Thursday, April 25, 2013


If ever there was a symbiotic relationship . . .
you know, like leaf hoppers and meat ants. . .
each of which thrives because of the existence of the other,
it's me and you, babe.   
Include me in your every thought, as I do you. 

P.S. - You have something in your teeth,
The Universe
(Mike Dooley, Notes from the Universe)

I’ve been thinking a lot about these symbiotic relationships or, more specifically, the mutualistic type where two organisms of different species “work together” to exist, each benefitting the other in some way and from the relationship as a whole. 

Consider the flower and the bee.  Furry winged friends buzz about from flower to flower, checking things out, gathering nectar, which they make into food, and collecting pollen, the flower’s great sperm, carrying it on their furry little bodies to the next flower.  The bees get yummy nectar to eat and the flowering plants reproduce.  It’s a win-win situation.

Or ponder the relationship between bacteria and humans.  It’s everywhere, really, and kind of gross, I think.  But in many ways this bacteria helps us along, like the intestinal kind, aiding us in digesting food that we couldn’t digest on our own.  The bacteria get to eat and we get help in breaking down the food we’ve already eaten.  Everyone’s happy!

In many environments, in fact, these mutual relationships between animals and plants are critical to the healthy organization of life and its processes.  Still, scientists say, no species acts completely altruistically towards another.  Instead, their relationships evolve when their paths cross and one manipulates the other for its own benefit.  True, both might benefit in the end, but it begins with the selfish motivation. 

We’re not so different, are we? 

My friend’s therapist swears that all of our relationships exist—and the way we operate within them—on some level, because we’re getting something out of it.  I resisted that thought at first. I prefer to believe that I do things like volunteer or help my neighbor because I’m a good person.  But truth be told, I do get something out of volunteering.  It elevates my mood, it gives me perspective and, ultimately, I feel better about my own life.  Not exactly manipulative behavior, I suppose, but not entirely altruistic either.

The same is true when I help my neighbor.  Sure, I extend a hand whenever I can and I’m glad to do it—we have a great relationship with our neighbors—but having helped, it frees me up to ask for help, like on those days when we can’t get home fast enough to let the dog out, or when we’re traveling and want to be notified straight away if someone starts loading our things into a moving van in the driveway.

Then I think of the selfless acts of daring and rescue initiated by people who have no relationship or connection to those they seek to defend.  I dare say that Good Samaritan family who rushed from their restaurant to help injured runners during the Boston Marathon bombings acted from anything other than their desire to help.  They knew nothing of the injured; they owed them nothing.  But they helped them all the same. 

Still, I wonder:  aside from these random acts of kindness, in our day-to-day relationships, do we act from purely altruistic motives?  Giving our time or resources, expecting nothing in return?  Helping even when we don’t benefit in some way?  Extending ourselves to those we love, work or socialize with without etching marks on some mental scorecard to remind us of who did what for whom and when?

As we peel away the winter layers and warm into spring, I challenge you (and myself) to explore those underlying motivations that spur action.  Why do you do what you do?  Why do you commune with certain individuals or groups to the exclusion of others?  Then do one thing each day in May that benefits another without also benefitting yourself. 

Let me know what you discover.  I'd love to hear from you!