ALTRUISM

by Charles Dudley Warner

Christmas is supposed to be an altruistic festival. Then, if ever, we allow ourselves to go out to others in sympathy expressed by gifts and good wishes. Then self-forgetfulness in the happiness of others becomes a temporary fashion. And we find do we not the indulgence of the feeling so remunerative that we wish there were other days set apart to it. We can even understand those people who get a private satisfaction in being good on other days besides Sunday. There is a common notion that this Christmas altruistic sentiment is particularly shown towards the unfortunate and the dependent by those more prosperous, and in what is called a better social position. We are exhorted on this day to remember the poor. We need to be reminded rather to remember the rich, the lonely, not-easy-to-be-satisfied rich, whom we do not always have with us. The Drawer never sees a very rich person that it does not long to give him something, some token, the value of which is not estimated by its cost, that should be a consoling evidence to him that he has not lost sympathetic touch with ordinary humanity. There is a great deal of sympathy afloat in the world, but it is especially shown downward in the social scale. We treat our servants supposing that we are society ?better than we treat each other. If we did not, they would leave us. We are kinder to the unfortunate or the dependent than to each other, and we have more charity for them.

The Drawer is not indulging in any indiscriminate railing at society. There is society and society. There is that undefined something, more like a machine than an aggregate of human sensibilities, which is set going in a "season," or at a watering-place, or permanently selects itself for certain social manifestations. It is this that needs a missionary to infuse into it sympathy and charity. If it were indeed a machine and not made up of sensitive personalities, it would not be to its members so selfish and cruel. It would be less an ambitious scramble for place and favor, less remorseless towards the unsuccessful, not so harsh and hard and supercilious. In short, it would be much more agreeable if it extended to its own members something of the consideration and sympathy that it gives to those it regards as its inferiors. It seems to think that good-breeding and good form are separable from kindliness and sympathy and helpfulness. Tender-hearted and charitable enough all the individuals of this "society" are to persons below them in fortune or position, let us allow, but how are they to each other? Nothing can be ruder or less considerate of the feelings of others than much of that which is called good society, and this is why the Drawer desires to turn the altruistic sentiment of the world upon it in this season, set apart by common consent for usefulness. Unfortunate are the fortunate if they are lifted into a sphere which is sapless of delicacy of feeling for its own. Is this an intangible matter? Take hospitality, for instance. Does it consist in astonishing the invited, in overwhelming him with a sense of your own wealth, or felicity, or family, or cleverness even; in trying to absorb him in your concerns, your successes, your possessions, in simply what interests you? However delightful all these may be, it is an offense to his individuality to insist that he shall admire at the point of the social bayonet. How do you treat the stranger? Do you adapt yourself and your surroundings to him, or insist that he shall adapt himself to you? How often does the stranger, the guest, sit in helpless agony in your circle (all of whom know each other) at table or in the drawing-room, isolated and separate, because all the talk is local and personal, about your little world, and the affairs of your clique, and your petty interests, in which he or she cannot possibly join? Ah! the Sioux Indian would not be so cruel as that to a guest. There is no more refined torture to a sensitive person than that. Is it only thoughtlessness? It is more than that. It is a want of sympathy of the heart, or it is a lack of intelligence and broad-minded interest in affairs of the world and in other people. It is this trait absorption in self pervading society more or less, that makes it so unsatisfactory to most people in it. Just a want of human interest; people do not come in contact.

Avid pursuit of wealth, or what is called pleasure, perhaps makes people hard to each other, and infuses into the higher social life, which should be the most unselfish and enjoyable life, a certain vulgarity, similar to that noticed in well-bred tourists scrambling for the seats on top of a mountain coach. A person of refinement and sensibility and intelligence, cast into the company of the select, the country-house, the radiant, twelve-button society, has been struck with infinite pity for it, and asks the Drawer to do something about it. The Drawer cannot do anything about it. It can only ask the prayers of all good people on Christmas Day for the rich. As we said, we do not have them with us always they are here today, they are gone to Canada tomorrow. But this is, of course, current facetiousness. The rich are as good as anybody else, according to their lights, and if what is called society were as good and as kind to itself as it is to the poor, it would be altogether enviable. We are not of those who say that in this case, charity would cover a multitude of sins, but a diffusion in society of the Christmas sentiment of goodwill and kindliness to itself would tend to make universal the joy on the return of this season.