Is a Selfless Deed a Myth?

Last weekend when I saw a documentary film by Frontline on the outbreak of Ebola, a statement by one Christian Missionary inspired me to write about selfless deeds. The story is in 2014—Monrovia. West Point was a hell replica on earth. Around 75,000 people living in less than a square mile with no running water or sanitation were subjected to a terrifying epidemic called Ebola. Ebola is a deadly virus caused by an infection that affects people and non-humans. The term Ebola was first coined from the Ebola River in Democratic Republic of Congo in which it was first discovered. Back then, the people living in Congo had the habit of consuming bats, monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees. As Ebola affects primarily those animals, the virus was easily transmitted from the infected animals to humans. The virus took no time when spreading among other people since it is transmitted through direct contact with body fluids of a person who is sick with or died with the Ebola Virus. At the beginning of the outbreak, the society living in Congo was not aware of the disease so human contact was still intact. The symptoms of Ebola are somehow similar to Cholera, so people were not frightened to touch a person infected with Ebola Virus. If a person died, it is assumed s/he died of Cholera and a proper burial ceremony was held in which the families of the deceased said their farewell by kissing and hugging the dead person. As a result, the virus cascaded within Congo and to other African countries like dominos.

Liberia, a West African country was severely affected. Most parts of Monrovia are slums with dense populations and the community was in denial about the existence of the virus. The primitive society living in Monrovia utterly believed that Ebola was a hoax and the government was trying to terrorize the society. So, they resisted any help from doctors; they blocked roads for ambulances. They chose not to report an infected person, and finally, the outbreak intensified. Children were dying in the streets. Entire families were wiped out within a night. Roads were filled with corpses.

Christian missionaries from the United Kingdom who heard about the deadly virus decided to go to Monrovia and offered help. When the missionaries reached West Point, they were terrified by what they saw. Despite all the horror, they picked the sick from the streets, quarantined infected people, collected corpses, and cremated the bodies. No one paid, persuaded or influenced the missionaries to help out. They sacrificed their lives for those whom they barely knew. They valued other people’s lives over their own and showed bravery over a virus so powerful that in most circumstances transmits to another person with a single touch.

In the outset, this is the exact definition of a selfless deed—showing care and depicting concern for other people\’s needs is a true reflection of humanity. This character is rarely seen between and among close friends or family members. However, what the Christian missionaries did makes me question whether their acts or any such act amounts to a selfless deed.

Call me cynical, but I have reached the point of questioning every action of a person because everyone acts to benefit from her or his own deed. In an interview, one Christian missionary who survived the Ebola virus was asked why he volunteered to help against the odds. He responded, “I wanted to do something for my soul. I always wanted to help the poor, the needy and the sick. It was an ample opportunity for me to fulfil my purpose in life and to be whole again.” Now such a statement was a flicker for my thoughts. I started to wonder: if people want to feel satisfaction, fulfilment, pleasure, joy, and peace of mind by helping others, doesn\’t it amount to benefiting from their acts? It is selfish, in a way, to find alternate routes to benefit your body and soul.

This missionary was connecting the dots of life to rekindle his soul, to feel human, and to be blessed in return. As my favourite quote reads, “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” So, if we are doing good to feel hope, strength, comfort, or to have self-vindication, then claiming it a selfless deed is somehow a misguided belief. If there is true devotion to other people that will not entail any kind of benefit—whether monetarily or spiritually—to the doer that is anticipated, then I\’ll label it as a selfless deed. But is there such an act that qualifies?

One of my dearest friends once said, “The spiritual and emotional feelings that we get after selfless deeds are our rewards and by-products of doing good. Most people live righteously so that they can have eternal life and not because they love God that much.” Such a statement made me ask myself: am I doing good so that good things will happen to me in return? Or wanting a reward from a higher being? Or for emotional uplift? I want all of you to question your every move as well as others’ and be a judge of character.

Written by: Bethelhem A. Aberra