05 Sep The Best Way To Be Selfish
Giovanni Fontana, Second Tree’s president & co-founder, wrote this article for the Italian newspaper “Il Post”. For the International Day of Charity, we want to share it with you all, hoping it will inspire you to dedicate a part of your lives to help others.
Today marks five years since my life changed, and it changed – outwardly, wholly, intimately – for the better. Five years ago, I left for the refugee camp of Katsikas, in northern Greece, as a volunteer; later, with a few fellow volunteers, I would create a small NGO called Second Tree, which would then grow, establish itself and accomplish many things for those who live in refugee camps. It still does. And for the first time in my life, I feel at peace. Only those closest to me know how unusual and completely out of character it is for me to say that I feel “at peace”. The anxiety of being has always been present within me, under the radar, with few intense but ephemeral moments of catharsis. That sensation has turned into uninterrupted breathing. It is a frame of mind that is impossible to describe.
I’m writing this article with the explicit aim of convincing its readers to follow my steps and try their hand at doing good. I am deliberately using this naïve and generic phrase: I picked a method of doing good, helping those fleeing war and persecution to build new lives elsewhere, which in a way is “easy”; one that is powerful, straightforward, understandable. There are plenty of other ways to do good, to commit a significant part of one’s life – ideally the one we call “work” – to activities that have the main goal of making someone else’s life better. Or, to say it in a more digestible way, limiting, patching, their suffering.
There is a trite, fake-profound statement we hear all the time: altruism is a form of egoism. This is painfully obvious – everything we do is because something pushes us to. And at the same time, it’s a lie: if every single action is selfish, then the word loses any meaning, and we need to go deeper. Is such an action benefiting or harming others? The former is what we call altruism, the latter, egoism. One can be generous while producing one’s own good; in fact, I’m hoping to persuade you that this is exactly what happens, whether that was your intention or not.
The best way to describe this is to share a thought that recently came to me. Out of a persistent sense of modesty, I have only shared it with two people – and most definitely not in public. However, I think it might encourage some of you to consider a new path in life. Imagine having rescued a drowning child (this is a famous example by Peter Singer), or someone who was unconscious in a burning building. Just before your death, you’d certainly remember that single moment as one of the most important of your life, if not the most important. You’d think of it as the reason for your time on earth. I know that at least one person would not be alive today if it hadn’t been for my work in the last five years. I feel genuine shame writing this, even thinking this, but it is true. When I think about it, I cry, and I tell myself: I can die now. Imagine thinking such a thing, feeling this feeling: could there be anything better?
I’m writing this piece because I wish this feeling on everybody. I now know that (despite how difficult it seems, and how much it means) this feeling is not all that hard to achieve; it’s within anyone’s reach. I know what the instinctive reaction that being told “go to Africa, volunteer there” or “make helping others the main priority in your life” can have on many people; I was among these people and had that reaction, to a degree: where would I even begin? It’s too risky, it’s too late, and what about the life I have? In other words: I cannot change. One thing I understood in the past few years is that believing in yourself, being confident, means being believing you change, learn, and better yourself. We truly are what we do, to change what we are (Eduardo Galeano).
A few months back I went to Samos to see the situation in the island’s refugee camp after the earthquake. I was Giulia Cicoli’s guest for ten days. Giulia is three things: she’s one of the founders of Still I Rise; she’s a person I would call upon to address and fix any injustice, and she’s a friend. Her story is not dissimilar from mine, which is why we often call on each other for advice; the level of confidence and trust I have towards her, her opinion, her commitment to the cause, would be inconceivable in the “normal world” for a person who would be considered a competitor. One evening, we were discussing a commonly held but incorrect image of people like her and myself: of us as heroes enamoured with sacrifice, or missionaries. Giulia said something that stuck with me: “there’s one little thing people don’t understand: we love this life”. And I found myself thinking: “they would too, if only they knew it and gave it a chance”.
There’s a huge difference between living the good life and living a good life, and I think most people would pick the latter if they had an experience of it. For this reason, I feel, I am, privileged. Aside from my reverse narcissism (which is still narcissism), there’s another reason why I don’t want to be called a hero: because of how discouraging the hero narrative is for people, how it makes people think that this life is reserved for those devoted to self-sacrifice. It is just not true.
