Gratitude & Selfish Altruism

Poverty creates a cycle of low self-esteem that is tough to break.

Why do we give?  Is our altruism ever purely unselfish or do we give in part because we hope to gain something? In the wake of Thanksgiving, my son was assigned a talk on gratitude in which he talked about some of our family experiences, and it reminded me of a post I did a while back.

Eighteen months ago, we had an opportunity to join a house building in a small village outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  My husband was working as treasurer for a Cambodian women’s charity, the Tabitha Foundation, that provides jobs to women who would otherwise not be able to support themselves or their children.  In addition to providing jobs for these women, the foundation was also breaking ground to build a women’s hospital.

Families wonder why rich white people with limited skills want to fly there to build houses. What do we get out of it?

Our house building trip was an interesting mix of luxury and deprivation.  We deliberately stayed in a low end hotel with no pool and very basic rooms.  We used group vans for transportation.  We made our own sandwiches for lunch, picnic style.  But our group also had cocktails one evening at a very fancy cigar bar and also had a very expensive buffet lunch at the best hotel in town.  We all chipped in a large sum of money to participate, and also to buy a gift for the charity’s founder.

The Cambodian woman, roughly my age, who was the local manager of our house build was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in the 1970s.  Unlike my childhood watching Schoolhouse Rock and Underdog, she was a 4 year old orphan put in charge of a room of 60 infants.  The teenage soldiers who gave her this responsibility charged her to keep the babies quiet.  If she did not, they would come in and kill the crying baby by dashing its head against the wall.  Then they explained that it was her fault for not doing her job.  As she explained her story, she wept that because of this, she knows she is bad.  Such horror stories of Cambodian survivors are common.  There are very few old people because all educated adults, including those who wore eyeglasses or had other signs of education, were seen as a threat to the regime and were killed.  We had visited Phnom Penh before and seen the torture prison at Tuol Sleng (formerly a high school, turned into a prison during the Khmer Rouge) and the killing fields outside the city, a mass grave where 20,000 bodies were found, most of whom were killed using farm tools like shovels and hammers.  It is a harrowing place.  Through the effects of weather, the bones and clothing of the victims have risen to the surface of the ground on the walkways.

While it’s easy for many Americans to think that Cambodia’s troubles are completely foreign, the US’s actions in Vietnam, our continual bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam war, and U.S. backing of Lon Nol (who turned out to be an ineffective ruler) over the deposed king are the factors that created the circumstances that led to the Khmer Rouge rising to power.  Ultimately, the Khmer Rouge killed 2.2 million Cambodians, far more than were killed by U.S. bombings.

The Khmer Rouge committed systematic genocide of 1/8 to 1/4 of the population of Cambodia.

There are a few things I noticed that are typical in Cambodia.  Tuk-tuks are the main mode of transportation.  Cambodian tuk-tuks are a motorcycle with a five seat covered cart pulled behind.  Some locals drive a scooter or motorcycle.  We have seen families of 5 or sometimes more on a single motorcycle, with children sitting between the parents and sometimes a little one standing in front of the driver.  Business people use motorcycles to transport just about everything.  We saw a man on a motorcycle with bags full of red meat waiting at a stop light, covered with flies.  Many Cambodians, especially women, wear pajamas in public and consider them dressy because the tops match the bottoms!  I think they are on to something.

As we prepared to go to the village to work, we were given some unique instructions.  We were explicitly instructed not to compliment the children or for the adults to pay much attention to them or to single out any child.  Our children could play with their children, but adults were cautioned that the villagers would take a compliment as a request that we be given the child in payment for the house we were building for them.  We were also cautioned that if one of us was injured during the build, it was important to keep calm and quiet about it.  If the family thought that a worker was injured in building the house, they would be reluctant to live there as it could be unlucky.  One of the men in our crew was seriously injured requiring stitches, and we kept him quiet by the food table, applying pressure to his bleeding leg so that it would not be noticed while we waited for transportation to take him back to the medical clinic.

Cambodian women on the go in their PJs.

