The Completely Selfish Reason You Should Help People

Every positive action feels like trying to stop a forest fire with a water balloon.
The Completely Selfish Reason You Should Help People

Remember Boston Strong (the bombing), Houston Strong (the hurricane), Florida Strong (the other hurricane), Puerto Rico Strong/Fuerte (the other other hurricane), Vegas Strong (the shooting), and who knows how many others? By the time this column is published, every inch of the world will likely need its own Strong campaign (and some places more than one).

Can I, as one astonishingly normal human being, make a dent in all of that? Every positive action feels like trying to stop a forest fire with a water balloon. Not only is it ineffective, but neighbors are now laughing and recording with their phones. How do you keep plugging along in the face of a terrifying wall of encroaching hellfire?

I think I know a way.

Let's Admit That Some Good Deeds Just Make You Look Like A Douche

In modern America, the only thing worse than a dick is a self-righteous dick. These are the people whose every good deed is done loudly, in public, and only for the applause. They are the bane of charities everywhere. Soup kitchens have to beg people to not just show up at Thanksgiving and quickly leave after taking some selfies dipping food for the homeless. One shelter Cracked talked to made volunteers work a minimum seven-hour shift to prevent that kind of "showed up just long enough to prove I'm great" tourism (parents particularly love dumping their kids off for an hour during the holidays so they can boast to other parents about the important lesson they taught them).

And remember when Donald Trump did a photo op in Puerto Rico after the hurricane, tossing a roll of paper towels into the crowd so everyone would give him credit for doing his part?

The Completely Selfish Reason You Should Help People
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
"Give me back what's left of the roll when you're finished."

People like that are the worst, right? They're the reason real problems don't get solved. They're all about getting the credit instead of actually fixing what's wrong. But there is something to be learned from them -- something that might save us all.

Have You Heard This Frickin' Starfish Story?

There's a popular story that originated in a 1969 essay by Loren Eiseley and has been repackaged hundreds of times into corny inspirational chicken soup versions, and it's about to happen right in front of you again.

A guy walks down a beach and comes across thousands of beached, suffocating starfish, and a little girl throwing them one by one back into the ocean. "You know you're barely going to make a dent in all of this," the guy says, because he hates kids or something. "The vast majority of them are still going to die. None of what you are doing matters."

The little girl picks up another starfish and throws it into the ocean, and turns to the guy and says, "It matters to that one."

So, OK, sure. You have questions. Why does that man hate kids so much? Are we sure that throwing the starfish is good for them? Does touching damage them? Does throwing damage them? Are they able to survive once they're thrown into the ocean, or is the girl only adding starfish corpses to the bottom of the sea? I don't know. Ask a marine biologist. Have the marine biologist provide you a better analogy, then come back with that story in your head.

Most corny retellings frame the takeaway as "Even one person can make a difference!" or some generic moral that completely misses the unique beauty of this story, which is not about why you ought to help (we've got quite enough about that), but how you can get the emotional fuel to keep helping. To zoom in on that point, imagine that in this story, the starfish had faces.

Oh God, that's horrifying. I'm so sorry.

Anyway, imagine that a starfish can express joy, and that as it flies safely toward the ocean (where it will land completely undamaged in the correct ecosystem), it expresses the gratitude of a creature that was resigned to certain death a moment ago and suddenly sees before it a long life of freedom. It sails through the air in slow motion, shouting "Wheeeee!" or "Freeeeedommmm!" or your favorite inspirational movie quote. Now imagine the only reason you helped the starfish is because you knew it would thank you.

Are you still making a difference? Or just feeding your ego? My argument is that it's OK to try to do both. In fact, I think you need to do both.

It's Natural To Need To Feel Something When You Help People

There's a reason even non-douchebags prefer to give a grateful homeless guy a $20 bill than spend their time, say, lobbying for a more robust social welfare infrastructure. It's not just easier; it's instant gratification. We can pour out all our effort to combat injustice or suffering and not even move the needle for the country or the world. Pour out the same effort for an individual, and that individual life's needle can swing in a beautifully visible arc, like a starfish sailing through the air shouting "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes!" And we can feel guilty for needing to see that arc, because then aren't we just Donald Trump, trying to boost our poll numbers by clumsily lobbing paper towels at an utterly devastated hellscape?

