For Others

Rev. Brian J. Kiely,  Sunday, September 29, 2013

On Thursday, my daughters and most school children in the country participated in activities surrounding the Terry Fox National School Day Run.  There was a values learning program associated with the event, so they learned about altruism and courage and other good things like that.

And while I am not sure how explicit it was in the lesson plan, they were also exposed to the idea of doing something for others.

I don’t think any of us would object to children learning that lesson.  And I suspect many parents quietly wish that their children would include parental needs on their list of good things to care for gently.

Today I want to think about this idea of doing good for others, and Terry Fox is a good place to start.

From Wikipedia: Terrance Stanley “Terry” Fox (July 28, 1958 – June 28, 1981) was a Canadian athlete, humanitarian, and cancer research activist. In 1980, with one leg having been amputated, he embarked on a cross-Canada run to raise money and awareness for cancer research. Although the spread of his cancer eventually forced him to end his quest after 143 days and 5,373 kilometres, and ultimately cost him his life, his efforts resulted in a lasting, worldwide legacy. The annual Terry Fox Run, first held in 1981, has grown to involve millions of participants in over 60 countries and is now the world’s largest one-day fundraiser for cancer research; over C$500 million has been raised in his name.

And I think it is safe to say that he inspired a host of other athletic fundraisers for cancer and other causes, whether it be marathon hockey games, walks, triathlon, bake sales, or my own favuorite cycling event, the Ride to Conquer Cancer.

And if you wonder about the value of these efforts, I recently read an article excerpted from a cancer research journal making the case that were he alive today, it is highly unlikely Terry Fox would have died at such a young age and may well have been able to keep his leg.  There has been that much progress.

As a side note it is ironic that the size of his legacy and his heroic status stems from the tragic end of his quest.  Many will remember that Steve Fonyo – afflicted with the same loss of limb – took up the challenge a few years later and actually completed the run raising a considerable amount of money.  And yet Fonyo lived and went on and made a hash his life, ending up in jail a few times on fraud and assault charges.  He was eventually stripped of the Order of Canada he received for his run

It seems that we admire heroic and the tragic failures more than we appreciate successful.  If we have learned anything in our scandal hungry age, it’s that hero status is only permanently accorded to those who do not survive long enough to cause a later tarnishing of the crown.  Terry Fox will forever be just 22 years and 11 months old.

And yet in the two stories of Fox and Fonyo we find an interesting question to ponder.  Why do we do good for others?

Terry Fox may well have been running for his life, and according to what I have read, to both fight back and to thank the researchers.  They had done as much as they could for him but simply didn’t have the dollars to take promising research further.  Fox ran for others so they would not share his fate.

Many think that Steve Fonyo was motivated at least as much by a desire for fame as he was by altruistic motives.  Certainly his life after the run suggests that.  I don’t really know, and try not to judge.

To be honest, claims of altruism – “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others,” make me suspicious.  I try to live a good life and do as much good as I can.  I try to live up to my Loyola High School motto of being, “a man for others.”  But I am always aware that any good, kind or generous action I do makes me feel better, or less guilty, or in the case of training for the Cancer Ride last summer, an awful lot healthier.  Our minds may think selfless, but we always get a reward for our efforts. We seldom, if ever, act with complete selflessness.  I don’t think I am alone in thinking that, but neither do I think there is anything wrong in some degree of self-interest either.

Everyone, after all, does at least something for someone else.  It can be picking up litter off a neighbour’s yard, or helping some stranger who has fallen, or the classic anonymous gesture of paying the bill for the person behind you in the drive through lane at Tim Horton’s.  It feels good.  We feel good.  That’s our reward.

Some people like Terry Fox and Steve Fonyo do monumental things, things that involve putting their lives on hold in order to do good.  Others meet somewhat less daunting challenges like the fundraising runs and the swims and the bike rides.

If we take strict altruism out of the equation we are still left with the question:


An obvious answer might be, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

And it usually is.  Truly, some people act with a great deal of nobility and concern for others, but I think more of us add in a dose of enlightened self-preservation.  We recognize in the misfortunes of others – however we might not want to say this out loud – that, “There but for the grace of God go I.  What happened to them could happen to me.”  Whether we believe in luck, or grace or karma or none of the above, there is always this niggling little bit of impressing the gods (or perhaps disapproving parental figures) mixed in with our purer motives.  We don’t want the bad thing to happen to us.  We want to mitigate the bad thing happening to those we love.  It’s like the bargaining stage of the five stages of grief.  We are trying to make a deal, however unconsciously.

But that is okay, I think, because we are still trying to do good things. .  In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, after being arrested for civil disobedience, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

He was justifying his risky stirring of the civil rights pot, but the quote serves our topic as well.  Those who try to make the world a better place in ways large and small, in struggles for justice or in random acts of kindness know we do not live in isolation, no matter how much we might try to insulate ourselves from the outside world.  So we try to make the world better.  People haven’t always made that choice.