We were given lots of water bottles to drink, and we were asked to drink them without leaving water in them which would be seen as wasteful.  We were also instructed to leave the empty bottles in the built houses as the families considered them valuable commodities used for storage and other practical needs in the years to come.  A portable bathroom enclosure was put up around the small latrine that was dug into the ground for our use as we worked.  We were told that locals would simply go in the field out in the open, and that if we preferred, that was perfectly acceptable.  However, we were instructed that going to the bathroom is considered a social activity.  When local women see another woman squatting, they come join so they can make small talk together.  This reminded me of the toilet facilities in China in the hutongs (old neighborhoods) which are also open inside for talking to neighbors while using the facilities.  Gossiping while using the toilet is part of the glue that keeps society together.  I try to remember that when someone is using their cell phone in a public restroom cubicle, something that seems like an anti-social activity in our country.

Later that same month, we went trekking in Nepal.  We walked through many villages as we walked up and down in the Annapurna region.  I had my hair pulled back in one of those elastic double combs with beads in between.  At one point I passed a local Nepalese girl who appeared to be in her early teens.  She was standing alone, washing her face by the side of a cliff.  She pointed at my hair and said, using the few English words she knew, “Beauty.  Give me?”  I remembered what it was like being a young teenager, with no resources beyond what I had from my family.  Sometimes I would see something that was outside of the reach of the family (the types of things we wouldn’t buy), and I thought something looked cool or interesting.  I thought of this girl, grooming her hair and putting the hair holder in place, feeling more confident, believing herself to be both beautiful and persuasive for asking for it successfully.  I briefly imagined this confidence increasing her prospects over time.  I wanted to reward her for asking for something she thought would better herself.  I took it out of my hair, and handed it to her.  My ten-year old daughter who was hiking with me asked why I gave it to her.

Nepali women carry more on their foreheads than I can carry in my Nissan Juke.

Why did I?  Why do we give?  Interestingly, on our house build, the group leader specifically cautioned that locals really do not understand why we are there doing this work.  They can’t really fathom why someone would fly to their country, drive out to their village and build houses.  They were skeptical of our motives.  They assumed we must have some exploitative intention (such as taking the children).

As I’ve thought about it, I have lots of reasons, and they are mostly for my personal gain.  In the case of the girl in Nepal, in addition to thinking of the scripture that says “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Luke 6:30), I had the thought that it was a way to leave something personal behind in such a beautiful place, a memento of me that would live on in this remote location.  In a sense, I was leaving a legacy of myself behind.  I also realized that I could easily buy more of the hair holders, but that the girl would not have easy access to get them living high in the mountains as she did.  In retrospect, she may have had a collection of these from other hikers.  Maybe this was her way to feel she was touching a part of the world beyond her reach.

Aside from the idea of leaving a legacy and wanting to feel like a person who is grateful for all the opportunities and wealth I have, giving is a unique experience, different from the privileged daily life we live, particularly as Americans.  Life in the US especially (and even in Singapore) is very materialistic and boring.  So much of our time revolves around assessing what we have and what we lack, then buying to meet those needs.  Activities like the house building are a welcome mental break and a chance to reassess my thinking.  It’s easy to realize that we really don’t need all the things we think we need.  For example, I’ve been searching for drawer inserts for my kitchen this week, imagining how I can best organize all the utensils I have.  Contrast that with the Cambodian villagers who are grateful for the empty water bottles because they are practical for holding items.  Part of this experience is about reducing my guilt for what I have, but an even more meaningful outcome is that I question my own choices in the future.  The experience changes me for the better.

This motorcycle in Cambodia seats more than I can fit in my Nissan Juke.  Basically, my car doesn’t have a lot of capacity whether it’s cargo or people.

My most important reason, though, is the duty I feel as a mother to teach my children.  I want them to be exposed to the world around them and to be educated that life is both circumstantially different yet fundamentally the same for everyone.  I want to help them want to engage in the world.  I want them to question their own cultural assumptions and to live with a global awareness they couldn’t get from the comfort of our own home and neighborhood.  I want to redirect their paths through these types of experiences so they naturally think beyond the comfort of the moment and beyond the comfortable American lifestyle that is our default.