I would say that's like feeling guilty for needing protein to live. Your body needs certain nutrients to move and not die of kwashiorkor, and your soul or psyche or whatever needs certain "nutrients" so it can keep doing good things. In my experience, the best cure for the crushing weight of "everything sucks" despair is allowing yourself to do the showy, self-indulgent good deeds (while also doing the big-picture stuff, like voting).

Not even because all of those little good deeds add up (many argue that giving money to a panhandler actually feeds the problem), but because you need this to keep the cynicism at bay in order to keep fighting the good fight. You need the occasional "Bless you, sir!" or even some credit from the people around you. You need to see that there are real people behind those depressing headlines and statistics, and to see results -- that someone who wasn't OK is OK now.

Putting A Human Face On The Needy Changes Everything

Remember when the "Muslim ban" came out? All those stories and images of families separated in airports?

I was mad and heartbroken and paralyzed, with no idea what to do. I gave some money to legal organizations trying to help, and it might have helped someone, but I don't know who and how much. I tweeted angrily about it, which was even more useless. I needed to do something that actually mattered. So I took an opportunity to work with my church and No One Left Behind. That organization helps Iraqis and Afghans who worked with the U.S. military, and in return got to immigrate to the USA ... and live below the poverty line. Our main goal was to keep one family from getting kicked out on the street.

This seems like a low bar, but it was incredibly hard. Poverty is a labyrinth that exits into a bigger, worse labyrinth. Yet despite the fact this family wasn't even affected by the Muslim ban, and certainly had nothing to do with police brutality or mass shootings or hurricanes, I found my level of hope/hopelessness about national issues was strongly tied to how well this family was doing. When they were having a good month, I'd be like, "We can beat this! Hashtag resist! Where can I donate? When can I vote?" When they had a setback, it'd be, "What's the point, we'll all be in camps next year, I'm going to play some bad video games and wait to die."

I knew it wasn't logical. Why should my attitude toward helping millions of people change at all depending on how three people are doing? But then you remember that for most of human history, doing a good deed meant helping someone you could see -- this concept of doing good for "the world" is brand-new. It's built into your wiring that when you give someone a coat, you get a little emotional reward every time you see them wearing it. You do not get that reward when you find out your taxes went to fund some sprawling bureaucracy that may or may not increase the number of coated people in the world.

It's just human nature, and I think it's better if we accept it. A little selfishness can help you be selfless.

Without That, You Can Wind Up In A Very Dark Place

How we collectively react to what happened in 2017 -- all of it -- will determine what the future will look like. Looking around, it seems like a lot of the social pressure pushes us toward inactivity in a lot of subtle ways. It can even sound like activism. ("Why bother giving a SANDWICH to A HOMELESS CHILD when the very act of BUYING THAT SANDWICH supports CAPITALISM?") You can wind up insisting on a standard that says anything other than a total overthrow of the system is futile virtue signaling.

For example, I always wanted to share my story above with other people outside the church group, but felt weirdly embarrassed doing it, like a celebrity going, "I'm so stressed out about this school for girls I just started in one of the poorest countries in Africa. I don't know if I'm changing enough lives!" Some of you probably have that reaction to me telling the story just now. ("Did you just call three struggling human beings your 'emotional reward' a few paragraphs ago? Isn't this whole article an excuse for you to boast about what a great person you are? Probably to cover for horrific crimes you commit behind closed doors?")

But I'll admit: I partly do it because of how it makes me feel, because I have found that when it comes to coping mechanisms, this blows everything else out of the water. And damn, are coping mechanisms important right now. When you see that creeping fire swallowing up everything that is good in the world, you either want to give up or lash out -- either through violence or indulging in confusing performance art and getting into a weird arms race with trolls.

The Completely Selfish Reason You Should Help People
Shia LaBeouf
Actually, what did happen to Shia LaBeouf?

Yes, it's still important to do the boring stuff, to go to city council meetings and circulate petitions to stop putting starfish bait on beaches or whatever is causing this weird problem, and to persist through years of frustrating inaction (the council is in the pocket of Big Starfish Bait). But it's also important to go out to the beach once in a while, pick up a starfish yourself, look it in its metaphorical non-Cronenbergian eyes, and hurl it magnificently into the ocean. For it, and for you.

That starfish story pales in comparison to what the rest of those "Chicken Soup For The Soul" books have. Check one out today.

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For more check out 4 People Who Really Are Making the World a Better Place and 6 Awesome Stories of Bystanders Becoming Heroes.

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