For the last few months, I’ve been putting together material for a documentary, and I’ve been interviewing volunteers for it: the twenty-year-old just out of university, the forty-year-old forest ranger, the sixty-year-old who used to be an IT teacher. What they say is incredible: “as soon as I set foot in the refugee camp, I knew I was where I needed to be”, “all I needed was ten minutes to know I wouldn’t need anything else in life”, or “I’ve never experienced anything more important in my lifetime”. Some continue working in refugee camps to this day, some have found other ways to help people, while others returned home after a few weeks. All of them see it as the experience that changed them – or changed everything. I can attest to the fact that 3 out of 5 of my happiest memories took place in that refugee camp. A few days ago, a friend who works in a completely different sector, who has achieved professional success and a degree of fame, told me “I always tell my wife that if I could pick any other person’s life to live, I would pick yours”. I felt understood.
When I say anyone can do what I do, I don’t mean to discount how difficult it is. Because it is difficult. There are drawbacks to choosing this life, but I strongly believe the pros outnumber the cons and, vitally, they are so much more important. First of all, you need an initial investment, because, in a field that heavily relies on donations, it’s always hard to convince people that you are worth the money to pay your living expenses, especially if people can’t see your work with their eyes. If this is your main obstacle, you can probably find a way to overcome it, for instance via crowdfunding, as I did: ask other people to invest in a project, you’ll be their hands. Then, when you know the work, join others with whom you know you can work well and effectively, in a more structured way. Sure, you won’t get rich, you’ll live a more essential and shared life than the one you would live otherwise, but you’ll acquire a massive set of competencies in the meantime, which you’ll be able to translate into professional skills should you want to go back to your old life.
The job itself presents practical difficulties and those aren’t easy either. A year and a half ago I wrote on the topic of the huge challenges of this beautiful job: the exhausting nights, the time that never seems to be enough. Not even in my darkest moments, however, I questioned whether it was all worth it. Since then, the situation has improved significantly, also thanks to people who reached out after reading my article to join and help us. This is another of the reasons why I feel so lucky. I don’t think there is any particular requirement to being able to lead this life, but there certainly is a common trait in those who do eventually decide to: a will to care for others, to really see them, to be curious, to join forces with others – all abilities that I see in those I work with, to a high degree (and since I have basically laid my life bare here, I might as well share the letter I wrote to my team not too long ago). Do you know what a privilege it is to be able to say “my colleagues are truly wonderful people”? Just think how many hours of your life you spend in the pointless company of people you don’t like.
The job presents some theoretical challenges, too. Every day, at least once a day, you’ll feel useless. You’ll think you can do more. And it’s true – you always can, and often even that “more” is not enough. In fact, nothing is ever enough. There’s a passage of a poem by Bertolt Brecht, “A Bed for the Night”, which tells the story of a man finding beds for the homeless each night in New York City that goes like this:
It won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation
But a few men have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway.
These are beautiful lines that say it all: everybody knows that a little is better than nothing, and those who have nothing know it best of all. I think, though, there’s something more to add on the topic of the thought that what you do is not enough (a constant life companion I have): what a privilege it is to know that you don’t do enough? To be concerned with wanting to do more. Much better than not doing, or doing the wrong things. How great it is to go to bed thinking “I haven’t done enough” – which means I get to do more, tomorrow. How great it is not to regret what you do, but rather obstinately reflect upon how you can do it better. How fortunate you are if you are able to think you are on the right path, and that your actions – even the dullest activities – all tend towards that goal. Not many people have this privilege.
I hope these words will help you to consider committing to volunteering, helping others, or encourage a friend hesitating to make the same decision. More generally, whenever you need help, seek it in others: people around us are much better than we give them credit for, and sometimes asking someone to lend a hand means giving them the opportunity to give the help they wanted to give but didn’t know-how. I, for myself, am happy to help anyone considering this way of life and in need of advice or a word of encouragement whenever I can: I see it as my duty like others have helped me, especially if it helps someone make this final step. You can reach out at [my surname] @ secondtree.org. I always answer, but it might take a little bit.
Don’t let the first hindrance make you desist, especially if it is likely a hindrance you’ve created yourself. If you feel trapped in a life you don’t like, be aware that you are not. You have less to lose than you think: it is not only my experience, but that of the many who – as Bruno Manghi writes in his book on volunteering – “disobey to the looming over of evil, and reveal new forms of existence”. Above all, never think that it’s too late for you; that you’re too old; oh, if I had done it when I was younger. In Mae West’s words, “You’re never too old to become younger”.
Do you know how many endeavours (successful or unsuccessful) I filled my life with before I came here? Most people I know who have embraced this way of life at one point thought: “if only I’d started 5 years (or 5 months, or 25 years) earlier”. But eventually, they did start, and they realised that today is the “5 years earlier” that would be on our lips in 5 years. The reason why we named our organisation Second Tree is because of the African saying: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.