My real hope is that exposure to other cultures will change them.  There’s a saying that privileged people have won the lottery, but they think they earned it.  I don’t want my kids to get caught in that thinking.  But once again, that’s about me: my legacy, me feeling like a good person and a good mother, me wanting them to be humble, good people.  Parenting, like altruism, always has a tint of selfishness to it.  And yet, now that we are back in the comfort of the States, the complaints of the privileged have returned:  “there’s nothing good to eat,” “these jeans aren’t skinny enough,” “I don’t like my haircut,” “that teacher gives too much homework,” “the internet’s too slow.” I suppose that’s the way the world works.

Mother Teresa said:  “Give until it hurts.”  About ten years ago when I was working for American Express, we were trying to figure out why the Salt Lake City office had the lowest charitable giving of all the US offices, despite the company’s generous matching program.[1]  Focus groups revealed that many employees in that location considered their tithing donations to be already far higher than what others gave.  On the one hand, this was certainly true; the sacrifices of tithing are serious business to Mormons, and they amount to a lot of money. [2]  But the answer was still an embarrassment to me at the time, something that seemed an indictment of the generosity of LDS people, suggesting that we don’t want to think about charitable endeavors but instead let our church make all those decisions on our behalf or that we begrudge the amount we give already.  Does the church use up all of our good will?  Was this a Utah-centric phenomenon or is it wider spread?  Perhaps, to take Mother Teresa’s words and turn them around, tithing is enough if it hurts to give it.


[1] Only donations made through the company’s website were counted because they were the ones that were tracked and matched dollar for dollar.

[2] By contrast, the company considered you a “leader in giving” if you donated a mere 1% of your salary to charity.


  1. i actually think about this a lot. I had an opportunity to go with rotary to South America and the charity Semilla Nueva. They are helping develop better/more efficient agriculture for poor villages. I desperately wanted to go and to experience seeing my own privilege and thinking how much of a better person I would be afterwards.

    But the more I thought about it I didn’t have any unique agricultural/horticultural knowledge to impart…and any person could replace me on the trip (even a local) and do as much good to the people needing help. The more I thought about it it just seemed selfish of me to spend $1500 so I could “slum it” and feel better about myself. If I actually cared about doing the most good for these people, they would be much better off if I just donated the $1500 to the charity for their village. All in all I have mixed feelings.

    Maybe this is the reason I want to retire early and go on dozens of humanitarian missions in their world countries? It would lessen my guilt over it being the new trendy Tourism/Vouyerism.

  2. Jon Huntsman Sr., an extremely successful businessman, a philanthropist, and a former Area Seventy, said this about tithing:

    “(My church) require(s) 10% tithing. I don’t consider that to be philanthropy and I don’t consider it to be part of my philanthropic giving. I consider it as club dues.”

    I made the mistake of quoting him on Facebook, and got quite a few angry responses…I do think you’re right, though–it’s easy to consider that 10% plus a small fast offering sufficient, when it’s really not.

    I think giving your kids exposure to poverty is important–I’m curious as to the best way to do that. The right kind of travel will help, but I think there are probably things I could do closer to home too.

  3. A couple of General Authorities over time have repurposed the Mother Teresa quote and applied it to fast offerings — donate enough at fast offerings to really be felt. If you donate enough so that it hurts, you’re donating enough.

  4. Thanks for this reflection, Angela. Our own selfishness can make it very hard to do good in the world, as when well-intentioned interventions come with unintended consequences, and even though we probably can’t eliminate selfishness from our considerations, being aware of it in the way your post invites is essential if we want our efforts to be about more than our own sentimental satisfaction. I think that such self-reflection is a key part of the due diligence for which Teju Cole called a couple years back in the Atlantic.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I found the cultural differences you encountered quite fascinating. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  6. How thought provoking thank you very much

  7. Just a thought on the aside about the SLC office failing in the charitable donations department.

    When they want to give beyond their tithing/fast offering amount, I think many Mormons feel most comfortable doing it through the humanitarian fund of the church. Most of us feel confident that 100% of our humanitarian fund donations are going to help needy people, while we understand that outside charities have to use a portion of donations received for their overhead costs (salaried employees, administrative costs, advertising, etc).