In the Middle Ages, the wealthy did try the isolation route.  They built city houses with stout gates and thick, high walls to keep out the poor peasantry flocking in from the countryside in times of famine.  They were more like fortresses than homes.  Walk around the old part of a European city and you will see what I mean.  The walls or building came to the edge of the street.  Lawns and gardens were inside in the locked courtyards, away from the masses, not on display like our western homes today. People lived in brick and masonry safehouses.

The fortress approach didn’t really solve the problem.  Now people were just starving and dying outside their gates. For the purpose of self-preservation, these same wealthy merchants then started to fund the fledgling ‘hospitals’ run by the church.  In their original conception these places of hospitality were shelters and food banks for travellers and later for the destitute as well as places of medical care. The upper class attempt to isolate themselves from society actually created the first social service institutions.  They were, and are, a way of keeping the problems of others at arm’s length.  As self-serving as it was, the actions of supporting these agencies did some good for others.

For most people however, the decision to do good goes beyond the arm’s length kind of charitable giving.  We do not live in isolation.  We have a duty as social creatures to participate in the wider world.  Sometimes that means merely meeting our obligations: paying taxes, being responsible for children, driving according to the traffic laws.

And sometimes it means stepping beyond those legal obligations and doing something for the greater good.  This can be volunteer service, a kind gesture to a neighbour, the choice of a helping profession as a career, a life of activism, or a generous financial gift if that’s all our bodies will allow.

What makes it different from the rich men of the Middle Ages is that our gift usually comes not from self preservation but from a real in-built moral sense of compassion – literally ‘suffering with’ another.

You may have heard that the American ultra conservative movement has resurrected author Ayn Rand as their new poster girl.  Her philosophy played with a kind of strict Darwinism: Every person for herself.  It’s best summed up in this climactic comment from John Galt the hero of The Fountainhead: “I swear — by my life and my love of it — that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

To be a little bit blunt and perhaps rude, that is nothing but narcissistic crap.  We are born so utterly helpless and dependent that we could not live if some parent or caregiver did not put our infantile needs ahead of their own.  That need to sometimes put others first is an obligation that never really ends.

And if we do not live with some degree of compassion for one another, we will soon not have a society in which to live.  We see this happening rapidly in the United States and only somewhat more slowly here in Canada.  The middle class is disappearing, the social safety net is being cut back and we are heading back to a Middle Ages kind of world where the extremely wealthy live in gated and patrolled communities while the rest will be left hoping for handouts or low paying unprotected jobs.

I am not anti-capitalist by any means, but capitalism is being corrupted by the John Galts who have forgotten how to look out for others, have forgotten how dependent we are on others for everything that makes life worth living.  The crippling of the US Congress and their government has everything to do with returning to the age of the medieval lord and later the industrial robber barons, and nothing whatever to do with the good of others or the good of the nation.  It’s despiciable and it is happening here in Canada as well if, perhaps, more quietly.

But those of you who know me know that I am an optimist by nature.  And that brings me to my final thoughts about why we must live for others… it is our purpose, part of the answer to the question of the meaning of life.

For this I have to thank Bill Lee who posted a link to a blog article on our church Facebook page.  It’s by NYU philosophy Professor Samuel Scheffler.  The blog post is called The Importance of Afterlife – Seriously. I’m going to let him finish this sermon:

 I believe in life after death.

No, I don’t think that I will live on as a conscious being after my earthly demise. I’m firmly convinced that death marks the unqualified and irreversible end of our lives.

My belief in life after death is more mundane. What I believe is that other people will continue to live after I myself have died. You probably make the same assumption in your own case…

Because we take this belief for granted, we don’t think much about its significance. Yet I think that this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments and sense of what is worth doing. Astonishing though it may seem, there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after our deaths — even that of complete strangers — matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.

Consider a hypothetical scenario. Suppose you knew that although you yourself would live a long life and die peacefully in your sleep, the earth and all its inhabitants would be destroyed 30 days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. How would this knowledge affect you?

If you are like me, and like most people with whom I have discussed the question, you would find this doomsday knowledge profoundly disturbing. And it might greatly affect your decisions about how to live. If you were a cancer researcher, you might be less motivated to continue your work… Likewise if you were an engineer working to improve the seismic safety of bridges, or an activist trying to reform our political or social institutions or a carpenter who cared about building things to last. What difference would these endeavors make, if the destruction of the human race was imminent?…

Notice that people do not typically react with such a loss of purpose to the prospect of their own deaths. Of course, many people are terrified of dying. But even people who fear death… remain confident of the value of their activities despite knowing that they will die someday. Thus there is a way in which the survival of other people after our deaths matters more to us than our own survival…

This should give us pause. The knowledge that we and everyone we know and love will someday die does not cause most of us to lose confidence in the value of our daily activities. But the knowledge that no new people would come into existence would make many of those things seem pointless.

I think this shows that some widespread assumptions about human egoism are oversimplified at best. However self-interested or narcissistic we may be, our capacity to find purpose and value in our lives depends on what we expect to happen to others after our deaths. Even the egotistic tycoon who is devoted to his own glory might discover that his ambitions seemed pointless if humanity’s disappearance was imminent. Although some people can afford not to depend on the kindness of strangers, virtually everyone depends on the future existence of strangers.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”