Altruism and love - these are two words that are fast losing meaning in today’s world of violence, selfishness and avarice. These words are losing their true meaning and value in the eyes of some people who see false value in other aspects of life such as power, status and wealth. So, what exactly do these words mean? This essay will explore these two facets in relation to human lives, and will also examine their situation in the world today and in the past. It will also touch upon the relation between science and love as well as the different kinds of love.
Altruism and love go hand in hand. A person cannot be said to love unconditionally without being altruistic, nor can a person be altruistic without loving unconditionally. Unconditional love is a concept comparable to true love, and is frequently used to describe love between family members, comrades in arms and between others in highly committed relationships. Love is the most powerful emotion in the world, even more powerful than its opposite, hate or indifference. It is the most powerful and most elusive phenomenon in our world, but when really pursued and sought after, it is simple and accessible to all. Dr. Stephen Post of Stony Brook University says, “When the happiness and security of another person means as much to me, or more than my own happiness and security, I love that person.” Put very simply, this is love-loving someone, so much so that his/her happiness means more than one’s own.
According to Dr. Adnan Aslan, Researcher at ISAM Foundation, Istanbul, true love is the love of all-all human beings and all of nature; everything that exists. By his definition, it is evident that simply loving one’s fellow beings is insufficient. Rather, true love encompasses love of animals and birds, trees and plants; “all of nature.” The most compassionate man is he who is able to love all living things. Harold W. Becker, author and founder of The Love Foundation Inc. said, “unconditional love is an unlimited way of being.” True love requires the making of sacrifices, giving things up for those one loves.
Altruism is an exalted human feeling, and its source is love (Gulen 2004). Altruistic people continue to live on in the hearts of people even after they are dead. Their exemplary lives of selflessness shine like beacons of hope for those who despair at the state of the world; they are the proverbial “straws” that “drowning men” clutch at. Such examples can be seen in the lives of our Holy Prophets (peace be upon them) and those of compassionate people such as Mother Theresa, Florence Nightingale, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi. Their lives show us that people of love do not always have to be nice-such people of love are the first to speak when there is injustice.
Having love and compassion is something that needs to be nurtured and cultivated through spiritual education and practice. All religions preach love of humanity, and they aim to teach the faithful how one can attain the state of true love and compassion. The most direct way to the hearts of people is the way of love, the way of the prophets and all other great religious leaders such as Lord Buddha, who advised his son, “Rahula, practice loving kindness to overcome anger. Loving kindness has the capacity to bring happiness to others without demanding anything in return” and Jesus Christ, who said, “If someone hits you, turn the other cheek.” It is also quoted in the New Testament, “Be kindly affectionate one to another with brotherly love; in honor preferring one another” (Romans 12:10). All the prophets practiced unconditional love during their times. Their love for all life was in direct relation to their ultimate goal in life; the pleasure of God. It is true that many speak words of love, beautiful and pleasant words, but what is important is putting such words into action. If words are not put into practice, they are doomed to fail, no matter how beautiful they may be. The Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, practiced what he preached. He also loved his people so much that his constant prayer was for the forgiveness and salvation of his followers. One of his constant cautions to his companions was “He is not of us who sleeps while his neighbor goes hungry.”
Love and affection are among the most important principles of being true human. All the prophets we learn from religions had among their dominant traits, love and compassion. These blessed people were able to root out feelings of hatred and rancour in themselves against others, even when faced by great opposition, such as the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, when he was laughed and mocked, and stoned by the people of Ta’if, and when the Qurayshis dumped faeces and entrails of animals on his head as he prayed. Noah, who bore the ridicule of his own people as he built the great ark at the command of his Lord, and Jesus, who was made to suffer by his own people whom he loved, are two other such examples. Only hearts that are filled with love for God and for people are able to tolerate such unjust and merciless treatments.
In more recent times, the lives of Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi can be referenced. All of them stood up for their people and even for people of other cultures, and helped them with such compassion and love, even at the risk of their own lives.
In today’s world, love is a word we constantly stumble over. But how exactly is this love portrayed? The writing of flowery verses, romance novels, the making of romantic movies and so on, does not count, if, as said before, love is not put into practice. The world is devastated by endless killings, eternal war, corruption, racism and various different kinds of evil. The globalization of knowledge, power and technology has been followed by conflicts among cultures and civilizations. Daily news items contain horrifying stories of destruction of churches, temples and mosques. People – including little children – are being maimed like flies during war; the horror stories never end. Yet there are individuals and organizations trying to do something to preserve peace and the love of humanity in the world.
It is interesting to see what Science has to say about love. According to Dr. Gregory Fricchione of the Harvard Medical School, the ability to love requires a healthy functioning brain. Therefore, children of drug addicts are oftentimes neglected. Mothers who are drug addicts may not respond to the needs of their children as the drugs they use make them lose their ability to love in a normal and healthy way. According to Dr. Fricchione, a person with a healthy brain is predisposed to think about a future in which there are connections to others. The part of the human brain called the pre-frontal cortex enables us to think into the future, and when we think of a future we gain security when we see a future of connectedness and attachment. Scientific research concludes that humans are indeed born with the need and ability to love, which remains with us, unless tampered with.
However, this is not always visible in our environment because, as explained previously, the world today is filled with negative feelings-anger, greed, envy, hurt. An individual’s behavior with and towards other humans is at least partially dependent upon how he is brought up, his family’s background, the support received during childhood and adulthood, social acceptance and so on. The two opposing feelings of love and hate can be likened unto two wolves inside a person; one sleek, beautiful, graceful, soft eyed, and the other fierce and ugly, with blood shot eyes. Whichever feeling is fed will be the one that is victorious.
There are several kinds of love, such as maternal love, familial love, romantic love, marital love, platonic love and so on. It is a mother’s love for her child that turns her blood into milk when her baby cries, it is out of love for their children that parents correct and punish them when they do something wrong. Lovers love each other, friends love each other, husband and wife love each other. It is our love for one another that makes us overlook each other’s faults and shortcomings.
People of love busy themselves with fighting their own mistakes and misdemeanors rather than complaining about the misdeeds of others. Instead, they set a good example for people to follow. Such people do so because of their closeness to God, devotion to a spiritual life and determination to stay away from all material dirt and evil.
In conclusion it can be said that true altruism and unconditional love in human beings is definitely possible, since we have been given the innate capacity to love. It is also further proved by the fact that altruism and unconditional love were the daily practice in the lives of our great and noble prophets and religious leaders, and such qualities were also witnessed in the lives of great people of more recent times. Though love does not always show itself in the world as it is hidden by other violent forces, it is ever present and ready to be cultivated if only people take enough time and interest to do so.
Zainab Cassim Akdemirci has a degree in English and language teaching from Open University of Sri Lanka.
- Gulen, M. Fethullah. 2004. Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, NJ: Tughra Books.
- “Matter and Beyond,” Ebru TV. Interview with Dr. Stephen Post.
- Thich Nhat Hahn. 1991. Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha, CA: Parallax Press.