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Confessions of a Naïve Optimist

Image by Derek Robinson from Pixabay

About six months prior to my retirement from the pastorate, I founded a company called ProSocial. The goal of the company is to create community in the real world by providing opportunities and experiences in small groups of 4-10 people. After more than a year of work, we are entering into a testing phase with our application.


I partnered with my local gym, Fitness 19, to test the matching feature of our app. The offer from Fitness 19 was very generous: If a member of Fitness 19 and their non-member friend sign up for my app, they both get a free month of membership. To promote this offer, I sat at a table at the entrance of the gym so I could introduce myself and talk about my company.


My table at Fitness 19 promoting ProSocial

Many people ignored me, but a number of very nice folks asked what I was doing. I ended up having a lot of great conversations and I met some very interesting people. However, one conversation really irked me. There’s a guy I’ve known for about 7 years. We’ve had small, superficial conversations throughout the years, but we were always cordial. This is why I was surprised when, every time he passed by the table, he ignored me.


Finally, after about three weeks of missed opportunities, I called out to him, “Would you give me a minute to tell you about my business?” He kept inching away from me and said, “I already heard.” I replied, “Well, can I give you a few more details? I think if you hear what I’m up to you’d realize I’m trying to help people.”


What he said next blew me away: “I don’t really care about helping other people. You know what I care about? What’s good for me.” Then he walked away.


If you’re thinking I was upset because he was unwilling to hear my pitch, you would be wrong. During the month I was promoting my platform, I had plenty of people listen to my pitch and turn me down. Many people said, “No thanks,” and moved on. I get it. What I’m offering is not for everyone.


What upset me was his blatant disregard for my desire to help others. 


I spent the better part of 20 years of my life trying to serve the people in my community through the church. My mentality, which is heavily derived from Jesus’ teachings, is to sacrifice what I have for the benefit of those who require assistance. If you’re in need, I will give you resources. If you’re suffering, I will do what I can to alleviate your pain. If you need a hand, just ask politely and you can count on me.


The entire ethos of my life is built around service and sacrifice. I would never utter the words, “I only care about what’s good for me.” It’s antithetical to everything I believe about what makes human life meaningful.


However, as I was ruminating on his comment, I began asking myself a fundamental question: “Why, exactly, did he make you so upset? What was it about his comment that really struck a deep nerve inside of you?”


As I peeled back the layers, I eventually came to what I feel is the honest answer: He articulated reality. He voiced how most humans think and function in the real world. A significant proportion of the human population doesn’t really care about anyone except themselves. They are only looking out for their own self-interest and are not willing to sacrifice for the benefit of others.


However, unlike this guy at the gym, most people understand it’s not socially acceptable to say out loud what they’re thinking in their heads. He has no such filter.


Striking “MY” Nerve


I’ve always understood that altruism, or the unselfish regard for the welfare of others, is an unusual trait. From the time I was young, I cared a great deal for those who were suffering. In fourth grade, we heard a presentation on whales from an organization that was trying to save them. My class was supposed to raise $15 towards the effort. I was so moved by the presentation and the plight of the whales that I brought in $15 from my lawn mowing money and gave it to my teacher telling her, “I want to make sure the whales are okay.” She was a bit stunned and tried to give the money back, but I wouldn’t take it. The rest of the class donated a total of $4.


Save the Whales made presentations in schools all around the country in the late 80s/early 90s. Image by Pexels from Pixabay

This type of giving became a pattern that would define the rest of my life. I became a pastor because I wanted to be part of an organization whose sole purpose was to create positive social change. I figured, since we are all followers of Jesus, we would all have the same goal of sacrificing for the greater good. Our job was to live out Matthew 25: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick and support those in prison.


During my time as a pastor, I slowly began to realize that my reasons for being a Christian were not shared by most churchgoers. Altruism was not the goal. They were not there to change the world. Many were there to be reassured that they believed the right things.


One of the major reasons I left the pastorate is because I realized that the collective efforts of the minority of people who were dedicated to altruism in the church were producing diminishing returns. The same people were doing the same things all the time and they were getting super burned out. I simply couldn’t move the needle enough to get the intransigent members off the fence to really start making a difference.


As a result, I felt I could create more positive change outside of the walls of the church. This is precisely why I created ProSocial. Therefore, when I was confronted with the statement, “I don’t really care about other people. All I’m concerned about is what’s good for me,” I realized that he was essentially vocalizing the behavior I had witnessed in the church for all those years. It was a reminder that, even though I had left the church, I was back in the same boat fighting the same futile battle.


His statement made me feel like no matter how much I care, no matter how hard I try, the apathy and selfishness of human beings will always prevail.


The Circle of Care 


Of course, I’m exaggerating when I say that the vast majority of humans only care about themselves. The fact is that most humans have people who they love in the form of family and friends. Even very selfish people are willing to sacrifice resources and time for their families.


The question becomes: How far does your circle of care extend beyond those with whom you have a close relationship? Our general instinct is to stick to the people we know. For proof of this, only 25% of Americans volunteer their time. This can range from homeless shelters to picking up trash to running bake sales. Hence, the remaining 75% never give their time to any cause.


