This I Believe

Mae - Palo Alto, California
Entered on April 25, 2007

I believe that the altruistic impulse, a trait of human character, is in large part inborn, just as physical traits are largely inborn. I believe that just as there is a continuum of height, coloring, intelligence, sexuality, so too is there a continuum of willingness to risk one’s life when offered a chance to save another’s. We all know that, within families, siblings vary in capacities of all kinds. We know too that the culture outside the family –– the environment –– plays a role, and it then becomes the old question of which is more important in determining character and behavior: nature or nurture. In the area of altruism, I come down on the side of nature. I believe that to varying degrees we are hardwired to be altruistic. I believe that at one end of the continuum are people who, regardless of their religion, class, education, or anything in the surrounding culture, would never risk their own safety for that of someone else. Far more rare are those who will, and between these extremes are most of us.

I was recently reminded of this by two items in a single day’s news. The first told of a Polish woman, now 97, raised in a culture steeped in anti-Semitism, who rescued thousands of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. She was honored decades ago by Israel’s Holocaust Center and now by the Polish government as well.

The second item dealt with Bob Woodruff. Interviewed on TV, he told of the day in Iraq when the tank in which he was riding was bombed. A helicopter was sent to rescue the tank’s survivors, but as it approached the tank the copter was ordered back –– the risk to the crew itself was too great. But the crew ignored the second order and completed the rescue.

Two different cultures, but two similar acts.

In 1984, I did some research into why, during the German occupation of Italy in 1943 and ’44, some Italians protected native or refugee Jews while others around them did not. I spoke with a Catholic couple, people with only a fourth grade education, who’d been janitors in an apartment building in Rome. A Fascist official lived in the building then, but they managed to hide a family of 13 who’d been turned away by everyone else. When I asked them why they had taken the family in, the woman answered, “But if we hadn’t, where would they have gone?”

In Florence, a priest on one side of the Arno was known to refuse help to Jews, while on the other side of the river, a priest who had risked his life daily told me, “I wasn’t really afraid of death, but when they arrested me, I was terrified. If they had told me they were going to shoot me, I’d have been happy. What I lived in constant fear of was being hanged with barbed wire.” And yet, when at last released, he resumed the risks again.

Similar culture, different acts.

In the nineteen forties, the atrocities committed in the Holocaust were beyond the imaginings of most of us in the western world. It didn’t occur to us to ask ourselves what we’d be willing to risk for the sake of saving someone else. And for which someone else. Today, however, when we know of atrocities all over the world, and of dangers even here, we’re no longer naïve. Perhaps we should ask ourselves those very questions –– now, in advance of possible need. I suspect that if suddenly faced with the need to decide, the first reaction would be to refuse –– out of fear. The second, I hope, would be to consent –– out of conscience. The responses we make will tell us, as best we can know in advance, who we are, and where on the long human continuum each of us fits.