The Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever tells how, in one of his many narrow escapes from the Nazis, he knocked in desperation at the door of a stranger and was taken in and sheltered by a Christian woman who gave him a crucifix to wear and passed him off as an ailing relative in need of medical care. (Sutzkever was in fact ill at the time). The woman who saved him is now remembered in the Avenue of Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
A friend of mine and fellow psychiatrist, ever-curious about human nature, recently asked me to help him to understand the basis for such an altruistic act, which would, of course, have resulted in the woman and her husband being shot had the deception been discovered.
This led me to think about the phenomenon of ‘the righteous gentile’ and beyond that, to the psychology of altruism in general. I will start with the knowledge that the human brain has a built-in system which helps us to distinguish between ‘self’ and ‘other’ and that this system is gradually forged in the crucible of life into an adult understanding of who or what constitutes a threat to the integrity of the self.
Judgements are formed from childhood onwards as to which environmental elements are to be avoided, controlled, destroyed or embraced. These judgements are triggered by experiences which are linked to the emotions of fear, revulsion and attraction. At the simplest level we are able to detect materials which, if we have contact with them, could endanger our health and by extension our survival as a species. These generate ever-widening ripples in the networks of the brain, so that dirt, pollution, disease, poverty and squalor for instance, can become associated with groups of people associated with those conditions, for example refugees or people with strange customs and beliefs: in other words, those whose identity does not match that of the host community.
The human capacity for symbolisation is infinitely complex. Network upon network comprising the associations and resonances around self and other are woven into a superstructure encompassing the attitudes and beliefs which make up the psyche. These become hard-wired with time into the religious, scientific, ideological, philosophical and political landscapes which form the backdrop to our lives.
So what about altruism and the case of the righteous gentile? Altruism, in the sense of a philosophy which values the other person, can form one of the strands of religious belief. The tenet ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’, though honoured more in the breach than in the observance, occasionally comes forcefully into play in dire situations, when it can reach a pitch of self-denial to the point of self-sacrifice. Could this partly explain the risks taken by Sutzkever’s Christian saviour and others like her who sheltered Jews at their peril? Clearly the humanitarian element prevailed over the ‘self-other’ divide in these cases. The thought of the Jew as ‘other’ was eclipsed by the awareness of another human being at risk of suffering as terrible fate.
Shorn of its ideological implications, altruism can be seen as a quality of empathy, that feeling for the other person which transcends sympathy. Sympathy merely places the ‘other’ as an object outside of the self. Even more emotionally remote is the concept of pity, a term which has fortunately slipped down the hierarchy of virtues to the point of being obsolescent.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is xenophobia, a state of mind which fuses hatred and fear of the ‘other’, however defined. The conditions which favour either the emergence of xenophobia or its antithesis, altruism, are probably best examined under a scientific lens, and the example of Sutzkever’s righteous gentile, is a good case to focus on.