I remember hearing the well-known evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson offer this question at a conference (and I paraphrase),
You put two groups on a desert island. One is completely self-centered. The other has learned to work as a team, to cooperate, sometimes taking so that others will survive. Which of the two groups is going to survive—the self-seeking or the altruistic?
Obviously, it’s those who cooperate. They will have bonded together against various foes. So, if we are altruistic in the sense that David Sloan Wilson describes, it’s good commonsense: we are more likely to survive.
It even seems natural for us to seek the betterment of our own—to care for our family, those close to us. In my ongoing passion for science and theology, I try to keep up with what’s current scientifically, and evolutionary psychology tells us that we are designed to even act altruistically toward those who share our genes. We’d like to see those genes carried on beyond our life. So altruism is selfish in that view.
“But, wait,” writes one of the most influential scientists of our day, the head of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins. “What about those people who give themselves to a cause beyond their own genes? What about Oskar Schindler? Why did this Nazi-party German save Jews at his own peril?” (I’m paraphrasing, but you can find this in Collins’s book The Language of God.)
Evidently, we can go beyond mere evolutionary survival. We have been implanted with the power to care for those beyond our kin.
Apparently, Jesus thought so too. He described his own life—as very God in flesh—this way in the record of his life: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’” (Mark 10:45). Actually, he even declared that we should do the same, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43-44). He said this in response to his own followers’ clamoring to get to the head of the line.
Jesus even described this in terms of seeking our best—“to gain our life” is the phrase he employs:
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:35 TNIV)
Here’s what that means for me: I grew up in the secular happiness haven of Menlo Park, California. Most people know that location today as the headquarters of Facebook, nestled in the heart of the Silicon Valley, a place of joyously unrelenting spring, oodles of wealth and beautifully tanned and exercised people. Or something like that… at least, it’s a place to be happy on your own terms. And to seek life for yourself.
But Jesus taught me that we find our happiness not in self-seeking, but in serving others… even those beyond our kin group: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” (Matthew 25:40).
So I have to have others around me—and here’s the importance of relationships, the theme of “love” in this book—they will help me serve. They will even serve with me. It’s fun. So I’ve discovered I need to surround myself with those who look out for others, who know the yes of service.
I’ve learned to team with my wife Laura to donate to nonprofits (and she’s taught me a lot about what that means). I’ve pounded nails with teams of college students in Baja, California, to build basic two-room houses for those who make $10/day. I’ve partnered with friends to serve meals at our local homeless shelter, the Jesus Center. And maybe even thrown in a little of the Boy Scout promise of doing something kind for someone else each day.
Otherwise, I’ll just sit around and do things to “keep my life”… which in the end, simply helps me lose it.