On Enlightened Self-Interest

Photo Credit: salim.nensi.Licensed CC-BY.
Photo Credit: salim.nensi.
Licensed CC-BY.

by Prof. Mazin Qumsiyeh

Waking up into a communal and peace farm in Luck, Wisconsin gives a new meaning to “sunrise of a new day”. The families and activists gathered there provided inspiration to us beyond measure. They had built their own houses, they used solar energy for electricity and heat, grew their own foods, used composting toilets, and collected rainwater for their very minimal water needs. They were also all active in the peace movement. Their activities ranged from civil disobedience at Fort Benning, Georgia to playing key roles in the Wheels of Justice bus tour. (See their website: http://www.anathothcommunityfarm.org/)

Our bus retreat brought members from the farm and volunteers from many part of the country. This experience at the farm and in talking to such people (e.g. Kathy Kelly, Abbie Coburn, Ceylon Mooney, Lama Nassar, Bill Hill, Bob Abplanalp, Mike Miles, Cecilia Lucas, Dan Pearson, Jessie Chang, etc.). We had a great time with these inspiring people and then the nearly 200 people in the Chicago Peace Walk Sunday (see http://www.cjpip.org/). In Greenwich, CT, three good people who happen to be Jewish spoke from the heart about how they came to view Israel and Zionism. I could not help but think that life is really good and these are people I truly love. It is a humbling experience to jot down some thoughts about the meaning of activism, self-sacrifice, love, and enlightened self-interest. I hope you will find those hesitant meditations/observations useful.

We ask ourselves many questions as we struggle through this short life of ours. What is the nature of activism? Why do we do what we do? How much self-sacrifice are we really willing to take? What do those of us feel after lost jobs, after time in jail, after being beaten and gassed by Israeli soldiers, or after all of the above? How does one distinguish between selfishness and enlightened self-interest? Is activism for peace and justice the ultimate love of humanity or the triumph of optimism over experience? Is activism and living life simply the ultimate love of Mother Nature or of God? The following rambling thoughts do not intend to give answers but hopefully give us time to reflect and think.

Several years ago a prominent person in the Palestinian right to return movement repeatedly criticized Prof. Edward Said (then at Columbia University) for “self-interest”. While some are tempted to dismiss such comments by attributing other reasons for making them (jealousy, inability to get Said to help in key areas thought important etc), the subjects of self-interest, self-sacrifice, collective work are worthy of examination when we look at what makes activists “tick”, what gets us to do the things we do, and this could help us get more people involved in the movement for peace and justice and remain active even after setbacks and challenges. Edward Said was a brilliant professor of literature, a prominent music critic, and a noted commentator on human conditions. What motivated him and millions like him is worthy of examination but perhaps looking inward to our own motivations is a more fruitful endeavor. Perhaps we can make some comments on issues of love and enlightened self-interest that could initiate a dialogue at least with ourselves.

My background is in evolutionary biology including genetic and behavioral biology. It would not be necessary for the sake of this discussion to review the exhaustive literature on evolution of human behaviors that relates to group and individual behavior. Scientific explanations can certainly give us certain insights but they are limited. We do know that each individual human being has certain basic needs that are easily recognized: water, food, shelter, safety, social interactions, and sex. In many parts of the world with limited technological development, people still have to focus on their day to day survival: scavenging for food, finding a shelter etc. In technologically advanced societies, we still find such people represented among our ranks as the homeless in cities around Europe and North America. Such a life is described as closest to the state of affairs for much of humanity throughout much of our history. But when basic survival issues are met, we do recognize that it is very hard to live without social interactions; hence solitary confinement is the most dreaded punishment for inmates. Lack of social interactions is known to depress the immune system, cause extreme behavior changes and even lead to premature death.

Humans unlike other mammals also have concepts of self-sacrifice, collective work, and work for the common good that emanate directly from a social society. Other social animal societies (ants, bees, elephants) do show many of the features we recognize in such groupings. But humans have complex communication systems and as far as we know the only species that ponders its existence, thinks of life after death and has other concepts that we cannot observe in other life forms. We do find many animals that exhibit self-sacrificial behaviors from losing their life to feed and protect their young to domesticated dogs that jump into dangerous situations to save their human companions. But why has human societies developed such highly amazing forms of complex behaviors that involve things like standing in front of a bulldozer that aims to demolish a house of someone totally unrelated to you (Rachel Corrie)? Such behaviors call for deeper explanations (most personal) that are very hard to analyze by objective and rational thought processes.

Could one argue that Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi were driven by a pure form of self-sacrifice and altruism or by what we may term as enlightened self-interest? Are these two things distinguishable? The diaries of Mother Teresa which she did not want published disturbed many of her supporters who were shocked to learn that throughout a life time of doing good for others, she had doubts about so many things (even the existence of God). Yet, this simple woman I think epitomizes the love of the poor more than we can imagine. That love is the issue that we should start with when discussing sacrifice and enlightened self-interest.

Love between a child and a parent involve significant sacrifices and maybe the easiest to understand in linking biology (genetic relationship), learned behaviors, and perhaps much more. In ancient China, children sometimes cut off pieces of their own flesh to feed an ailing or starving parent. Caring for immediate family members is biologically ingrained for the obvious reason that they share some of our genes. But the human intellectual and social development produced other traits that sometimes overcome the biological wiring. Think of the love and sacrifice for adopted children for example. Think of people who donate to the point of impoverishing themselves to help children in faraway places. These are not so easily explained by biology. The love of couples to each other also cannot be reduced to biological needs or even social needs. The caring of the people living at a communal farm for each other is obviously much more than their needs or desires. It is something much more profound and much less analyzable than mere language or analytic logic can describe.

