A Tale of Two Waters

Two men lived in a desert. They both had a large reservoir of water, and both men were generous and altruistic. They both believed that the highest virtue they could achieve was to slake the thirst of others.

The first man loaded his wagon with many barrels and filled them from his reservoir. He traveled to villages near and far, giving away water to whoever was thirsty. Many people filled a cup or two at his tap, and were happy for a time. The man saw this, and was pleased in turn. But each time he returned to his reservoir to refill his barrels, he was once more disappointed; he couldn’t help more people, because the same small group would be thirsty again. He drew ever-larger amounts from his reservoir in an attempt to help more people, but that just drained his reserves faster. He started going without water himself, thinking that each cup he drank was a cup he’d no longer have to give. Despite a lifetime of altruism, his reservoir eventually ran dry, and he perished of thirst.

The second man drank his own water, and dug a well. His first well was a failure, finding no water. As was his second, third, and twentieth. But he drank his own water and persevered. He tried irrigation systems to tap rivers, aqueducts to trap rain, and even condensers to pull the moisture from the air. There were many failures, all while he drank his own water. But before his reservoir ran dry, he found a way that succeeded. Now his reservoir would refill eternally, requiring him only to maintain the machinery. Now he could fill the cup of others a thousand times over. When his long life was at an end, he passed the machinery on to another, and was remembered… well.

This is a long way of saying “don’t light yourself on fire to keep others warm.” You cannot – cannot – help someone else if your own foundations aren’t built. If you can’t hunt, then the only way you can feed others is with your own body. Self-sacrifice might be noble, but it’s also woefully inefficient.

Here’s the trap: sometimes you look at an altruistic person who is doing good for the world and you think, that’s the kind of person I want to be. So you think that selflessly helping others will make you that kind of person, but the altruism is an effect of having your own life together, not a cause of your life coming together.

Let me repeat for the people in the back: Altruism is an effect of having your own life together, not a cause of your life coming together.

If you want to be the kind of person who makes a difference in the world, make sure you have a way of filling your own reservoir. Self-sacrifice is naturally limiting. Working to make the world a better place in a way that also sustains you, instead of drains you, means you can do it as long as you want.

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