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Excerpts from

Altruism:
Many Kinds of Kindness

by Dr. Soni Werner


ED. NOTE: Dr. Soni Werner is the 2018 Everett K. Bray Visiting Lecturer. These excerpts are intended to enhance your experience of her lectures this year.


Introduction

This is a resource book about altruism at two levels: kindness to body and kindness to spirit. Altruism is a word derived from the Latin and French languages, referring to other people rather than to self (egoism). So the scope of this book is about various ways that we can choose to be kind to others.

Here the reader will find the topic of human kindness to others analyzed from many different angles. There are probably dozens of ways one could organize this positive subject. The theme that was selected that holds this particular book together is about the six ways to serve others, both literally and spiritually. It is based on a well-known story from the Holy Bible, in the New Testament: Matthew 25:35-40:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes  and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Therefore, the six chapters here focus on these six ways that we are to serve our neighbor, as directed by Jesus Christ. These could be seen as six main components of altruism:
    1) Serving food to the hungry
    2) Serving liquids to the thirsty
    3) Welcoming the stranger
    4) Clothing the naked
    5) Visiting the sick
    6) Visiting the imprisoned
 

Who was Sorokin?

In reaction to his personal experiences with the horrors of war and imprisonment, Sorokin decided to emphasize the positive aspects of humanity, such as altruism. He had been imprisoned several times during the Russian Revolution and became an astute observer and recorder of these events. As a political prisoner he spent time listening to the sorrows of his fellow inmates. Although he witnessed brutality from the guards, he also noticed that imprisoned people could be kind to each other. These intense experiences helped him formulate his theory of altruism decades later as a professor in the USA. He asserted that any positive, altruistic act could be described in terms of five dimensions: duration, extensivity, intensity, purity and adequacy.

Duration refers to the length of time doing helpful behaviors. Extensivity refers to helping family members as well as people from far away places and cultures. Intensity is an indication of the extent of emotional engagement of an altruistic person when being helpful. Purity is the most private aspect of altruism, because it refers to the sincerity of the motives of the altruistic individual. Finally, adequacy is the dimension of altruism that refers to the skilled effectiveness of any helpful behavior. Sometimes this means the helper should be professionally trained, but other times, this might just mean avoiding unhelpful words and knowing the right thing to say during a tragedy. (Post, 2003; Post, Johnson, McCullough, & Schloss, 2003).
 

Swedenborgian perspective about four levels of motivation to be altruistic

While psychologists can provide clues about the mental state of an altruistic person, theology can give us an even deeper understanding about motivations. “Swedenborg distinguishes natural compassion from genuine charity, indicating that genuine charity requires looking with discernment to the quality of each neighbor.  In Swedenborg’s view, each person is the neighbor according to the quality of that person’s good. …When acting in charity, good love blends compassion with justice and discernment, and takes different forms depending on the different needs of each neighbor. Each neighbor is recognized equally, but a different treatment may be directed toward each neighbor’s good “ (Klein, 1998, p. 82; see also Swedenborg TCR 406- 419, 428, AC 1419, 6703-6712, 6812-6824; Charity 72-89; HH 268).

Rev. Dr. Ted Klein is a Swedenborgian scholar who has focused much of his work on applying these doctrines to situations of social injustice. He highlights both the spiritual growth of people in need as well as the people who come forward to kindly help. He asserts that it is through these challenging encounters with each other that people have the opportunity to redefine themselves and come closer to God. “In regeneration, we can gradually come into a life of love, wisdom, and use in connection with the world” (Klein, 1998, p. 43).

Swedenborg tells us that there are four levels of charity, from simple helpfulness to more complex discernment (AC 3688). It takes more mental effort and focus to discern what others really need at the more sophisticated levels. Here is a paraphrased summary of the four levels of the motives of a helpful person.