The role of religion and morality cannot be underestimated. I think of how people like Clarence Jordan was raised as a privileged white man in the segregated south of the 1940s and 1950s and opposed wars (all wars, including WWII and Vietnam). Learning ancient languages and learning what Jesus really taught transformed him. His faith led him to challenge the comfortable clergy in the south and then move on to establish Koinonia farms in Georgia where blacks and whites lived and worked together. They got firebombed and attacked frequently but never gave up. As I listened to his tapes, I am always impressed by the sense of optimism and the general goodness. His vision was validated while he lived and validated after he died (Habitats for Humanity was founded at Koinonia Farms). I think of Dorothy Day (“my job is to comfort the afflicted and make the comfortable less comfortable”), Martin Luther King Jr. (his vehement rejection of wars is forgotten by a government that names streets after him), Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi, Sheikh Mohammad Hussain, Father Naeem Atik, Abouna Hanna Atallah, Father Elias Chakour and countless others. A while back I started compiling names of people we honor at my website (http://www.qumsiyeh.org/honorlist/) but that task would be endless since there are literally millions of people, most of them we have never met. But even that task would be rather simple compared to the task of understanding what made one of these activists do what they do or did.

We can safely state as anthropologist Margaret Mead observed: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” But Mead cannot tell us why these people became committee or thoughtful. What makes a Kathy Kelly or a Clarence Jordan?

We can safely say indeed that human societies evolved in spite of sometimes incredible odds precisely because of such thoughtful committed (I would add loving) people. A good example of such a historical study is Howard Zinn’s A People History of the United States). US historical development has shown that pure individual altruism is hard to come by but that enlightened self-interest was critical in key developments in the US going back hundreds of years. Advocates for Native American rights helped save thousands of natives from the European colonial onslaught. These were examples of Enlightened Self-Interest (ESI). ESI drove abolitionists (white and black) to save thousands of slaves before the civil war. Reconciliation after the Civil War was also an example of ESI. ESI also got us the women’s right to vote in the US elections (happened only in the 1920s). ESI got us the 40-hour workweek and other workers rights. ESI is what ended the war on Vietnam. It is what ended 30 years of US support to Apartheid South Africa (the State Department had designated Nelson Mandela and African National Congress as terrorist organizations). None of these actions were done by people who thought their actions were 100% altruistic. All thought they were doing what we now understand as enlightened self-interest. Many of them thought (many of us think) in fact that it is the only meaningful way to live.

Of course many individuals may think they are engaged in ESI when they are not (or even when they are even racist or bigots). Members of many artificial grouping (including extended family, co-religionists, nation, people who think alike) have taken up arms against “others” that by definition did not belong to the self-defined grouping. These are actually the primary cause of wars and conflicts around the world. And as any independent and rational observer knows, there are no winners in wars only losers.

We can explain ESI in terms of nagging conscience, morality, religion, logic, psychological hedonism, or any combination thereof but we cannot deny its existence and widespread impact on human history. For example, I talked to people who think of Jesus as a Son of God, those who think of him as a prophet of God, and those who don’t believe in God and all have agreed that Jesus lived on earth and did give of himself for humanity even as they differ on what his message was (would it not be good to acknowledge the example he provided?) or that it had a huge impact on human history.

We can cite genetic and behavioral studies to show that self-sacrifice for the group is a trait that does exist and evolve in mammalian societies. My son actually did a simulation via computer programming with random mutations and noted that group behaviors evolved that included altruism; It evolved without being programmed or encouraged so clearly groups that show these behaviors benefit. We can cite religious reasons for doing good to others even at the expense of our material well being (this is also enlightened self-interest as we think of ourselves as vessels and tools of God). We can cite moral or other reasons for helping others even if we are not religious (agnostic or atheist) such as a livable human and humane society. We can each come up with many ways of looking at these issues but again I think it is something deeply personal and that is where it must come from.

But we need not look beyond our own personal experiences to find who the people we admire are. If you take a moment to think of the person you personally knew/met that you most admire (whether they are still alive or dead). If you think what qualities made you admire this person. If you then think of what motivates that person. I think these are things that provide the best and most meaningful personal lessons for each of us. For me it was an uncle who was the first Zoologist in Palestine and who was killed in 1970 right after he finished his PHD (and after he had already made significant scientific and other contributions to humanity). His letters and motivation to help not just his relatives but humanity as a whole made a difference in my own life. Reading his letters and notes years later and speaking to his close friends showed me that he had truly epitomized the Buddhist statement of “having joyful participation in the sorrows of this world.” I am sure each of us knows someone like that (either dead or alive).

The English language has limitations in describing the source of these desires that add to positive energy in the world. They are described differently by different people or even by the same person in different stages of understanding. They are deeply personal. Perhaps those who have the best skill to describe these emotions and desires are poets and we should read them more. My own favorite poet is Kahlil Gibran. For me his meditation on love speaks directly to the issues at hand.

On Love, from The PROPHET, by Kahlil Gibran

When love beckons to you follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;

And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.
When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather,
“I am in the heart of God.”
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

Mazin Qumsiyeh is author of Sharing the Land of Canaan and Popular Resistance in Palestine. He is a professor at Bethlehem University and director of the Palestine Museum of Natural History. This piece published originally by TRANSCEND Media Service.

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