Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Mother Teresa Paradox

Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for one day; teach him to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime – old proverb.

Of course, then he’ll spend every weekend out on a boat in the lake with his buddies drinking beer – old joke.

When I was a medical student in San Francisco in the mid-seventies, a group of nuns who were part of Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, set up shop. I think there were about twenty of them. Anyway, they took over a large house. Because of the group’s philosophy, the sisters pushed thick mattresses out the windows and removed all the sofas, chairs and curtains. The house was made to conform to à way of life intended to help the sisters experience the poverty they were trying to alleviate. The heat in the house remained off all winter long in their very damp and musty house. Several sisters came down with upper respiratory diseases.

Ironically, their arrival meant that the population of poor people in San Francisco immediately jumped by about twenty.

Any of us who give birth to children know, or should know, that for a significant amount of time we will have to make considerable sacrifices for them in time and treasure. Most of us do so gladly, and this is something that should be done by anyone who decides to bring another life into the world - but only to a point.

We still have to pay attention to our own needs and desires, our careers, and certainly to our marriages. Unfortunately, the logistics of “having it all” have not been worked out very well, and sometimes all of our conflicting demands are overwhelming. When parents find themselves second guessing their choices, they are not alone. This is OK. This is normal.

Unfortunately, a lot of parents are willing to sacrifice their entire lives to their children. While this might sound to some like a good thing to do for the sake of the child, it is anything but. What I have referred to as the Altruistic Paradox comes into play.

It almost goes without saying that if you try to protect your child from every unpleasant eventuality, never let them make mistakes or fail in life, and never make them earn their keep, you end up crippling them. They have to learn to fend for themselves at some point, and if you never let them experience adversity, they become ill-prepared for life. They never learn how to delay gratification, get through tough times, take responsibility for themselves, and so forth.

This point has been written about extensively in the popular press, only to be ignored by parents who believe their entire existence should be dedicated to making their child happy. But there is another far worse and more insidious effect of total parental self-sacrifice on children.

I do not care how much of a saint you think you are, or how copacetic you fancy yourself, if you give up all of your own ambitions and pleasures for your children, you will eventually resent them. No one in our culture is immune to the lure of unfettered freedom, and the children will become the biggest impediment to it. You may lie to yourself about this, but you fool no one.

You can be certain that your kids will sense it. They will begin to think that their very presence is ruining your life, and they will feel bad for you. And the vast majority of them will blame themselves for your unhappiness. By trying to prevent them from feeling any pain, you will end up making both yourself and them completely miserable.

One way to appreciate the paradox of extreme altruism is by looking at a version of it that I call the Mother Teresa Paradox. As I alluded to above, she and her order believed that giving to others was the end all and be all of existence, and that they would take nothing for themselves. Anything you tried to give to her, she would immediately give to the order. (Of course, after her death we learned that she was plagued by self doubt about her piety, which may explain her extreme philosophy).

She was, in a sense, preaching that giving to others was life’s greatest reward. The problem was, she was not allowing anyone else to give anything to her, thereby depriving everyone else of what she herself defined as life’s greatest reward. Paradoxically, she was being selfish as hell.

Can you imagine what would happen if everyone lived by her philosophy? They would all be running around like headless chickens trying to give stuff away, but being continuously frustrated because nobody would accept anything they wanted to give!
I guess it is really better to give and to receive.


  1. "The eyes are the window of the soul." English Proverb

  2. Very well put, David. I thought that worrying and saving my daughter was necessary for her and my well-being; in the end, she did what she wanted to do anyway, and I gave up any quality of life whatsoever,and resented my daughter terribly through it all. Now that I have changed my outlook, I am much happier and more fulfilled, and she...does whatever she was going to do anyway. However, our relationship is undergoing a rebalancing of sorts...just the other day, she commented that she didn't understand why I no longer worried about her. My answer: worrying didn't accomplish anything good, and made her unhappy in the bargain because she would then worry about me. Additionally, worrying made me a very unhappy person. So, taking a non-worry approach leaves me happier--that is, it at least accomplishes something positive. BTW, I found out that worrying gave me the illusions of having some power over situations. This was the key to my being able to turn things around. Anna

  3. A recent book titled "Pathological Altruism" by Barbara Oakley further expands on this important theme.