• Simply gives to others from the heart, so as to get a 
reward in heaven.
• Gives to anyone who is in distress, with no distinction about whether the receivers will use the contributions for good or ill.
• Gives only to people that are thought to be upright (but may stereotype people).
• Searches for what is good in anyone and supports that component; sees the Lord within a person and is altruistic to that part. If this is done with a full heart and with acknowledgement that all goodness comes from the Lord, this person is regenerate.
 

HUNGER

Theological perspective about spiritual hunger and altruism

According to Swedenborg, who was a Biblical scholar, there is an internal sense to the story of Matthew 25:35. Not only it is important for us to serve other people literally, such as when we are feeding the hungry, it is also important for us to serve others in a spiritual manner. People can be inspired by the Lord and the angels to figure out what others really need, spiritually, and to respond to those needs. “The angels who are with man perceive these words… for by the ‘hungry’ they perceive those who from affection desire good” (Swedenborg, AC 4956).
 

THIRST

Theological perspective about spiritual thirst and altruism

When a person desires truth from affection, this is what is meant by spiritual thirst (Swedenborg, AC 4956). In other words, people have strong feelings that can lead to them becoming curious about life. It makes them wonder and ask important questions. Some will even go on a quest to search for truth, which they can apply to their lives.

“People who look to the Lord, turn from what is harmful, and do their daily work sincerely, justly, and faithfully become embodiments of charity. A conscientious approach to work is central to Swedenborg’s concept that the life of charity combines a spiritual awareness with an active life in the world….A truly charitable life involves acting honestly and fairly out of an inward spiritual motivation. In this, there is a joining together of genuine love, spiritual insights, and actions with good consequences” (Klein, 1998, p. 35; see also Swedenborg Charity 158 and HH 535).
 

Swedenborgian perspective about four levels of motivation to be altruistic

Altruism can be analyzed according to behaviors, thoughts, feelings and motivations. The theological perspective emphasizes the private motives of people while they are planning and doing acts of kindness. While it is often difficult to tell what another person is pondering through observation, it is useful for each of us to be aware of our own motives. Hopefully we become more sincere and effective as we mature, but there is no guarantee. Spiritual maturation is a choice. According to Swedenborg, it is wise to pay very close attention to the people we are serving at any moment. Then we can be more effective as we attempt to serve them, bringing out the best in our neighbors. In the case of addressing spiritual thirst, we ought to listen carefully to want others want to know before sharing what we believe to be true.

“Swedenborg distinguishes natural compassion from genuine charity, indicating that genuine charity requires looking with discernment to the quality of each neighbor.  In Swedenborg’s view, each person is the neighbor according to the quality of that person’s good. …When acting in charity, good love blends compassion with justice and discernment, and takes different forms depending on the different needs of each neighbor. Each neighbor is recognized equally, but a different treatment may be directed toward each neighbor’s good” (Klein, 1998, p. 82; see also Swedenborg TCR 406- 419, 428, AC 1419,  6703-6712, 6812-6824; Charity 72-89; HH 268).

Swedenborg tells us that there are four levels of charity, from simple helpfulness to more complex discernment (AC 3688). Although it may be hard to figure out what others truly need, it is important to try. Then we can discern what others really need at the more sophisticated levels. Here is a paraphrased summary of the four levels of the motives of a helpful person, first with examples of providing liquids for the thirsty literally, and then with examples of helping people who are spiritually thirsty for truth.

• Simply gives to others from the heart, so as to get a reward in heaven.
• Gives to anyone who is in distress, with no distinction about whether the receivers will use the contributions for good or ill.
• Gives only to people that are thought to be upright (but may stereotype people).
• Searches for what is good in anyone and supports that component; sees the Lord within a person and is altruistic to that part. If this is done with a full heart and with acknowledgement that all goodness comes from the Lord, this person is regenerate.
 

