WHEN ALTRUISM & EMPATHY ARE MORE MOTIVATING THAN SELF-INTEREST & ACHIEVEMENT
The fortunate among us might later in life feel secure enough in themselves and their accomplishments that they are no longer motivated by personal ambition but by concern for younger generations. Psychoanalyst Eric Erikson, who wrote brilliantly about the human lifecycle, called this midlife developmental stage generativity.
A generative person feels altruistic concern for and the desire to nurture and guide younger people. Those who reach this stage often have been successful parents who then broaden their concern beyond their own families. They are interested in passing on technical or professional skills as well as their culture and its values.
Many people are regarded as highly successful by external measures, but they remain driven — to what end, they cannot define even for themselves. Some research scientists I have known would have been satisfied by nothing less than the Nobel Prize, and even that might not have been sufficient. To them, what is important is winning the race, defeating the competition; but what constitutes a sufficient reward for winning is often illusory. This is perhaps the meaning behind a quip often attributed to Henry Kissinger: “The reason academic politics are so vicious is because the stakes are so low.”
Of course, those driven by personal ambition can make important contributions to society — think of politicians such as FDR or entrepreneurs such as Andrew Carnegie. In fact, successful entrepreneurship is one of the fruits of enlightened self-interest: the businessman creates jobs that produce needed services and products. However, just as the vast majority of entrepreneurs fail in their business ventures, so do many people fail who never feel fulfilled enough in their personal lives to offer themselves in service to others. When their personal races inevitably end because of age or infirmity, they might look back on their lives with regret and disappointment, rather than a sense of fulfillment.
In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’s Scrooge, before and after his epiphany, is a caricature of extremes, both the grasping, self-absorbed narcissist and the all-giving, all-caring altruist, respectively. Interestingly, his abrupt midlife maturation is brought about by a fantastical, fast-forward look at the end stage of his life, when he is consumed by despair over his misspent ambition. Scrooge’s profound insight into the human lifecycle is, unfortunately, denied to the rest of us: We cannot go back, do it over, and get it right.
The generative people I have encountered in my life were mostly teachers, though they can be found in every walk of life. I knew a senior attorney in a large law firm, a so-called rainmaker whose extensive civic involvements brought considerable business to the firm but whose personal gratification came from his mentorship of junior attorneys. He joked that his partners valued him for his referrals, but what he really enjoyed was grooming young people to take their places. Similarly, I have known research scientists with modest career ambitions whose laboratories became training grounds for promising young investigators. But such people are exceptional.
My high school English teacher was one of the exceptions. He obviously loved to teach, and his enthusiasm for English literature was contagious. He seemed to know exactly how to reach young people: I will never forget his classroom reading of A.E. Housman’s poem “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff.” I was not the only one who memorized it or who eagerly wrote the assigned essay “interpreting” it. However, my teacher did more for me than foster a love of poetry.
I was only one of many bright students in a very large urban public high school in which it was difficult to stand out. I was shy and rather unsure of how I would perform in college. How surprised I was when this teacher began to write positive comments on my essays, call upon me frequently in class, and take me aside and praise me for my writing and class performance. I was embarrassed, but pleased, when he sought out my mother at a school function to tell her that I showed great promise and later visited my home to discuss college options with me and my parents. He encouraged me to apply to a small, highly competitive liberal-arts college and wrote me a glowing letter of recommendation.
When I graduated from college with highest honors, I hoped he would see my picture on the front page of my hometown newspaper; I wanted him to know that his confidence in me was not misplaced. I have always regretted that I never thanked him. I felt awkward about seeking him out and so naïve about human nature that I thought it would have been a bother to him. I hope he knew how grateful I was; empathic man that he was, I suspect he did.
Several other generative and giving people influenced me: my college dean who cared for and nurtured students his entire career; a physician neighbor whose example and guidance was instrumental in my choice of a medical career; and a biology professor who was delighted that he could get a financially strapped student a medical-school scholarship.
When I went on to become a psychiatrist, my professional interest in generative people came as a result of treating some of them (they’re not perfect but are subject to depression and anxiety like the rest of us) and knowing a few as colleagues. One would think that people who give so much of themselves must have had supportive and loving parents. That would only be fair, even expected, for Scripture tells us, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required” (Lk. 12:48). Sometimes this is the case, but others are still seeking the unconditional love of childhood, which is impossible to achieve in adulthood. These people remain driven by ambition and a variety of idols — money, power, celebrity, possessions — that they try to substitute for love.
Highly generative people who endured rather deprived childhoods are fascinating. Given little, one would expect they would have little to give back, that even late in their careers they would be taking rather than giving. The exceptions, however, appear to react to their personal deprivation by doing for others what was not done for them. A public figure who illustrated this to a remarkable degree was Alexander Hamilton, whose triumph over severe maternal deprivation included playing a major role in founding the American Republic.
Overcoming a deprived childhood by becoming generative rather than being overwhelmed by it is a high level of achievement. Usually such people have had an encounter, when their personalities were still malleable, with a caring and giving adult who took a personal interest in them — a mentor whom they later emulated. Hamilton had a succession of personal mentors whom he actively sought out, perhaps reflecting a temperament shaped more by a fortuitous nature than his unfortunate nurture. Generative people who have overcome childhood adversity are often very empathetic. They can put themselves in the shoes of those who are as disadvantaged as they were. Consequently, they treat others as they wish they themselves had been treated.
Whatever one’s childhood experiences, generativity is a hard-won stage of life. True generativity is forged out of life experiences that foster a sense of comfort with who one is and has become. It requires some success in work and relationships, and some satisfaction with one’s achievements. When one has been personally fulfilled, one can then look to the welfare of others. It is quite different from the idealism of youth that may burn out after, say, a brief stint in the Peace Corps. Similarly, medical students from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds might enter medicine with the well-meaning intent of serving the underprivileged but end up in a highly paid subspecialty. For some, the getting is too intoxicating and the neediness never satisfied; for others, living well is the best revenge.
By middle adulthood, the truly generative person has achieved a level of maturity in which altruism and empathy are more motivating than self-interest and competitive achievement. He is sufficiently content with what he has accomplished that concern for the younger generation replaces personal ambition. The task is one of nurturance, not only to pass along the skills of one’s trade or profession, but, more broadly, to perpetuate one’s culture and its values. Success in the tasks of this stage of life prepares one for success in the ultimate stage, in which one faces mortality with equanimity and can say, as did St. Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
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