Human nature is so prone when hearing or reading about altruism to imagine that it is something foreign to us, lugged into human life as a most desirable thing to follow, but, after all, highly impractical — that it is not inherent in the characteristics of human beings to be altruistic naturally. In other words, they are all fascinated with the idea of isolated self-interest. Is not this supposition utterly unfounded in nature? For wherever we look, whatever we consider or study, we find that the individual working alone for himself is helpless. In all the great kingdoms of the universe, it is union of effort, cooperation in living combines, which is not only what nature herself is working to bring about and therefore which we find everywhere, but that anything that runs counter and contrary to this fundamental law of the universe — unity in action — produces disharmony, strife, and what in our own bodies we call disease. Health is that condition of bodily structure where all parts work to a common end in what we may call friendship, union.
Consider the stones: are they not combines, are they not unions of individuals composing, making, producing, a thing? No single atom of any of the chemical elements of which any stone is composed is the stone itself. How about the lovely flower? How about the bodies in which we live? How about a single man? Could he alone produce the great works that men have bent their genius to achieve? What is civilization but the combined efforts of human beings to produce great and noble effects in human life: increasing comfort, dispelling danger, bringing about the productions of genius from greater men which redound to our own comfort and use. Show me a single instance where pure self-interest has produced anything. If we consult nature in all her kingdoms, we find naught but unity of working brought about by multitudes of individuals cooperating to a common end. And what is that but altruism? Altruism is the word we give to this fact when we see its ethical significance, and this significance is in no wise, nor in any great way nor in any small, different from what we see in the world physical. Altruism means the one working for the all — nature's fundamental law in all her grand structures — and the all standing as the guard and shield and field of effort of the one. Think of the deep moral lesson, the deduction, to be drawn from this greatest of the universe's — not mysteries but verities; so common around us that usually we pass it by unseeing, with unseeing eye. Show me anything that can endure sole and alone for a single instant of time.
Two or more atoms uniting make a molecule; two or more molecules a larger production; and it is the countless multitudes of such unions which produce the universe. Any single entity essaying to follow the ignoble path of isolated self-interest sets its or his puny will against the force which keeps the stars in their courses, gives health to our bodies, brings about civilizations, and produces all the wonders that are around us.
There is a point of teaching in this connection which it is important to introduce into the world today, and that is hope. You know the old Greek story about a certain very curious and inquisitive person who opened a box and all the evils in the world fled out, and there remained therein only hope. I think this contains a great deal of truth which has a practical bearing on life's problems. As long as a man has hope, he does not despair. Weak or strong, it matters not; if he has hope, something to look forward to, if his inner spirit, the spiritual being within him, teaches him something of hope, he not only will never despair, but he will become a builder, a constructor, a worker with the universe, because he will move forwards. And this is altruism.
We are all children of the universe, of its physical side and of its spiritual and divine side. This being so, there is in every human breast an undying font not only of inspiration, but likewise of growth, of hope, of wisdom, and of love. So that the world today, although apparently in a parlous condition, in a desperate state, still contains in it men and women enough to carry the evolutionary wave of progress over its present turmoil and strife; for the majority of mankind are essentially right in their instincts, especially the higher instincts.
Therefore, I do not see anything horribly hopeless about the world's condition today. I believe not only that there is ground for hope, but that the undying spark of spirituality, of wisdom, and love of altruism, always living in the human heart, will carry the human race not only out of its present series of impasses, of difficulties, but into brighter days, which will be brighter because wiser and gentler. It is not the crises, when things crash or seem to crash; it is not the horrific noise of the thunder or the crash of its bolt, which govern the great functions of life, human and cosmic; but those slow, to us, always quiet, unending silent processes which build: build when we wake, build when we sleep, build all the time; and even in the human race carry it through folly after folly after folly into the future.
There is the ground of our hope; and it seems to me that all good men and true should rally to the defense of these primal, simple verities which every human heart, adult or child, can understand. I believe it is about time that men and women began to look on the bright side of things, to see hope around us, to forget themselves and their petty worries, and to live in the Infinite and in the Eternal. It is easy, infinitely easier than making ourselves continuously sick with frets and worries. Within each one of us there is something divine to which we can cling, and which will carry us through.
Don't talk to me about altruism being something foreign or exotic, unusual, impractical, and therefore impracticable; for it is the only thing which perpetually lives, the only thing which endures for aye. When any single element or part in a human body begins to run on its own, we have disease. When any single element or part in any structural combine which helps to compose the world around us begins to run on its own, i.e., what we call self-interest, there we see degeneration and decay.
Deduction and question: which of the twain should we follow — the pathway of the cosmic intelligence bringing us health inner and outer, peace inner and outer, strength internal and external, and union inner and outer? Or the teaching of a tawdry and isolated self-interest which seeks its own to the prejudice of all?
Is it not high time that we gave the world a few of the simple inner teachings of the god-wisdom of the ancients? Will you show me one more sublime, more appealing to human intellect and to the dictates of human conscience, than that of altruism, which puts us in intimate union with the throbbing of the cosmic heart.
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1984. From Wind of the Spirit. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press)