ESTRANGED

Theological perspective about spiritual strangers and altruism

Swedenborg offers an internal sense to what it means to be a stranger. At this deeper level, a stranger is anyone who is on a journey and unsure of what to do next in life. There is a loss of direction and purpose. “The stranger is one who is willing to be instructed” (Swedenborg AC1463, 4958, 6004:3e). We are told that it would be unkind to take advantage of this type of stranger. This person is in our world needing guidance about how to live a better life. These spiritual strangers are eagerly asking questions, and we have the opportunity to be kind by showing them how and why to live a good life; but first we need to care about them. Sojourners are wanting to know what is good and true (Swedenborg, AE 223:15). They may already know how to live a moral and civil life, but may still be wondering about how to be a more spiritual person (Swedenborg, AC 2115, AC 2915 AC 2496). While spiritually thirsty people seek truths, spiritual sojourners want to know how to apply truths to life (Swedenborg, AC 1896,  AC 8890). We are taught that angels are very good at instructing spiritual sojourners initially with introductory ideas, and then later with deeper truths, all in the hopes of guiding sojourners on how to lead a spiritually good life (Swedenborg, AC 1463). Apparently, we should not give sojourners truths that are too internal at first, but give them external, tangible ideas to start with. We should treat strangers with respect and with the same attitude that we would treat people we have known for a long time (Swedenborg, AC 9195, AC 9268).  Like the Good Samaritan, we should help strangers who are injured by giving them oil (which represents kindness), give them wine (which represents truth), and provide a place for them to rest and recover (Swedenborg AE 375). We should never take advantage of strangers by teaching them false ideas or leading them astray. We were all learners at certain points, so it is important to have empathy for those people who are strangers seeking to learn today.
 

Swedenborgian perspective about four levels of motivation to be altruistic

The theological perspective of altruism addresses what Sorokin called purity. While Sorokin did acknowledge that there is a range of pure motives from egotistical to selfless, he did not provide more detail than that. Swedenborg’s theological perspective contributes an entirely unique model for describing the range of purity. In his writings, there is an emphasis on paying attention to both the subtle differences of other people in need and one’s own reasons for helping. In the dual cases of literally assisting strangers who want to become accepted into a community or responding to questions of people on their spiritual journeys, this model can be especially useful.

“Each person we encounter is a neighbor to be loved, but our practice of charity must be attuned to the nature of each neighbor. We may find one person so trustworthy that we would trust that person with our life. Another person’s actions may give us good reason not to trust. …Our treatment of each neighbor should depend on the quality of each neighbor’s treatment of others. We need to be prudent and discriminating in our practice of charity, guarding against unintentionally contributing to harm, and continually seeking the best way to love and respond to each individual” (Klein, 1998, p. 37; see also Swedenborg Charity 51, 52, 55, and AC 6703, 6704, 6818).

Dr. Wilson van Dusen was a Swedenborgian scholar and a psychiatrist. He took an interdisciplinary approach when he wrote about how people can be pure and kind in their paid work or volunteer activities, which Swedenborg called uses. He wrote, “uses is a way of speaking to all there is. It is a spiritual communication. You wish to speak to God? Do the task at hand with the greatest faithfulness and devotion. I must emphasize, any task” (van Dusen, 2000, p. 38-39).

“Swedenborg distinguishes natural compassion from genuine charity, indicating that genuine charity requires looking with discernment to the quality of each neighbor.  In Swedenborg’s view, each person is the neighbor according to the quality of that person’s good. …When acting in charity, good love blends compassion with justice and discernment, and takes different forms depending on the different needs of each neighbor. Each neighbor is recognized equally, but a different treatment may be directed toward each neighbor’s good” (Klein, 1998, p. 82; see also Swedenborg TCR 406- 419, 428, AC 1419, 6703-6712, 6812-6824; Charity 72-89; HH 268).

As in previous chapters, the four levels of charity can be applied to the example of this chapter: literally and spiritually serving the strangers and sojourners in our lives (Swedenborg, AC 3688: 3-5).

