Caring Enough: Selflessness
“Though I expect Ingrid will deny it, I married a mensch. I had suspected it all along from the empathetic way she acted around animals and children, but my suspicions were confirmed when we were driving on black ice the day after we wed, late to the train that would take us to the Harz Mountains for a three-day honeymoon. Speeding toward a narrow railroad underpass, the car suddenly began skidding across the cobblestones. As the passenger-side wheels struck the curb, ejecting a hubcap, I realized as I fought to correct my guidance system that Ingrid’s left arm had reached out to protect me even though the direction of our skid was toward her side of the car.”—Skip Eisiminger
Skip the B.S.
By Dr. Skip Eisiminger
I. “Allah’s an oasis, Christ is a vine,
but the fluids of both, clear or carmine,
move us to love, to do for the other—
to care for a neighbor as a brother.”
CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—1 February 2023—Though I expect Ingrid will deny it, I married a mensch. I had suspected it all along from the empathetic way she acted around animals and children, but my suspicions were confirmed when we were driving on black ice the day after we wed, late to the train that would take us to the Harz Mountains for a three-day honeymoon. Speeding toward a narrow railroad underpass, the car suddenly began skidding across the cobblestones. As the passenger-side wheels struck the curb, ejecting a hubcap, I realized as I fought to correct my guidance system that Ingrid’s left arm had reached out to protect me even though the direction of our skid was toward her side of the car. Naturally, she wasn’t just thinking of me, for her right hand gripped the dashboard. As we emerged from the underpass, whose dry pavement probably saved us, I grasped her hand on my chest, and thanked her. “Naja,” she said, “of course. We’re married now.” I doubt she could have saved me had we struck the abutment, given that there were no safety belts in my 1951 Opel, and I weighed twice what she did. As for the hubcap, it may still be where it fell.
A few years later, shortly after our daughter was born, we heard a flight attendant tell the passengers on board, “In the event of an emergency, and the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, secure your mask first.”
“No way,” I heard my mensch say under her breath.
“What do you mean?”
“If I see those masks dangling before my face, mine is going on Anja,” Ingrid said. “Her lungs are much smaller than mine. What’s the airline going to do? Perhaps, you can share yours with me.”
“Of course, My Queen.”
“Remember the Australian mammal, whose name I’ve forgotten, that may throw its babies at an attacker to spare herself?”
“Yes, it’s the quokka.”
“Well, that’s not me,” she said, unbuttoning her blouse to nurse her first priority.
And once, as my menschlich wife approached the WalMart garden shop in Anderson, she stood speechless as a ton or more of bagged fertilizer slid off a forklift onto an employee’s foot. Though she’d had back surgery recently, she and another employee somehow managed to move the pallet off the injured man’s extremity.
Finally, as regards my selfless wife, after Dr. Leonard Perry, a friend in the Clemson Foreign Language Department, was cheated by a client that he’d done some translating for, he declared, “The only pro bono work I do any more is pro bono Lenny.” Unlike Mahatma Gandhi when threatened by Hitler’s invaders, Ingrid is no doormat. She will, as Thoreau advised, tie her shoelaces and rescue the drowning, but not necessarily in that order. Indeed, if Ingrid ever divorces me, she’ll leave a year’s worth of sandwiches in the freezer. After that, I’m on my own.
II. “Love your neighbors, but tend to your hedge
by trimming both sides lest it form a wedge.”
I cannot recall a time when either of my arms reached out unbidden by my conscious mind to protect a passenger or the driver beside me. The closest I’ve come to my wife’s Menschlichkeit occurred one morning as I was approaching the building where I taught. Some shouts interrupted my mindless reverie, and as I turned in that direction, I saw a young man kick another fellow down a long flight of concrete steps. As he bounced and rolled to my feet, I knelt (instinctively?) to see the extent of his injuries and looked up the stairs to see if the kicker was satisfied with the damage he’d done. Apparently, he was, for he ran off, perhaps fearing I’d call the campus police. He needn’t have worried; I did not have my phone, but I did offer to help the injured student I’d never seen before to the health clinic which was a short walk away. The walk was mostly silent, but I remember thinking how I could dine out on this story for weeks. As you can see, I’m still at it.
By now you know that I’m not Zell Kravinsky, the man who has given some 44 of his forty-five million dollars to charity as well as one of his kidneys. If I had forty-five million to play with, I would surely consider giving much of it away, but I would much rather the government revise the tax code to make it truly progressive, thus involving more people and relieving me of the paperwork. As a teenager with a part-time job in a grocery and a member in good standing of the Presbyterian Church, I used to tithe, but now I’m too cheap or just too old. Friends living in assisted living often remind us how expensive that living is, and the last thing Ingrid and I want is to panhandle for a living or place a financial burden on our children. They have debts and responsibilities of their own. The November 2022 Harper’s Index reported that two-thirds of American men fear that after retiring they will run out of money, and four-fifths of women do. Ingrid and I are determined not to, and if anything is left over, we’ve told our children to cut the pie in half.
