Pathological Altruism

You know that thing we do, where we overextend ourselves unnecessarily when we don’t have sufficient physical, financial, emotional or spiritual resources? Scientists have now coined a name for this: “Pathological Altruism.”

In today’s New York Times article about this, the incomparable Natalie Angier gives revealing examples: a doctor who pushes for more invasive, aggressive techniques because “there is always hope,” “animal hoarders” (a real term) who amass so many animals that they can’t care for them all and they begin to die, patients of bulimia who are so tuned into others feelings that they sacrifice their own well being.

I grant there are times when over-extension is necessary. I often give this example: I arrive home tired at the end of a long day. I know that what I need is a home-cooked meal, a bath and a soothing evening. But as I am leaving my car, I see my elderly neighbor has fallen, injured himself and can’t get up off the sidewalk. Nobody else is there to bring him to the hospital. What do I do? Take my bath and leave him there? It is not even a question. Of course I bring him to the hospital.

Or maybe I have a chronically sick child, parent, spouse, pet. Or an infant. There are stretches in life that demand a lot.

These situations are the exceptions to the put-on-your-own oxygen-mask-before-helping-your-neighbor-on-a-plane rule. When we make it a habit to prioritize our own well being, we are not sacrificing the well being of others. On the contrary, we are likely to be healthier, kinder, more solid human beings and, fundamentally, isn’t that who we would like to see populate our world? Isn't that what we thrill at seening in our children and admire in our heros?

PHOTO (cc): Flickr / rishibando