• Simply gives to others from the heart, so as to get a reward in heaven.
• Gives to anyone who is in distress, with no distinction about whether the receivers will use the contributions for good or ill.
• Gives only to people that are thought to be upright (but may stereotype people).
• Searches for what is good in anyone and supports that component; sees the Lord within a person and is altruistic to that part. If this is done with a full heart and with acknowledgement that all goodness comes from the Lord, this person is regenerate.
 

NAKEDNESS – NEEDS PROTECTION

Theological perspective about spiritual nakedness/clothing and altruism

According to Swedenborg, nakedness at a spiritual level “means one who acknowledges that there is nothing of good or truth in himself” (Swedenborg, AC 4958). One Swedenborgian scholar, named Rev. Erik Buss, asserted that some people “do not know how to be good and may not even want to learn how to be good” (Buss, 2013).  He also indicated that if we are trying to be altruistic to spiritually naked people, that it is not wise to focus on those people’s errors or attack them where they are vulnerable. It would be better to appeal to the spiritually naked people’s ability to elevate themselves and fix their own situations. “They who are in charity scarcely see the evil of another” (Swedenborg, AC 1079). It is more helpful to offer opportunities for spiritually naked people to become aware of their own shame for a time, as this may lead to a longing for truth, as a form of spiritual, protective garments. This can help them find hope, when they are overcome with the despair that they have nothing of goodness or truth within themselves. Buss suggests that the most effective type of altruism is merciful and respectful when dealing with the spiritually naked.
 

Swedenborgian perspective about four levels of motivation to be altruistic

Although Sorokin was a Christian social psychologist, there is no evidence that he actually read the works of Swedenborg. However, we can integrate Sorokin’s theory of altruism with Swedenborgian concepts to gain a deeper understanding. While Sorokin described intensity as one dimension of altruism, Swedenborg explains how there are many levels of that intensity. At one level we can appreciate how other people are striving to obey civil rules and laws. At a higher level, we might love other people more intensely when we see them be moral to their neighbors and family. And we can love them with an even higher intensity when we witness them serving the Lord (Swedenborg Charity 55-60).  

In a similar vein, our intensity of compassion may increase as we discern that someone is spiritually naked at a civil, moral or spiritual level (Swedenborg HH 512, 468, 484; TCR 444). As Rev. Erik Buss indicated, a spiritually naked person has made some mistakes that we are witnessing (Buss, personal communication, 2013). They may be feeling regret and hopeless. At a civil level, the mistakes are about breaking governmental laws. At a moral level, the mistakes are regarding the way people treat each other with unfairness or malice. And at the highest level, the mistakes are about disrespect to God. When we are witnessing these mistakes in others, we would do well to simply acknowledge these errors but not dwell on them. Rather, we can serve our neighbors better by first offering intense kindness and compassion. “Genuine love involves compassionately responding to the suffering of others as if towards our own” (Klein, 1998, p. 29; Swedenborg, AC 351).

“Swedenborg distinguishes natural compassion from genuine charity, indicating that genuine charity requires looking with discernment to the quality of each neighbor.  In Swedenborg’s view, each person is the neighbor according to the quality of that person’s good. …When acting in charity, good love blends compassion with justice and discernment, and takes different forms depending on the different needs of each neighbor. Each neighbor is recognized equally, but a different treatment may be directed toward each neighbor’s good” (Klein, 1998, p. 82; see also Swedenborg TCR 406- 419, 428, AC 1419, 6703-6712, 6812-6824; Charity 72-89; HH 268.)

Swedenborg tells us that there are four levels of charity, from simple helpfulness to more complex discernment (AC 3688). It takes more mental effort and focus to discern what others really need at the more sophisticated levels. Here is a paraphrased summary of the four levels of the motives of a helpful person, first with examples of clothing the naked literally, and then with examples of helping people who are spiritually naked (Swedenborg AC 3688: 3-5).    

