Tapu Misa on current affairs
Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Courage, compassion make nice change

Whangarei woman Tania Lewis who picked up a distressed woman on a city street. Photo / APN
Whangarei woman Tania Lewis who picked up a distressed woman on a city street. Photo / APN

It's said that good news stories don't sell newspapers - but two stories lifted me out of my winter doldrums last week.

The first was about Whangarei mother-of-two Tania Lewis who put herself in harm's way to rescue a stranger from a hammer-wielding attacker.

And the second involved a Christchurch woman, Emma Woods, who found it in her heart to sympathise with the devastated 18-year-old teenager who had run over and killed her 4-year-old son in May. He had made a mistake, she said, that had "pretty horrendous consequences", but he had done a lot since the accident to try to make amends, and she didn't want him jailed.

Courage, compassion, forgiveness: it made a nice change from the usual diet of political point-scoring and skulduggery - and it showed that selflessness and altruism are alive and well.

We've become so accustomed to selfishness that we don't always understand heroic motivations.

When Austin Hemmings was stabbed to death in September 2008 after intervening to save a woman under attack, there was some debate about whether his fate would put off other would-be Good Samaritans. What never entered the discussion was the idea that people like Austin Hemmings might be less concerned with the risk to their physical safety than having to live with themselves if they had stood by.

What drives people to be brave and good? A 2005 study comparing Holocaust "rescuers" who saved the lives of Jews at great risk or cost to themselves, with "bystanders" who refused to help even when asked, found that the rescuers had high levels of empathy, altruistic moral reasoning and a sense of social responsibility.

A more recent study of 50 Canadians who had been given awards for exceptional caring and bravery found that they were more likely to have had secure attachments and a feeling of having had helpers early in life. In other words, they'd had a good start in life.

The studies are cited by the psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt in her book The Selfish Society, which does much to dispel the myth that we humans are relentlessly self-centred, self-interested beings who do good only when it serves our own ends - an idea that was given plenty of oxygen by Ayn Rand, the Russian-American author and "philosopher of selfishness and self-sufficiency"; and more recently the celebrated atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins, who posits that we are at the mercy of our "ruthlessly selfish" genes.

Gerhardt says it's the belief that most people will put their own interests ahead of others that underpins our "acceptance of industrial capitalism as an economic system".

In fact, she argues, we're not that comfortable with the culture of selfishness and greed that brought us the global financial crisis, the extravagant "bonus culture" of the financial markets, or the expenses scandals in Britain, as here.

Nor are we as cold-blooded as the high priests of selfishness suggest. The ancient, reptilian part of our brains may incline us to dominate or be dominated, but our more advanced mammalian brain is designed for nurturance and co-operation.

"In many ways we are constantly preoccupied with exploring the boundary lines between our own wishes and the needs of other people. In fact, most of what we consider newsworthy is the way that people cause harm to others by pursuing their own interests without regard for others."

Selfish individualism is anachronistic, writes Gerhardt, and "will destroy us if we cannot move on".

Thankfully, the "suffocating values" of the past 30 years are being challenged, and "few people kid themselves that 'greed is good' any more".

Although people are no more selfish than they have ever been, Gerhardt says, we're emerging from a period in which "we were encouraged to abandon our aspirations to unselfishness".

"In fact, the culture that was unleashed by neo-conservatism positively promoted selfishness. It celebrated individual acquisition and gain, without regard for society as a whole. People were urged to buy their council houses even though it depleted the stock of public housing for those in need; an idealised celebrity culture fostered new aspirations - perfect bodies, perfect decor and dazzling wealth - without concern for the standard of living of the rest of society."

How do we become the kind of people who are capable of creating a more ethical way of life?

Gerhardt writes: "The moral and emotional issues that we have to deal with as a society are the same as those we begin to grasp in the cradle: how we learn to pay attention to others and their feelings, how we manage conflict and how we balance our own needs with those of others.

"Morality is about the way we manage the interface between self and society."

- NZ Herald

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