Although Jesus never encountered this statistic, he understood the problem. In the gospel of Luke, a lawyer asks Jesus what it means to love your neighbor. Jesus replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan. There’s a man who has been robbed, beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Both a priest and Levite walk by the man, choosing not to help him. Finally, a Samaritan sees the man and carries him to an inn, paying for his medical care.


Stained glass portraying the parable of the Good Samaritan. Image by falco from Pixabay

One cannot appreciate the power of this parable without understanding the characters involved. Although today we associate Samaritans with kindness, this was not the association in Jesus’ era.  The Samaritans and the Jews came from a similar ancestral line, but they had diverged in terms of their beliefs. The Samaritans had their own version of the Bible, which meant they had different religious customs. They worshiped different gods and they intermarried with people from other cultures. The Jews thought of themselves as superior to the Samaritans and vice-versa.


Therefore, when the priest and Levite, both of whom were considered very moral men among the Jews, walk by the injured man without helping, Jesus’ audience would have been shocked that the Samaritan was the only one to stop and offer assistance.


A good modern equivalent for this story would be something like this: A man lies wounded on the side of the road, then Mother Theresa came up to the man, but rather than help him, she kept on walking. The next person to cross his path was Nelson Mandela, but he too kept on walking. Finally, the last person to cross his path was Osama Bin Laden. He cared for the man and provided him with aid.


Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Osama Bin Laden. Midjourney AI, prompted by Netha Hussain, CC0; John Mathew Smith, 2001; Hamid Mir, CC BY-SA 3.0.

That’s what it would have been like to hear the parable of the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ era. It was supposed to shock you because the prejudice of the audience is that the Samaritan is evil and not capable of any good. But in the parable, the Samaritan is the only one who crosses paths with injured man whose mentality is not selfish. The Samaritan sees no other option but to do everything in his power to save this dying stranger.


I think it’s important to note, the Samaritan does not know this man. They have no affiliation whatsoever. In fact, they are enemies because the man on the side of the road would identify as Jewish. Hence, Jesus’ answer to the question that prompted this whole parable, “Who is my neighbor?” is quite profound. Your neighbor is everyone, even the people you hate.


The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most important of Jesus' parables because it gets down into the detail of exactly how Jesus expects us to live. According to Jesus, you do not get to discriminate about who you love and don’t love. You have to love everyone equally, no matter who they are.


Whether it’s your spouse, your best friend, your next-door neighbor, the stranger you meet on the street, the criminal in jail or the terrorists who attacked America on 9/11, you are supposed to love them, which is incredibly difficult. Some might say that it’s nearly impossible, but the goal of this parable is to force you to expand your circle of care beyond your immediate tribe.


As the statistics I referenced earlier would suggest, this is unnatural and quite difficult for most humans to achieve. It takes a lot of work and effort to expand our circle of care beyond our natural limits. Indeed, I have always felt this is the main purpose of the Christian religion—to push humans to love those whom they would normally ignore.


Unsurprisingly, this is not how most Christians view the purpose of their religion. It’s much easier to simply believe in Jesus than to practice his teachings.


The Path of Least Resistance 


With this first test run of my software and some of the responses I’ve received, I’ve thought on more than one occasion: Am I fighting too hard against human nature? The natural tendency of most people is to follow the path of least resistance.  


For example, we all know that exercising and eating healthy is the best choice, but a quarter of Americans are sedentary while also consuming high caloric diets. We all know that scrolling on our phones for hours is bad for our mental health, but most people spend several hours a day watching mindless content. As a result, the United States is in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness where people feel more disconnected than at any point in human history.


We all know intuitively that having positive friendships is the key to a meaningful and fulfilling life. And yet, my intuition tells me that, like exercise, healthy eating and our phones, most people are not going to take the initiative to correct this deficit in their lives. Even if my software makes socializing and finding new friendships as frictionless as possible, the path of least resistance tells them to stay home and remain alone.  


I feel like I’m encountering the same problem I faced in the church. As a pastor, I fooled myself into believing that every Christian was driven by altruism and wanted to expand their circle of care. In reality, expanding our circle of care requires Christians to step outside of their comfort zone. The path of least resistance tells us to only care about ourselves. As the guy at the gym expressed, “I only care about what’s good for me.”    


Perhaps I’m naïve, but I’m unwilling to give up on society. I am unwilling to believe that, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we cannot make good decisions for ourselves. I choose to believe that, given enough opportunity, humans will awake from their stupor and eschew the path of least resistance.


Why do I believe this? Because I’m an optimist and it’s in my nature to be altruistic. I will always take the hard path in life to help other people, even if the results are less than what I hoped for.


Somebody has to help the man dying on the side of the road. It might as well be me.

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2 Comments


Great share I'm encouraged increase my circle of love.

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Jess H
Jess H
Jun 02

Okay Alex, here it comes!


First -- this post resonated with me deeply. Working in caring professions, whatever they may be, requires continual acts of service for others, in the hopes that their lives (and ours) will turn out better than they would without our intervention. As a healthcare worker (nurse), I do that with people's health/body. As a pastor, and now in your work in tech/app development, you are doing that with people's experiences (spiritual/social). Regardless of our avenue, these acts of service are Caring acts. We do it because we care, and we hope others care (or will care) as much as (or more than) we do. We can't control how it's received, and we can't make people…

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