January 3, 2011


As the first work day of the New Year begins, it’s good to think about all we’ve done with our lives so far. One of my women’s magazines listed some interesting statistics about how we’ve been operating as a nation. The case for our random acts of kindness looks pretty good. According to a recent Gallup survey 60 percent of Americans donated to charitable groups in 2010; 39 percent volunteered time; and 65 percent helped a stranger in need. Among the 153 nations surveyed, we ranked number 5 in giving (“Better Homes and Gardens,” 1/2011 pg. 124). In the past we’ve been ranked number 1 so the economic downturn has taken its toll on our psyche. But it’s safe to say Americans have been a nation whose way of facing adversity is to give a hand to others as well as ourselves.

Perhaps that spirit derives from our pioneer heritage, when we had to work together to build a nation or to survive a harsh frontier life. Certainly the spirit is embedded in much of our literature. Even the tongue in cheek stories of “Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn” exhort us to do better, to work harder for ourselves and future generations. Edith Wharton’s, “The House of Mirth” may give us a grim look at the cruelty of New York’s ruling class at the turn of the century, but it also provides an example of the highest form of altruism when the central character, Lilly Bart, sacrifices her life to protect someone dear to her. “To Kill a Mocking Bird also allows us to see the worst and the best in us as the characters struggle against fear and attempt to see the world through someone else’s eyes.  

Fred Hargesheimer is a man who best represents our spirit of altruism (Yahoo News, 12/23/10). He died recently at 94 having lived a life of giving. He’d been a soldier in World War II. Shot down by a Japanese fighter while on a mission over the Japanese-held island of New Britain, he was rescued by residents of a coastal village. They tended his wounds and hid him until he was picked up by a U.S. submarine. He never forgot the kindness shown him and returned over many years to build schools, a clinic and to help the locals develop an economy that would allow them to sustain themselves. As he said about his debt to the people who’d saved him: “How could I ever repay it?” 

In his heart, maybe he never could. But by paying it forward, he tried and in the good-old-fashioned American way.