Altruism and OCR, or, Why Help People Over the Wall?

(Warning! It takes a while for this post to get to an OCR-related point, or at least an OCR-related rumination. You can call the part beforehand a parable, if you want, or whatever the equivalent of a parable is if it’s something that actually happened. If you really hate realables, skip to paragraph 6.)

In a previous life, one of the members of the association that I worked for decided to make a big deal about how terrible it was that the association charged so much for the conferences it put on. So, she organized a free, virtual conference as a protest, and put it on. It was a huge success at showing that the profession didn’t need the big, hulking association to provide big, expensive professional development opportunities like that. Instead, the effort proved that it was practical for individuals or small groups to simply create the conferences that suited their needs on a volunteer basis.

At least, that’s what she said, over and over again, in all possible ways that would coincidentally bring her attention. But what she did was never organize a follow-up.

It was beneath my dignity, apparently, as an association employee to observe this fact, and to my knowledge nobody ever asked the organizer when she was planning to repeat her volunteer labors, so the issue of what an incredible rip-off the association’s conferences supposedly were never got terribly well resolved. But I think the story demonstrates something: People don’t do things without getting paid.

Payment isn’t necessarily money. People do things because they love them, or to build their own public profile, or to hurt a person or an entity they don’t like, or because they fear the consequences if they don’t do the thing, or because being generous makes them feel good, or for a bajillion other reasons—but not for no reason. In other words, in my worldview, altruism doesn’t exist.

I don’t think that’s bad—like so much on this site when I point out facts in a blunt way. Kindness, generosity, volunteering, and other good things all still exist, even if they’re self-motivated. I am actually kind of comforted by the idea that people behave in a rational way to achieve their own goals, because then you could theoretically predict or at least understand their actions if you know what matters to them.

But what does that mean for OCR? Altruism—or whatever you call the existent equivalent where you do good things for purely selfish motives—is a pretty strong part of OCR culture. We offer each other support, both physical and emotional, on the course and in preparation and recovery.

Or is it support? Sometimes it is, certainly—even I can’t find malice in the boost that helps someone over a wall. But sometimes the balance trips, and things done for the good of others are far more for the good of oneself. Say, when you rant about litter online to anyone who will listen, but take no action to prevent or clear it in the actual world. Or anything that’s done “for the troops” that doesn’t actually do anything for the troops. These type of things are pretty insidious—they’re nothing more than self-promotion, but they wrap themselves in the appearance of generosity to try to prevent any actual assessment of their true nature. I even think the people who say and do these kind of things believe them, and believe that they’re doing some good even when their actions are ineffectual and crowd out other discussion and action that may have some benefit.

So how, in this season of giving, does one cope with not believing in altruism? First off, I think it’s worthwhile to act as if altruism exists. Providing help to another person does, in fact, help that person, and it makes the world a slightly better place, even if there are selfish reasons behind it.

But when one is attempting to be kind or generous or good or whatever, it’s important to gauge both intent and effect. Effect is the more important one: does the action actually produce benefit for someone else, or does it only give the appearance of doing so? (A side note/seasonally appropriate example: giving to food banks. Give them cash instead of food, unless they’ve requested otherwise; they can buy more food for a given amount of money than you can, they’ll get the food they need, and they will spend fewer resources on processing and storing donations.)

Intent matters less, but I don’t think not at all. I think we’ve all done something with the intention of making life easier for someone only to have it all go to poo. (A slightly whimsical example: In a previous apartment building I lived in, the elevator had both a gate and a door, and a lot of people tried to be polite by holding one or the other for another person while one entered and the other exited. Unfortunately, the only way to do so was to fully block the entrance. I’m still confused that people never seemed to realize this.) So it’s important to consider whether “generosity” is genuinely meant that way, and if so, to forgive any mishaps that prevent it from working out.

I guess it boils down to, be excellent to each other. And to yourself too, if you’ve covered that first bit. Usually they fit together pretty well.

George Carlin from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

What? You’re complaining that the line was actually said by Abraham Lincoln? Man, I hate humans. Ignore the rest of this post, everyone is awful!


1 Comment

Filed under Commentary, Obstacle Course Racing

One response to “Altruism and OCR, or, Why Help People Over the Wall?

  1. Pingback: Obstacle Course Racing and the Olympics, or “Why?” | Fat Boy Big Wall

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