This I Believe: We’re a selfish species. And why shouldn’t we be? Darwin, survival of the fittest, and all that. According to evolutionary theory, if we hadn’t been looking out for ourselves we would have ceased to exist long ago. It’s difficult to alter hardwiring like that. But many of us today in the United States live in a world of excess: our gas guzzling SUVs — and (gulp!) HumVs — Botox and collagen for our wrinkles, psychiatrists for our pets, designer jeans for our children, cell phones that take pictures and send e-mails and have 19 different rings. And listen, I’m not counting myself out of this self-indulgence: Right now I have three different hair products in my medicine cabinet designed to smooth and soften my unruly hair.
When I feel as though I’m becoming too self-absorbed, I think of my father, a man who unwaveringly throughout my life has given of himself if for a moment he thinks it will help someone else. He doesn’t do so after hemming and hawing, weighing how it will benefit him. And his aren’t the huge gestures that no doubt are so important — helping victims of floods and earthquakes and fires. His are everyday acts of kindness: giving a needy neighbor a ride somewhere even when it causes him to be late for wherever he is going, visiting a dying friend every day while others choose to avoid the discomfort of such unhappy situations. This sort of giving I think comes harder to most of us because it interrupts the convenience of our own lives.
My father’s genuine consideration for others comes from instinct, what he sees as necessary for him to survive in this world. For many years, his selflessness confused and annoyed me at times. I still remember the time when I was a young boy when he invited a neighbor who I didn’t like to go to the movies with us because the boy’s mother had recently died. At seven years old I didn’t understand why this was important, but I remember my father asking me to think about what this boy might feel like having lost his mother.
My father is a good man who leads by example. In my youth, I believe I was a disappointment to him: my vanity, my selfishness, my drive to get what I wanted. Sure, I had some good qualities, too, but I rarely consciously put anyone before myself, not without reminder.
Like many young people, during and after college I entered a new phase of my life, one of social consciousness — and sometimes self-righteousness. I believed in reincarnation. I believed I had things to learn. I believed, as my father had showed me my entire life, that I should put others before myself.
I went to work at a summer camp for children with life-threatening illnesses. All summer I worked harder and longer than I ever had before; I worked with children with cancer who had lost their hair, a limb, and eye, years of their youth. Some were in remission, some would die. I wanted to make these kids happy — I wanted for them to have a chance to have some fun, to just be kids. And they did. They laughed and sang and danced and a lot of them cried when it was time to go home because they had had such an unforgettable experience, an opportunity to put their illness aside and just be kids. But the strange thing was –the somewhat unnerving thing was — that as good a time as these kids had, I think I had a better time. I learned about myself, I grew up, I made amazing friends, I felt happy about who I was and what I was doing. I was trying to help others but I was getting the pay off!
Another individual I think of when it comes to helping others is the man who started that camp: Paul Newman, a guy — a movie star, no less — who lets his million-dollar face be hawked on salad dressing bottles and popcorn boxes so that oodles of money can go not into his pocket but to charitable causes.
Today I work as the director of one the camps Mr. Newman helped found for children with life-threatening and chronic illnesses. At the camp I direct we run many of our year-round programs staffed entirely by volunteers. People who give a weekend — or sometimes a week — of their busy lives to work with these kids and give them the time of their lives. Why do these individuals do it? The answer to me is simple: it feels good. That’s right, it feels good to them to help others, to see these children’s eyes light with joy, to hear their laughter, to see gratitude and happiness on their faces from the experience they have at camp. Without fail after each camp session one or more volunteers inevitably comes up to me and tells me how this camp has changed their life. And I understand, I know. And I even feel a little bit selfish for my part in it. This is what I know, this is what I believe: Helping others makes you feel good.
And one more thing: When I see Paul Newman’s well-known mug on the movie screen or on the side of a popcorn box, I think, the guy’s 80years old, drives race cars and still makes woman swoon. Helping others certainly seems to have agreed with him.
Oh, and my dad looks pretty good, too.
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