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III. 4. Social Action and Direct Help

Facing death can lead us into social action that enlivens by direct contact with those in need.

It is important in our societal journey to true aliveness to include activities which help actual human beings in need to improve their lives, e.g., through one-on-one interactions, working for community non-profits, or other means that provide face-to-face contact and, ideally, mutual sharing, with those in need. We do so more to help ourselves than to aid them.

People help others for a variety of reasons. Some motives are more narrow, including guilt, a desire to win converts for a religion or cause, a feeling that one is unworthy to live unless one helps others, a desire to be seen doing good deeds, enjoying the power that helping another can give, a desire to network with other wealthy givers, or as an "immortality project," i.e., an unconscious desire to prove oneself worthy of salvation by doing "good deeds", or to be remembered. Others come from healthier motives, such as genuine compassion or empathy.

While any help for the needy is preferable to indifference, the most useful motive for becoming and remaining truly alive is genuine empathy, i.e. a mutual interaction in which both helper and helped treat each other with mutual respect and learn from each other. Givers understand that "there but for the grace of God go I", i.e. that it is only their good fortune to have been born into a wealthier family with more opportunities for education and contacts than the recipient. And they also realize that the often have much to learn from the latter, who has often led a more inspiring, courageous, and feelingful life than have they. The recipient is not only treated with the respect due an equal but, ideally, given a chance to "give back".

Although most useful, however, the development of genuine empathy for those in need is often the most difficult motive to develop.

The protective shield we erect to keep ourselves from feeling our pain about our own mortality has vast consequences for our relationships with others. In the case of those in need, their relative vulnerability reminds us of our own. It is far more comfortable and less painful to ignore the needy, contribute long-distance to a charity, or support a politician or church leaders promising to help the needy, than to expose ourselves to real people in meaningful one-on-one interactions. Our protective shield not only walls ourselves off from our own vulnerable feelings, but from those who might trigger those feelings.

When we cut ourselves off from those in need, however, we do a disservice to ourselves. It is obviously a far richer and more alive experience to interact with real, live human beings than to write a check to a charity.

And it is also a far greater learning experience. We learn relatively little from the people like ourselves with whom we tend to socialize. It is the customs, beliefs and thoughts of people whose lifestyles are far different from ours that can often most inspire, enlighten, or delight us. The upper middle-class American family can often learn far more about heroism, dedication and life from their Latina servants - who are often making enormous sacrifices for their families, displaying incredible courage in leaving their rural villages to come to urban America, and working far harder than their employers - than attending a charity event with their peers.

People who have volunteered to work in Third World villages often report that they benefited from the experience far more than those they went to "help". A 21 year old American may have far more to learn from than to teach a third world villager who has grown up in a rich communal culture that has survived over the centuries through a combination of hard work, spiritual dedication, community support and commitment to family and village.

Mutual respect was a hallmark of perhaps the most successful movement of the 20th century in America: the civil rights movement. It was part of the creed of those who went down South to register people to vote that they had more to learn from those they were registering than they had to teach.