When our son, Shane, was about seven, he and I drove to the only mall in Greenville to buy some Christmas gifts. As we entered, I noticed a charity well ahead of us and realized I had a quiet opportunity to test our son’s philanthropic instincts. Reaching into my pocket, I fished out a dime and a quarter. “Here,” I said, “place a coin in the wishing well for the crippled children.” As the smaller coin struck the bottom of the metal well, I knew the die had been cast. I said nothing, but I was disappointed, for Shane had always been a selfless boy. Children as young as 18 months, I’ve read, are instinctively giving by nature. In one test, a “clumsy” adult dropped a clothespin or book near a toddler. In 24 out of 24 cases, a child barely able to walk retrieved the dropped item for a stranger without being asked.
III. “When a crocodile has just taken a chomp,/it’s hard to recall why you’re draining the swamp.”
Not everyone regards selflessness as a virtue. Here’s a short list of the dismissive and cynical:
- “To befriend Bartleby, to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience.” Unnamed lawyer-employer in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.”
- We’re just “stoking our vanity” or seeking a favor in return when we do for others. Paraphrase of La Rochefoucauld.
- “Altruistic” behavior should be understood in terms of the survival of our genes and kin. Paraphrase of various evolutionary biologists.
- “To care exactly enough is the chiefest thing,/And the least likely.” Bob Hill.
- The experiments of Milgram and Zimbardo show that most of us would willingly harm innocents or place them at risk simply because a stranger in a lab coat said we had to.
- Ayn Rand often told gatherings of business leaders that altruism was “treason against themselves . . . a contemptibly evil idea” promoted by “humanitarians” to chisel the productive.
- “‘Turning the other cheek’ just means two bruised cheeks.” Anonymous
- “It appears that some rare individuals have larger amygdalas. That may be why in 2004 there were some 60,000 Americans needing a kidney transplant and 134 donors who’d placed no restrictions on the kidney they’d donated.” Anonymous
It appears that self-preservation is hard-wired in us though the diameter of the wiring will vary.
IV. “If equal affection cannot be,/let the more loving be me.”—W.H. Auden
On looking at a 15,000-year-old skeleton with a femur that had been badly broken but repaired, Margaret Mead concluded that since the victim could not have set the bone and fed himself for about six weeks, what she was looking at may have been the earliest extant example of man’s selflessness and the beginning of civilization. Slowly, humans have learned that selfless behavior, which is doled out in moderation, is often in their self-interest. In acting to bring out the best in others, we elicit the best in ourselves. It’s a lesson we’re still learning, but in scaling Martin Luther King’s arc of justice, we continue to expand the definition of “neighbor” beyond one’s family. Some of the most successful altruists include:
- Franklin, Roentgen, Salk, and Berners-Lee who refused to profit from the lightning rod, the X-ray machine, the polio vaccine, and the World-Wide Web respectively.
- My neighbor Stephen Hedetniemi, whose algorithm he freely placed in the public domain, and which is at the heart of the very profitable Google search engine,
- Schindler, Sugihara, Wallenberg, and dozens of others who saved an estimated 500,000 Jews from the Nazi death camps.
- The twelve men and women who starved to death surrounded by vast piles of food while protecting Leningrad’s Vavilov Seed Bank during World War Two.
- The Inuit mother without a scrap of food, who severed a portion of her thigh to use as bait to catch fish for herself and her child.
- The two-thirds of Daniel Batson’s students at the University of Kansas who opted to give themselves electric shocks instead of allowing a stranger to be victimized.
- The bonobos, chimpanzees, and gorillas who have been observed sharing food and aiding others of their kind.
- And one last example from fiction, Huckleberry Finn, who accepted the risky responsibility to protect his enslaved friend and surrogate father, saying, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell . . . .”
In other words, Jim’s welfare meant more to Huck than his own eternal salvation.
V. Humans have a responsibility to transport Earth’s DNA to the exoplanets.
—Paraphrase of various science fiction writers
I look forward to the day when we can read the brain’s final thoughts after some Marine throws herself on a live grenade before it explodes killing her sisters in arms. And if while reading that posthumous transcript, we discover that she had taken a shine to the Medal of Honor, America’s highest honor, as well as her sisters’ welfare, it should not lessen her achievement in anyone’s opinion. For a self-sacrifice such as hers is still “self-less” even if it is “ego-some.”
One object of life, as I see it, is to make every human effort to transcend or reify the self; to die as an abstraction of love with a minimum of self remaining and the broadest concept of “neighbor” installed. We’re all potentially self-less, but no one is self-zero, for a selfless act is not one without a self because we all have a reflexive aptitude that cannot be denied or ignored. Try to stop your breathing for more than a few minutes, and you’ll understand my meaning.
Nothing I know of illustrates my unconventional view of altruism better than the famous photograph of the father leaning away from a baseball bat flying toward a stadium’s box seats even as this man extends an arm to protect his daydreaming small son. Yes, the father was protecting himself as are the other fans in the photograph, for he was incapable of doing otherwise. What’s commendable is that he was thinking of someone other than himself when he was at risk, and that’s why he’s a Mensch.
To order copies of Skip Eisiminger’s Letters to the Grandchildren (Clemson University Digital Press), click on the book cover below or contact: Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing, Strode Tower, Box 340522, Clemson SC 29634-0522. For Wordspinner: Mind-Boggling Games for Word Lovers, click on the book cover.
Kenneth W. George
I miss reading your wisdom Skip.
Thanks, Kenneth, but the essay above is as wise as I get these days.
PS Give our best to John Butler when you see him next.