The philosopher Auguste Comte defined altruism as “intentional action, ultimately for the welfare of others, that entails at least the possibility of either no benefit or a loss to the actor.” I would like to believe some of my actions in life have been altruistic, but I know they have not been. True altruism does not exist. Everything I have ever done for somebody else has also been a benefit to me. Sometimes I feel guilty that my motivation to help others is driven more by my good feelings than the actual good I am accomplishing. Giving can feel like a selfish act sometimes. However, giving is no more selfish than it is altruistic. Giving is symbiotic.
In nature, species have evolved in mutually symbiotic ways. Ocean coral and algae are fine examples of this. The coral provides a home and nutrients for algae to thrive, and in return, the algae create sugars and oxygen the coral need to live. The algae and the coral need to give to each other to ensure their survival. I assume that neither the algae nor the coral cares about the other or gives with altruistic intent. They are both simply doing what they evolved to do in order to survive. Coral and algae are both, as far as we know, unburdened by the human invention of guilt. They are, however, burdened by pollution and environmental stress. This can lead to coral “bleaching.” The act of “bleaching” is the corals expelling the algae from their internal structures; they do this when they are stressed. While expelling the algae can save the coral from immediate death, any delay in the algae returning ensures destruction for both of them.
We can be tempted to expel others from our lives and focus inwardly, protecting only ourselves. This is more often than not counterproductive, as one of the best things we can do to protect ourselves is to give to others. It is in our own best interests to develop our symbiotic relationships. The intent and motivation to give can be fluid; it doesn’t really matter as long as the result is good. Giving is self-care. Giving to others is a gift to oneself. Giving is supposed to feel good.