• Simply gives to others from the heart, so as to get a reward in heaven.
• Gives to anyone who is in distress, with no distinction about whether the receivers will use the contributions for good or ill.
• Gives only to people that are thought to be upright (but may stereotype people).
• Searches for what is good in anyone and supports that component; sees the Lord within a person and is altruistic to that part. If this is done with a full heart and with acknowledgement that all goodness comes from the Lord, this person is regenerate.
 

SICKNESS

Psychological research about spiritual sickness and altruism

William James lived over a century ago in a Swedenborgian family in Boston, and he was the first American psychologist and a prolific author. James is known for integrating many Swedenborgian spiritual principles into his secular, psychological books. In William James’ book, Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), he discussed people who are sick in their souls. He stated that the sick soul finds that "unsuspectedly from the bottom of every fountain of pleasure…, something bitter rises up: a touch of nausea, a falling dead of the delight, a whiff of melancholy…." that brings "a feeling of coming from a deeper region and often have an appalling convincingness" (James, 1902, p. 136). But James also believed in the ability for individuals to transform themselves, spiritually, and overcome their spiritual sicknesses.

Bill Wilson lived in New York in the 1930’s and he struggled with a serious alcohol addiction and could not find anyone to help him recover. He read both Swedenborg’s Writings about spiritual growth and the Varieties of Religious Experiences (James, 1902). These works helped him formulate a method called the12 steps of recovery. This led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. The 12 step method of spiritual recovery from the sickness of addiction has helped millions of people, as they support each other. The concepts of recovery did not require affiliation with any particular organized church, but they were centered on faith to God and charity to the neighbor. The 12 steps spell out a way to allow God to heal from unhealthy relationships with alcohol, gambling, narcotics, sex, or overeating.

But the program also allows people who are sick with addiction to help others who are addicted. In fact it is in the twelfth step that altruism happens. For example, “…carry this message to other compulsive gamblers” (Gamblers Anonymous, 2014). Hence, the line between the altruistic helper and the helped person blurs. Part of the effective recovery of an individual addict involves helping other addicts recover, too.

In addition to analyzing social behaviors during recovery, psychologists also search for neural correlates to altruistic attitudes and memories. When one sick person says to another sick person, “I know how you feel because I suffer from the same thing”, this engages the parts of the brain dedicated to memory and empathy.
 

Swedenborgian perspective about four levels of motivation to be altruistic

Sorokin suggested that adequacy is an important dimension of altruism, however, he did not provide much detail. In Swedenborg’s writings, we are told that we can choose to make the effort to be adequate in our useful endeavors in four aspects of life, arranged on a continuum, and these efforts will lead to genuine happiness.  

• Bodily needs
• Material needs
• Social needs
• Spiritual needs

At the most basic level, we can choose to serve others’ bodily needs such as making them physically comfortable during times of illness. Being adequate at this level means learning from medical professionals about how to move a bedridden patient, or when to administer certain pain medications to a person in hospice. At the next level, Swedenborg tells us that we can strive to serve others according to their material needs. For example, when dealing with sick family members we can make sure to provide adequate facilities with in-home care or at a hospital. This might involve paying for the right kind of bed and other equipment. Then at the next level, Swedenborg instructs that we can serve others according to their social needs. So this might mean adequately arranging for family and friends to come to the bedside of the ailing patient, and guiding them on what to say to be most effective during critical moments.  Finally, Swedenborg states that the highest level of useful service involves one’s relationship with God. If we are helping our sick friends, and treating them as if they are each Jesus himself, then we will experience a deep happiness. We can also provide for the spiritual needs of the patient by arranging visits and rituals involving clergy (Swedenborg CL 18).

Swedenborg distinguishes natural compassion from genuine charity, indicating that genuine charity requires looking with discernment to the quality of each neighbor.  In Swedenborg’s view, each person is the neighbor according to the quality of that person’s good. …When acting in charity, good love blends compassion with justice and discernment, and takes different forms depending on the different needs of each neighbor. Each neighbor is recognized equally, but a different treatment may be directed toward each neighbor’s good” (Klein, 1998, p. 82; see also Swedenborg TCR 406-419, 428, AC 1419, 6703-6712, 6812-6824; Charity 72-89; HH 268).

