Would you like fries with that?

Our local McDonald’s in Malaga opened its doors a few days ago for the first time in eight weeks. I try to maintain a healthy diet during the week but allow myself a ‘junky’ treat on the weekend, indulging with a tasty burger and fries. However, it having been eight weeks since I had last indulged, I headed over there as soon as I heard they had reopened. As I was parking up I noticed an old man lifting the lids off the bins outside the restaurant and picking out leftovers. Normally I would silently express pity for him and carry on but, on this particular occasion, I reacted differently. I bought an extra burger and gave it to him when I came out.

“Esto es para ti,” I said, handing him the burger. He looked at me as if I was joking but took the burger from me nonetheless.

“Gracias,” he said.

“De nada,” I replied as I walked away to take a seat in the outdoor terraced area. It really didn’t feel like ‘nothing’ at all to buy a hungry man a burger but that was the polite thing to say under the circumstances. I didn’t want to make a big deal of it. My mind, however, had other ideas!

As I sat eating I ignored my phone and thought about the true nature of altruism instead. I wondered why, on this occasion, rather than any other, I had been motivated to act as I did. Was it because I genuinely wanted to help a hungry man or was there something else at play?

Before I continue, I would like to make it clear that I am not writing this in the hope that readers will congratulate me for my apparently selfless act. In fact, I’m not even sure it was selfless now. My only motivation for writing is that my conclusions were something of a revelation to me and may serve to help others analyse their own motivation for helping their fellow man, even if it is only in some small way – like buying an extra burger at McDonalds.

I could be wrong but it appears to me that we are typically too busy living our own lives to either see or take the opportunity to help others in whatever way we can. However, perhaps the more we hear about incidences like this the more inclined we may be to act in a similar manner which, as it turns out, is good for everyone concerned.

Altruism can be described as:

‘A selfless act.’

I have deliberately kept this definition as short as possible because it is the nature of selflessness with which I am most concerned.

When we act ‘selflessly’ we are not thinking about ourselves. This is certainly true at a conscious level. The thoughts that immediately preceeded my decision to buy the man a burger were that I wouldn’t like to be in the same situation myself and I was in a position to, at least temporarily, alleviate the man’s hunger. I clearly experienced a degree of empathy with his dilemma. That’s not so unusual. The fact I actually acted upon my feelings of empathy on this occasion is, as I have already said, somewhat out of character for me. I have passed umpteen homeless people over the years and never stopped to empathise or offer my help. Typically I would conclude that any financial help would be immediately squandered on drink, drugs or both. Whether this particular man on this particular day was an alcoholic or junkie never even crossed my mind. He wasn’t begging for money. He was quietly going about the business of looking for food in the bins.

Thinking about it afterwards, my buying of the burger for him may also have gone some small way to restoring his faith in human nature, assuming he had actually lost that belief. These are some of the thoughts I remember having as I sat eating my meal. They can be referred to as ‘conscious thoughts’ – in as much as I remember having them and can recall them at a later date. I was (and am now) ‘aware’ of the things I was thinking. But the human mind has significant activity taking place at a level beyond conscious thought.

Imagine getting into a lift and only having two hypothetical floors from which to choose. Level ‘1’ for conscious and level ‘2’ for subconscious. Would we actually want to press the button for level 2 or would the unravelled mysteries we discovered there be too much for our conscious mind to grasp?

Research suggests that we actually do press the level ‘2’ button each night when we fall asleep. When we dream we are somehow accessing our subconscious, whether in some attempt to better understand the issues consuming our conscious lives or simply to tidy up the chaos of a million thoughts moving so fast that capturing their essence or meaning is nigh on impossible. Certainly it is anecdotally true that the people appearing in our dreams are very often those that we were thinking about, met the previous day or are due to meet in the near future.

There is a very good reason that the subconscious level is difficult, if not impossible, to visit with our conscious minds. I would postulate that our conscious mind could not even begin to assimilate the vast array of thoughts racing at break-neck speed around the inner space of level 2. Our brain would become overwhelmed with the workload and probably shut itself down or drive itself around the proverbial twist.

Although the subconscious is effectively unreachable, we can hypothesise, based on our conscious thoughts and actions, what exactly is going on. This is what I started to do as I finished my fries and tucked into my first (OMG delicious) Big Mac in eight weeks.

I started by admitting that, regardless of how my hungry beneficiary felt about the whole incident, I was feeling rather pleased with the scenario too. I caught myself (mentally) patting myself on the back for having achieved my ‘good deed’ for the day. My next thought caught me completely unawares.

Maybe, at a subconscious level, I needed to do something to boost my own self esteem? Although my conscious thoughts had been as a result of the empathy I felt for the hungry man, perhaps my subconscious mind was acting in parallel, telling me that this was also a good opportunity to feel good about myself? That would certainly explain why, on this occasion, as opposed to all those other times when I had passed by a homeless or hungry person, I acted in the way I did.

Here’s where things got complicated. I asked myself if I had bought the extra burger less because of my feelings of empathy and more because my self esteem was in need of a boost. I was trying to be as truthful and genuine as possible with myself. Unfortunately, my self esteem stood up for itself and answered on my behalf, telling me I was actually fine – but thanks all the same for your concern! They say a man that represents himself in court has a fool for a lawyer. In the search for the truth of my apparent altruism, I was accusing myself of having low self esteem that needed a boost but was simultaneously defending myself as already having plenty – thanks all the same for your concern (my self esteem’s words – not mine). I needed an impartial judge to intervene with a few words of wisdom.

And therein lies the crux of the problem. The mind does not appear capable of having a waking conversation between the conscious and the subconscious, at least not one that we are aware of at a conscious level. It’s a shame really because the subconscious appears to have our own best interests at heart. We have lives to live and are typically consumed at a conscious level with the things we need to do just to get through the day, while our subconscious necessarily sits in the background, alerting us in a variety of ways to the things that might not be good for us or detrimental to our safety. We call it intuition or a ‘sixth sense’. In software engineering there is a similar activity we call ‘multi-threading’ but I’m not going to overcomplicate matters with a discussion of context-switching or parallelism – not today anyway!

The subconscious also appears to be on the lookout for opportunities which may help us. In this case, although I am not 100% certain, l would like to think that my subconscious was taking care of me – subtly signalling that buying the hungry man a burger would boost my self esteem – even if only a little. Everybody wins. The hungry man enjoys a delicious burger and my self esteem receives a boost.

The definition of ‘altruism’ has to change – ever so slightly – if an altruistic act is to be considered truly possible. It should read:

‘A consciously selfless act.’

Inserting the single additional word ‘consciously’ acknowledges that there may be some selfish thoughts occurring subconsciously but the altruistic action is motivated only by thoughts at the conscious level.