How often had I actually been altruistic, I recently wondered, recalling a day in the mid-1990s when, still in my naïve 20s, I drove from the Philadelphia suburbs to visit friends for a weekend in New York City. My job reporting for a tiny local daily was starting to feel like drudgery. I was weary of listening to the gadflies at school board meetings complain about ballooning class sizes. Childless myself at the time, I had no empathy yet for the plight of the worried parent. I needed a break and wanted to escape to the Big Apple.
But as I was descending through bumper-to-bumper traffic in the rush-hour heat of this summer Friday afternoon, waiting to pass through the Lincoln Tunnel, my 15-year-old Pontiac died. The engine wouldn’t turn over. I felt a primal flush of panic and went into a flop sweat, as the horns started to blare.
I didn’t belong to AAA. I barely knew how to pump gas. I certainly couldn’t change a tire, much less jump-start an engine.
Then all of a sudden, a nearby hearse-sized Buick began to perform a meticulous 27-point turn. The driver, a woman, expertly circled her steering wheel with one hand, inched forward, circled the wheel again and inched back until somehow, miraculously, her car was facing mine.
It happened so quickly that it felt like slow motion.
“Pop your hood,” my brusque angel commanded and she emerged from her trunk with jumper cables.
She clamped the cables to my dead battery and told me when to bear down on the gas, as other drivers irritably steered their cars around the monstrous obstacle we presented. And as soon as my tired Pontiac roared back to life, my fairy godmother reversed her 27-point turn and drove off forever as I shouted “Thank you!” over the honking.
I came to view this woman as a mythical, mysterious Mother Teresa figure who briefly flitted in and out of my life. The altruism of her act astonished me. I felt hard-pressed to recall the last time someone had gone so out of their way to help me just because they could.
But I had forgotten about this woman’s selfless regard for my welfare until I recently listened to a Moth Radio Hour episode in which an engineering student in India gobbles up his first Kit-Kat just as his roommate enters with a small piece of another Kit-Kat that he delicately breaks in half. The storyteller has no choice but to accept the treat, reasoning that he can’t very well say, “That’s ok. I just wolfed down an entire bar by myself.” But coincident with his self-disgust, the man feels the impact of his friend’s altruism — the pull of the generosity concealed deep down inside most of us.
When was the last time I had done something truly altruistic, I wondered, deciding that feeding, clothing, and loving my children didn’t count because they are an extension of me and, therefore, narcissism is involved. The other day I placed a spray of hydrangea on my friend’s doorstep as an anonymous birthday surprise but ultimately couldn’t resist querying via text whether she had enjoyed my offering. And when another friend recently called because she was suffering from an uncharacteristic depression, I listened attentively but ended up talking about myself. People love to talk about themselves — and I am no exception.
Just as I was starting to despair at the state of my own depravity, however, the dimpled smile of my son’s friend flashed through my mind. His sister was ill, so he had visited our house throughout the end of the summer, sharing his peaceful, bright company. I admired his maturity, the frank way he was confronting his family’s ordeal. And I looked up to my friend who with her husband was handling the challenge of caring for their sick daughter with such nurturing aplomb.
I don’t know if keeping in touch with our friends and spending time with their son counted as altruism. But I didn’t, at this point in my mental meanderings, really very much care. I wasn’t thinking about myself any longer. I was thinking about this other family and wishing them well without hoping for anything but their daughter’s health in return.