    My family is LDS, and our charitable giving (excluding tithing/fast offering) is about 50/50 to the humanitarian fund vs. outside charities. The first time we donated to Heifer International, I was really upset to receive in the mail a very thick, glossy booklet printed in color from Heifer International encouraging me to donate again. How much of my donation just went toward printing a fancy booklet for myself that I was going to throw away?

    We still donate to outside charities (but make sure to stay off their mailing lists so we’re not just paying to mail things to ourselves!) But I can certainly understand why some LDS folk would feel more comfortable with the humanitarian fund as opposed to outside charities.

  8. Huntsman is a billionaire so his club dues are a pittance in the midst of his wealth from which he can readily additionally contribute to the tune of millions of dollars without putting a dent in his interest income if he has competent financial managers.

    Each should give according to their capacity and when you’re a single wage earner, even in upper middle class roles, working to support 4-8 children, with 4-8 missions, 4-8 college degrees, a retirement fund for self-sufficiency and the desired ability to go serve a senior mission it becomes a little harder to be quite so philanthropic when you’re already contributing 11-12% of your income to tithing and fast offerings. In such a case I think it may be a bridge too far to claim that those AMEX workers deserve to be called out as stingy.

    Now, if that same Utah household has the requisite 3rd SUV to haul the boat, the jet skis and the snowmobiles then I’m less sympathetic to the belief that they can’t afford to give a little more.

  9. Huntsman’s club dues are 10%, just like everyone else. Granted, if you’re in the U.S. and itemize your deductions, and if you have investments that you can pay tithing with instead of cash in order to get a tax break, you may have an advantage. But a lot of smart upper middle class single wage earners can take advantage of those breaks too.

    In any case, Huntsman’s not just another rich guy giving away a couple million dollars here and there. He’s given away over 1.2 billion dollars–more than enough to buy a small country.

    Being philanthropic is supposed to be hard. My parents were so committed to it that they didn’t fund any of their 4-8 children’s college degrees because they were spending so much on charity. I’m not suggesting that people do that, but I do think that, generally speaking, most people could give more than they give, especially those in upper class and upper middle class roles. It may mean living more modestly, but that’s part of the point.

  10. I am also in a quandary when it comes to humanitarian service. I am a nurse and took my kids several times on humanitarian missions to Mexico and Honduras. It was great for them and now that they are grown, I am looking at doing some more trips on my own. But like you, I worry if the $1500 it costs me to go would serve the people better if it were given to the charity instead of filling my desire to be part of the experience. So hard to know the best way to give.

  11. To Sally and KristineA, I think there’s real value in the social exchange. Just donating money is good, but human to human interaction across cultural boundaries broadens perspectives and creates understanding, hope, and a sense of urgency. A little yeast leavens the whole loaf. Without the social exchanges, there wouldn’t be any charities to donate money to anyway.

    I also think there’s nothing wrong with focusing on what we can see in front of us. When I send my kid as part of a humanitarian service group, I’m doing it more for my kid than I am for the people he/she is going to serve. I feel a need to help those less privileged than myself, but there are so many of them that my contributions are but spit in the ocean. I can, however, help my kid become a good person. And, if my kids’ perspectives can be shaped to also care, and their children, and their friends, and so on, then attitudes change in communities and nations, and that really can have an impact. So my selfish desire to improve my children may be more effective than the extra money I could send some charity if I didn’t provide them the opportunity. Or, at least, that’s what I believe.

    One of the first companies I worked for had the same experience with Mormons your AMEX office did. The group I worked with was relocated from Orem, and the Vice President was pretty disappointed that his relatively highly-compensated Mormon employees didn’t help him meet his fundraising goals. One of my co-workers said, “I give 10% tithing, 1% fast offering, contribute to Friends of Scouting, PTA, , and I’m tapped out.”

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