I am presently, literally, involved in a lottery by email where my many siblings and I are slowly picking apart our father's estate. It's not quite so bleak as Shirley Jackson's short story, "The Lottery", though dark undertones pervade, jealousies and envies and personality defects have surfaced during the silent exchange of wants, and I can't help but think of her extensively anthologized work.
In a July 22, 1948 response to her persistent readers in the San Francisco Chronicle about her exact intentions in the June of that year publication in The New Yorker, she said,
"Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives."
I'm beginning to realize the odd process and emotions involved in my family's lottery are not unusual. I've heard too many others, as I complained about the stress and distress of my situation, recount similar arrangements and turmoil. And we have not made the news, which is a sign no one but ourselves are the least bit interested, probably due to a lack of distinction or rarity.
Last week I read an article in the New Yorker from a February issue about altruism in nature. "Kin and Kind" (sorry for the restricted access, but perhaps you have a subscription), by Jonah Lehrer, opens with a graphic depiction of life as a vampire bat. With razor sharp teeth they survive solely on a blood diet, puncturing and extracting blood from mammals as large as cattle. The bats live in colonies and, as Lehrer explains, because the fatality rate is high - scientists theorize a mere 20% survival rate as a common vampire bat will starve to death in 60 hours if it does not feed - a fed bat might support another who was unable to find a food source by vomiting blood into it's mouth. (If we are to believe one entity created all living things then clearly he or she has a dark side.) Lehrer's argument, however, is that true altruism does not exist. While one bat sacrifices his nutrients for another, he is ultimately sacrificing to continue the species and therefore maintains a self-interest. He makes the same argument for both ants and bees, that shared genes incorporate and automatic self-interest.
Does this theory apply to humanity? If the most purest of altruistic efforts is praised for it's selflessness, as they often eventually are, then aren't the praisers robbing the moment of the altruistic aspect? Praise awards pride and boosts self esteem. While positive and good, the effect still benefits the altruistic being. For an altruistic action to remain pure, then must it go unrecognized? If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Anytime I feel uncertain about an action or words uttered, especially when a perceived wrong has been done, I trace back to the motivation. Was it positive or negative? What was my state of mind, what were my prevailing emotions? In that respect, then altruism is possible. If the motivation in the moment the action was born is selfless, then the act is selfless. Or are our minds so far ahead of us as to realize the potential self-interest outcome before we do? We can only guess, and in a world that allows for vampire bats to survive, and cockroaches, while we're at it, and fighting among siblings, then I'd like to believe the opposite exists in spades; beauty and selflessness, even if in fleeting moments.
Everyone's emotions are involved in our familial lottery. We each carry our memories and demons to the table. Wrongs I felt I'd forgiven have risen to the surface and my resentments threaten to control my actions and my decisions. My day could easily be derailed.
My father loved to say, when as young children we complained of injustice, that "life isn't fair." Material things are only material things, and as he has so poignantly demonstrated, you can not take them with you. Can you take sanity and love? If you can't, if you must leave those things behind as well, I'd be proud to. No one can fight over that.