On a balmy late spring evening we’re eating outside huddled next to the wafts of jasmine bloom providing a flourish to the end of the day.
My daughter has spent all day indoors revising for exams.
But instead of taking the nervous walk into cavernous halls on campus, she’ll be sitting in her room in front of a laptop.
It’s not really what university life was supposed to be like.
Despite this, she is buoyant and is taking me through the work she’s done.
“You know Yalom’s therapeutic factors?” She says
She knows I love Yalom. To me, he is the essence of therapy.
“Yes, but I can’t remember what they all are,” I tell her.
She reels them off impressively and, reaching “altruism,” says, “I think he probably needs to re-think that one because altruism doesn’t really exist.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Nobody really does anything without some sense of the payoff,” she tells me.
“You think so?”
“Yes,” she says, “I once watched an episode of “Friends” where Phoebe tries to prove to Joey that altruism exists, but every time she does something she realises there’s a payoff,” she explains.
“OK, well first I’m not sure you should be basing your beliefs on a US sitcom and second, the plot in that episode was unnecessarily contrived because, according to your logic, the mere fact that Phoebe wanted to prove altruism exists to anyone implies there’s a payoff for her and so she was disproving her own point from the get-go,” I tell her.
“Well, good point, but you’d need to take that up with the makers of ‘Friends’,” she says, scooping some ice cream out of a tub.
“What about parenting?” her mother asks, no doubt thinking about all the exceptionally hard graft that two decades of being a mother has required.
“Is parenting enjoyable?” My daughter replies
“Yes, it is,” I chip in.
“So there you are, it isn’t altruistic.” She sits back in her chair, triumphant.
I think she’s missing something.
“Maybe we have children because we want to enjoy bringing them up but there are many things we do for them in their lives which require sacrifices and which we do because we love our children, not because we want to feel good,” I say.
Later, as I’m loading the dishwasher, I think about our conversation and about how I’m always telling people that making loving gestures towards others is the best way to feel loved. I realise that this cannot be altruism.
I think too about all the people I work with who sacrifice themselves to the others in their lives, their families, their partners, or lovers. They do it to try and keep themselves safe emotionally and sometimes physically. This cannot be altruism either.
I begin to wonder whether she’s right and that altruism doesn’t exist after all. It makes me feel sad.
When I read “Creatures Of A Day” by Yalom some years ago I sent him an email to tell him how it had made such a huge impression on me. I thought no more about it. I just wanted to tell him that I appreciated what he’d given me.
A few weeks later, to my amazement, he wrote a reply. “Thank you, Graham, your mail was much appreciated.”
I’d probably have described my original mail as altruism but, in the end, we both felt good.