“Real love is not based on attachment, but on altruism.”
The Dalai Lama stated this recently at a talk he gave at the Taj Mahal in Delhi.
“Thus, the practice of compassion and wisdom is useful to all, especially to those responsible for running national affairs, in whose hands lie the power and opportunity to create the structure of world peace,” he continued.
In the aftermath of the two bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15, which injured over 200 and killed several innocent bystanders, many have surmised that those responsible for committing such horrific actions are an example of humanity at its worst.
However, in the aftermath of the tragedy, examples of human altruism that emerged perhaps showcase the best of humanity, and a glimmer of hope in creating the structure of world peace that the Dalai Lama spoke about.
Random acts of kindness
Just under an hour after two explosions were detonated in downtown Boston, sending shrapnel and limbs flying across a crowd, the Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts announced it was no longer in need of blood donations, as so many people had given already that it was at its maximum supply. Indeed, stories emerged from the site of the blast — the finish line of the Boston Marathon, where some runners pressed ahead after crossing the finish line to give blood.
“This extraordinary occurrence was to be the mere beginning of a week of altruism, humanity, and kindness in the midst of anguish,” says an editorial in Harvard University’s student newspaper, The Crimson.
“As much as the marathon bombings and Thursday night’s shooting of MIT police officer Sean Collier showed the severity of the pain that we can inflict on each other, the actions of countless community members in greater Boston put on display the best sides of our communities.” The article also praises many who, in the face of a tumultuous time, did their best to reach out and assist their fellow humankind.
The Peace Activist and the Injured Man
One of the most harrowing stories to emerge from the bombing (and to be captured in a now-iconic photograph) was the case of Jeff Bauman, who thought he was going to die after his legs were blown off and he laid bleeding profusely on Boylston Street. Then he spotted cowboy-hat-wearing peace activist Carlos Arredondo, who came to his rescue.
Arredondo lost a son in the war in Iraq, and another to suicide as he dealt with grief from his brother’s death.
“I saw him. He was running around helping everybody,” Bauman told the New York Post.
“And then … he helped me,” Bauman said of Arredondo, who was photographed pushing him to safety in a wheelchair. “He was going nuts helping everybody. His adrenaline was definitely, definitely kicking.”
“When Carlos picked me up and threw me into the wheelchair, then I was like, ‘All right, maybe I am going to make it.’ But before that, no way — I thought I was done.”
Arredondo found a wheelchair, placed the injured man in it and pinched the artery in Bauman’s leg closed and wheeled him to an ambulance.
And Bauman lived — and many others survived, thanks to the heroic effects of altruistic bystanders.
“At a time when the shock and horror at the happenings of Monday might have made us wary of one another, we all instead came together — and an act of terrorism prompted not fright, but compassion and empathy. Those who ran toward the blast on Monday afternoon to aid the wounded, and those who rushed to donate their blood, were but the first to display the spirit, the bravery, and the fraternity of a hurt city,” the Crimson concludes. “The unity with which our communities confronted this week’s happenings deserves credit and praise. Police officers, emergency personnel, and the people of Boston have demonstrated incredible resilience and strength — a true cause for celebration.”
A selfless concern for the welfare of others is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and also central to many religious traditions.
The science of selflessness
Humans aren’t the only species capable of altruistic behavior. Contrary to some arguments which may posit that it’s a dog-eat-dog world where it’s part of human nature that everyone is only looking to serve themselves, altruism is even found even among animal species.
“Altruistic behaviour is common throughout the animal kingdom, particularly in species with complex social structures,” the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy reports. “For example, vampire bats regularly regurgitate blood and donate it to other members of their group who have failed to feed that night, ensuring they do not starve. In numerous bird species, a breeding pair receives help in raising its young from other ‘helper’ birds, who protect the nest from predators and help to feed the fledglings. Vervet monkeys give alarm calls to warn fellow monkeys of the presence of predators, even though in doing so they attract attention to themselves, increasing their personal chance of being attacked.”
In a recent study authored by Michael Wade, a professor at Indiana University and a visiting scholar at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, Wade and collaborator J. David Van Dyken of Indiana University model sought to identify the environmental conditions that favor one type of altruism over another.
They found that when key local resources are scarce, such as food or habitat, altruistic behaviors that provide more of those resources, or that use them more efficiently, will be favored.
But when resources are abundant, altruistic behaviors that help other individuals live longer, or produce more offspring, will give organisms an edge. Animals such as songbirds, ungulates and chimpanzees, for example, make alarm calls to warn nearby group members of approaching predators, braving danger to protect others.
“The bottom line is that the way creatures are likely to help each other when times are tight is different from how they’re likely to help each other in times of plenty,” Wade said.
Indeed, many instances of altruism were captured after the recent tragedy. Dr. Tricia Wachtendorf, sociology professor and director of the Disaster Research Center, in the University of Delaware Review, commented on the significance of the outpouring of civilian assistance after the bombing.
“One of the things that I think is important is there has been a lot of emphasis on the helping behavior that has occurred after the bombing in Boston,” Wachtendorf said. “Sometimes prefacing that as unusual or something surprising, I think what we saw in Boston was certainly inspiring but not surprising. The research has shown that after disasters, everyday citizens are typically the true first responders.”
So could the heroic and altruistic events of the Boston Marathon bombings demonstrate a hope for humanity? Could the Dalai Lama’s words about compassion and wisdom as useful to all be emerging from the human family? Let’s hope so. And let’s hope it continues.