Dangerous Altruism


The other night I dreamed that my daughter almost drowned. She fell off a foot bridge across a body of water, maybe a moat or a small river, as we leaving the museum. She had run ahead with her brother, leaving me behind with the required baggage that accompanies parents of young aged children. As they inched out of sight, I yelled, “Be careful.” Her older brother stopped dutifully, but she kept running forward, and eventually vanished off the side of the bridge. My heart stopped. And then it pounded. Instinctively, I dropped the clutter in my hands, sprinting to save her. A passerby on the bridge saw my daughter fall and quickly, with no hesitation, plunged into the water. The person safety swam with her to the shore and interestingly left as the crowd gathered around her little body. When I finally arrived to the scene, I did not meet or even see the person who had risked his/her life to save the life of my daughter.

I woke up from the dream a bit confused, I don’t have a daughter. More importantly, I felt this strong sense of admiration for that person’s heroic act of concern. I was struck by the fact that s/he did not even stick around so I can thank them and offer my sincerest gratitude.

Later that day, I listened to a college professor share her thoughts about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy. In her masterful talk, she discussed how we as a country are too celebratory about the changes that have been made since the height of the Civil Rights Movement. She argues that while we have legalized equality via the various acts and rights passed at that time, we still operate and live within a country with institutionalized inequality. While she spoke about King, she shared a term, “dangerous altruism.” Upon hearing it, I instantly thought back to my dream of my drowning daughter.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a radical man for his time and for his age (until recently, I did not notice how young, only thirty-nine years old, he was when he was assassinated). He preached, insisted, and urged others to practice “dangerous altruism,” to show the kind of concern for others that the hero in my dream displayed. The hero did not think, “What will happen to me if I jump into the water?” Such questions can cause us to be afraid of helping, fearful of what may happen to us. In turn, our fear, fulfilling its goal, dissuades us from action, from helping. However, for the hero, the question seemed to be, “What will happen if I do not jump into this water?” Subtle change. Huge difference. The selfish, fearful me was replaced with genuine concern, dangerous altruism, for someone else.

As we all celebrate Dr. King’s birth with a national holiday this upcoming Monday, I ask you all to do something for someone else and expect nothing in return, not even a thank you.

Please be safe in your endeavor.
Please perpetuate King’s legacy.
Please exhibit “dangerous altruism.”


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