the city of Menomonie when a “God awful” noise signalled a flat tire.

Berg told the Star that she pulled over and called for help. That’s when a Ford pickup truck, driven by Giesbrecht, stopped to help.

Without any formal introduction, Giesbrecht grabbed his tools and set to work, changing the front passenger tire on Berg’s Plymouth Breeze. When he was done, they shook hands and Berg and Meier offered their thanks.

According to Berg, Giesbrecht then said: “Somebody up above put me in the right place at the right time.”

“Thank God for you,” she remembers telling him. “Thanks for stopping.”

Giesbrecht drove off, and Berg soon followed. But a couple of kilometres down the road, Berg noticed Giesbrecht’s pickup at the side of the highway.

As she pulled over she saw Giesbrecht’s wife waving her arms at passing traffic.

Sensing that Giesbrecht was having a heart attack, Berg — a home-care worker with the Mayo Clinic Health System — climbed in the truck and started CPR. Meier called for help.

Giesbrecht had no vital signs when emergency personnel arrived, said Wisconsin State Patrol Sgt. Steve Tape.

Two Dunn County deputies had an automated external defibrillator in their car and delivered three shocks to Giesbrecht that restarted his heart, Tape said.

A medical helicopter landed on the interstate to transport him to hospital in Eau Claire, Wisc. Giesbrecht arrived in critical condition but was listed in serious condition Monday, said his attending cardiologist, Dr. Regis Fernandes. He confirmed Giesbrecht suffered cardiac arrest.

Fernandes said the chances of surviving cardiac arrest outside of a hospital are very slim.

For Giesbrecht, getting CPR in combination with the defibrillator was critical, he said.

Berg insists it was the collaborative effort that saved Giesbrecht.

“They were just really friendly, kind people,” she said. “And I was grateful.”

But Ann Giesbrecht couldn’t help but single someone out.

“I talked to Sara on Sunday night and told her, ‘You actually saved his life,’” she said.

We need to share more news like this more often. Far too often, we underestimate the better part of our nature. For many people, this may be a drop in the bucked compared to all the evil and moral depravity that occurs in ample amounts across the world. But I think such small lights in the darkness are a source of comfort – it’s all that keeps me going sometimes. We shouldn’t underestimate the pay-it-forward effect either.