As in previous chapters, the altruistic attitudes and behaviors of the following four levels of charity can be illustrated with examples of literally visiting sick people and attending to spiritually sick people, according to one’s motivations (Swedenborg AC 3688: 3-5).

• Simply gives to others from the heart, so as to get a reward in heaven.
• Gives to anyone who is in distress, with no distinction about whether the receivers will use the contributions for good or ill.
• Gives only to people that are thought to be upright (but may stereotype people).
• Searches for what is good in anyone and supports that component; sees the Lord within a person and is altruistic to that part. If this is done with a full heart and with acknowledgement that all goodness comes from the Lord, this person is regenerate.
 

IMPRISONMENT

Theological perspective about spiritual imprisonment and altruism

According to Swedenborg who offers an internal sense for the story in Matthew 25 about the six ways to serve the neighbor, “he that is ‘in prison,’ is one who acknowledges that he is in falsity” (Swedenborg, AC 4954-4959). Spiritual imprisonment can happen anywhere that a person is living a life that is built on a lie or false assumption. The person feels trapped in this falsity and may be uncertain how to become free of this entanglement.

For example, there are some people who have intrusive thoughts that make them feel very uneasy. People with this condition called OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) are trapped in repeated thought patterns that lead to tremendous anxiety. These obsessive thoughts crowd out other concepts in the mind and may lead the person to do compulsive behaviors in order to reduce the anxiety. Compulsive behaviors include excessive washing of hands and countertops to rid the environment of germs.  The person with OCD may feel stuck in the false assumption that if only the physical environment is extremely clean that then he will feel safe. If the person acknowledges that this makes no sense, then maybe he can begin to get therapeutic help to reduce these obsessions and compulsions that are dominating his life (About OCD, 2104; American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
 

Swedenborgian perspective about four levels of motivation to be altruistic

Psychologists can choose to be secular or spiritual in their therapeutic approach to helping people who are literally in prison or spiritually trapped in false ideas. Even though therapists are not supposed to be proselytizing a specific religion, they can increase their effectiveness in helping others when they carefully consider their own spiritual motives. They can also choose to use wise discernment as they carefully diagnose and treat their patients. In this manner, their efforts to help even the most difficult inmate or OCD patient can be spiritually inspired and full of true compassion. Klein writes, “Swedenborg’s vision of a life of charity emphasizes a person’s daily work or employment, and also a person’s ongoing connections or relationships with others. Swedenborg defines charity as doing what is good and right in every work, office, employment, and activity in our lives with others” (Klein, 1998, p. 35; see also Swedenborg AC  8121, 8122, TCR 422, 423).

“Swedenborg distinguishes natural compassion from genuine charity, indicating that genuine charity requires looking with discernment to the quality of each neighbor.  In Swedenborg’s view, each person is the neighbor according to the quality of that person’s good. …When acting in charity, good love blends compassion with justice and discernment, and takes different forms depending on the different needs of each neighbor. Each neighbor is recognized equally, but a different treatment may be directed toward each neighbor’s good” (Klein, 1998, p. 82; see also Swedenborg TCR 406-419, 428, AC 1419, 6703-6712, 6812-6824; Charity 72-89; HH 268).

Swedenborg tells us that there are four levels of charity, from simple helpfulness to more complex discernment (AC 3688). It takes more mental effort and focus to discern what others really need at the more sophisticated levels.

• Simply gives to others from the heart, so as to get a reward in heaven.
• Gives to anyone who is in distress, with no distinction about whether the receivers will use the contributions for good or ill.
• Gives only to people that are thought to be upright (but may stereotype people).
• Searches for what is good in anyone and supports that component; sees the Lord within a person and is altruistic to that part. If this is done with a full heart and with acknowledgement that all goodness comes from the Lord, this person is regenerate.

 

bio of Dr. Soni Werner

 

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