To everyone who is appalled this time of year by what they consider the grasping, selfish and consumerist nature of their fellow humans, I point to the story of Samuel Oliner.
Oliner’s life has been haunted by a single question — beyond why he, alone of the inhabitants of his entire village, managed to survive a Nazi pogrom. For six decades he has been asking himself why a perfect stranger was willing to put everything on the line – her family, even her own life – in order to save his.
A village slaughtered
When Oliner was 12 in the summer of 1942, his family, like many other Jews, were forced to leave their homes to take up cramped quarters in a ghetto in a small town in southern Poland.
Early one August morning, the Einatzgruppen, a cadre of enormous trucks, roared into the middle of the plaza. Armed soldiers — Germans and Ukrainians serving under the Nazis — flooded out and banged on the doors of all the houses.
Heeding his sobbing stepmother, who implored him to save himself, Oliner hid beneath their sloped roof where, through a tiny aperture, he was witness to unspeakable atrocities — a young girl casually flung out of a top floor window as if discarded, a crying baby silenced by gunshot fired by a soldier who’d just finished raping its mother — until the Nazis herded all the survivors, including Oliner’s family, into the trucks.
After the Einatzgruppen departed, Oliner ran barefoot through the countryside, sleeping rough and managing to elude his countrymen who were looking out for stray Jews.
By chance several days later, he learned the fate of his family: they and a thousand others had been stripped, made to stand on a plank, and systematically shot by machine guns so that they would fall into a giant mass grave that had been dug below where they stood.
Oliner managed to make his way to another village, where he knocked on the door of the home of Jacek and Balwina Piecuch, a Christian family he barely knew. Balwina had attended school with his father as a young girl. She had heard about the mass extermination at Garbacz, and as soon as she opened the door and saw Oliner, hugged him to her and ushered him in.
For the following three years, Balwina hid Samuel from the Nazis. She gave him a new name, taught him to act like a Christian, secured him a job with one of the Polish farmers, and continually offered love and reassurance when he was close to despair.
Oliner survived and emigrated to America, where he married and became a noted sociologist. But over the years, he constantly asked himself: Why had Baldwina done it?
Her decision to help him had put her family in extraordinary jeopardy, for her house was surrounded by countless informers, who would receive generous rewards from the Nazis for reporting Jews in hiding.
What made her risk everything – her own life and the lives of her husband and two children — for a relative stranger?
The question burned so long and hard within him that eventually he was compelled to ask it of anyone he heard about who had engaged in altruism on that kind of heroic scale.
Oliner conducted a lifelong study of the motivation of ordinary people performing extraordinary acts — those who had rushed into burning buildings or dived into icy waters to save strangers’ lives. Actions like Balwina’s flew in the face of every truth he’d been taught about the essence of humanity — which is supposed to operate from a solid core of self-interest.
“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism,” writes British biologist Richard Dawkins, “because we are born selfish.”
As the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once remarked, anyone appearing to act unselfishly does so simply “to deliver his mind from the pain of compassion.”
According to this mindset, we do nice things, basically, out of guilt, or a fear of reprisal from our friends. Evolutionary biologist Michael Ghiselin put it more unsentimentally: “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed.”
From this perspective, actions such as Balwina’s make no logical sense, because they are potentially an act of purposeful self-destruction. In a zero-sum game, it is deliberately choosing the shorter straw.
In someone else’s shoes
Daniel Batson, a psychologist at the University of Kansas, who holds twin doctorates in theology and psychology, has run a number of experiments whose purpose is to look into the human heart to find out exactly why we do selfless things for other people.
Batson managed to tightly control the experimental conditions, so that he could distinguish true altruistic helping from a host of alternative reasons, such as helping in order to win approval, enhance self-image or avoid self-castigation.
Through some 25 studies he has shown that altruism isn’t sparked by social concerns, such as guilt, sadness, or shame. Rather, it is evidence of what he calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis”: people will help if they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
When people can genuinely feel another person’s pain, rather than imagining their own pain in the same circumstance, they are prompted to act altruistically. His work suggests that altruism requires an ability to completely move out of your own state of mind and into someone else’s.
Oliner has found the answer to his life’s question. When people are able to step outside their own sense of difference from each other they are capable of the most extraordinary good. The impulse is there from birth, but is more realized in some people than in others.
Batson refers to this impulse as empathy, but Robert Cialdini, former psychologist at the University of Arizona and author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, offers a more all-embracing explanation: We help when we have lost our sense of individuality and step temporarily into a space of oneness.
Giving to others is the natural extension of what happens when you move out of your small sense of yourself and your own individuality and into the space between.
May you move out of that small self this holiday season and find the joy of giving without getting.