We could start with Peanuts. In fact, let’s do. The Peanuts gang with their wide-eyed view of the world is a great study of human behavior—as the intricacies of relationships are handily on display. For instance, love. Lucy draped longingly over Schroeder’s piano unabashedly expressing her feelings. Ambition: Charlie Brown kicking, missing, and yet, always kicking the football and trusting Lucy every time not to pull the ball away, which of course she did. Compassion: Pig Pen and Linus who just asked to be accepted for their stinky, thumb-sucking selves.
At any given turn, whether it was Snoopy’s hijinks disobeying his master at times, Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie, or Sally who adored and pined for Linus, even with his anxiety and early male-pattern baldness, there was a clear example inherently that we need each other in this life. So that in our collective journey, and in the throes of upheaval, the connectedness and goodness of humanity help us to rise above. Charlie Brown, plagued by his own insecurities and self-doubt, would try and try again. He was often the butt of the joke—even by his own friends, and his own do. But at the end, after all was said and done, he was lifted up—literally, sometimes as the cartoon would often show—on the shoulders of those around, but metaphorically, too. He was then able to see the best in the worst of times. Charlie Brown, as much as he struggled, found compassion, concern, kindness, and humility.
Can’t we all?
That is what the founders of the Year of Altruism, a year-long movement that kicked off in August, are hoping. That, as a force, if we should choose, we can lift each other up, instead of tear each other down. We can look past the obvious differences that keep us contracted like a spring that wishes to find its velocity, but instead allows its own coils to rust for fear of letting go. we can trust that hate will always be overmatched by love. That the muscle of fear will atrophy when it’s not allowed to be exercised. That from darkness, there will always be light—no matter how hard-won the first flicker might be.
Seventy-five years ago the light went out. Throughout Germany and Austria, synagogues were burned, stores and buildings demolished and Jewish cemeteries were desecrated on the “Night of Broken Glass,” called Kristallnacht, November 9–10, 1938, instigated by Nazi officials, and considered to be the start of the Holocaust. Subsequently, the lives of an estimated 11 million people were taken by the tyranny of fear and prejudice and corrosive hate that sprang forth, spreading through Europe until the Allied forces defeated the Germans and Hitler committed suicide in 1945.
The Year of Altruism founders and directors Rabbi Marc Wilson and Robert St. Claire, were so heartened at the response at the 70th-year commemoration of Kristallnact, that going into the 75th, they decided that the acknowledgment of this somber marker in history was an opportunity for exponential expansion of goodwill.
To share the notion that deep in the layers of when our resiliency is challenged, lies potential. To make sure the stories of those, like Spartanburg residents Sandor and Livia Koser, who, as teenagers, were separately held for a year at the Buchenwald and Auschwitz concentration camps, still get told. To memorialize that while the genesis of the YOA was founded in this solemn remembrance of the persecution of the Jews, it is also, at its core, the good of humanity that connects the movement to that of human rights—regardless of your beliefs, color, creed, or sexuality. It is not a “Jewish” thing or an “African American” thing. Or, any other categorical “thing,” then. What it is, is a chance to hold us all up to the challenge of the very definition of the word—altruism: unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.
We’ve hopefully been the recipients of others’ altruistic efforts in the smallest of ways—the happy news that someone ahead of you has paid for your parking fee or your latte. The moment in a harried day when you gladly accept the offer presented to you to skip ahead in the grocery-store line. These circumstances that act like spark plugs sending bolts of fell-good endorphins into our fibers, hopefully, causing enough of a stir in the place where selflessness can grow to do the same—without expectations of the hopes of a return favor.
“The thought of the Year of Altruism is so appealing to people,” says St. Claire, who converted to Judaism 15 years ago, “and then when they see it unfolding, it’s like catching a wave, and everybody else wnats to get on the wave and go along with you.”
In addition to Furman University, the primary partner of teh YOA, more than 80 organizations have already joined forces with the movement to help provide a broad spectrum of events scheduled under the YOA umbrella throughout the year, including volunteer work and community projects, interfaith services, theatre performances, concerts, and presentations such as: The Charles H. Townes Lecture on Faith and Reason, presented by Furman University featuring Dr. Daniel C. Matt, scholar of Jewish mysticism and translator/editor of the multivolume series The Zohar: Pritzker Edition published by Stanford University Press. Ashes to Rebirth: Kristallnacht-Altruism Memorial Concert, presented by the Greenville Symphony Orchestra, at the Peace Center for the Performing Arts; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Interfaith Commemoration Services, presented as part of the Dream Weekend and co-sponsored by Grenville Baptist Ministers Fellowship, featuring Reverend Dr. Joseph Roberts; and WOmen’s History Month guest speaker Layli Miller-Muro of the Tahirih Justice Center, presented by Furman University.
“This is a common thing for Greenville and for the city of Greenville,” say St. Claire. “Greenville itself has been and is a naturally altruistic community. That’s why the people are so receptive to this. We’ve been doing this for years.” So far, Greenville is the only city to have taken up the mantle of such a movement like this, through Rabbi Wilson says he has started to field calls from organizers i other places like Macon, Georgia, on how to bring this idea to take see in their own community.
The Year of Altruism program director, and assistant professor of history at Furman University and museum historian at the Upcountry History Museum, Courtney Tollison Hartness, Ph.D., points to the gleaming data reflecting this community’s best-food-forward mentality: “Last year the local United Way raised $15 million; the Greenville Literacy Association ranks in the top-three precent nationally in terms of the volunteers and the number of those it serves; and the Greenville Meals on Wheels program, the sixth-oldest in the country, celebrates its 45th year of service to those who are housebound,” explains Hartness, who remembers that as a child she was always told “to leave the world a better place than ho you found it,” and is hoping that a similar note is what reverberates throughout the next year for the YOA.
One need only turn on the evening news or read the scrolling newsfeed of Facebook to know that, sadly, venomous vitriol and heated and often hurtful epithets and opinions are given way too much space. The tagline of the Year of Altruism is A Movement Powered by Humanity. The founders have said they’re just the ones who have struck the match. It’s up to all of us—not as parts, but as a whole—not just for our own community, but for the Upstate, to the state, to the United States and beyond, to serve with possibility, heading off intolerance and healing the wounds of persecution, to peer into the darkness and see what is there that can bring us all closer, and not just see a great divide.
“Are you upset, little friend? Have you been lying awake worrying? Well, don’t worry . . . I’m here. The flood waters will recede, the famine, will end, the sun will shine tomorrow, and I will always be here to take care of you.”—Charlie Brown to Snoopy.
Here’s to it being like that for us in real life, too.
Originally published September 2013.