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5 Altruistic People Who Made the World a Better Place

Updated on May 7, 2015

Altruism is "consideration for other people without any thought of self as a principle of conduct." (Webster's Dictionary of the English Language)

Altruism is a puzzling social phenomenon. If all biological beings are programmed to survive and to pursue self-interest, why do some people sacrifice themselves for others?

Perhaps, the best way to understand altruism is through the words and acts of those who best exemplify altruistic principles of generosity, empathy and selfless service. This article explores the question why altruistic people act without regard for one's own welfare, and how to cultivate the same qualities.

"Life's most urgent question is: What are you doing for others?" Martin Luther King Jr.
"Life's most urgent question is: What are you doing for others?" Martin Luther King Jr. | Source

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King is best known as the leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Quite simply, this man dedicated his life to the welfare of others and was ultimately killed for it.

King traveled over six million miles and spoke over 2500 times. He led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama and a peaceful march on Washington, D.C. of 250,000 people to whom he delivered his "l Have a Dream" speech. He was arrested nearly 20 times and assaulted at least four times. He was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963; was awarded five honorary degrees and a Nobel Peace Prize. He donated the prize money of $54,123 to the advancement of the civil rights movement.

The mural in Memphis, Tennessee depicting the struggle for civil rights.
The mural in Memphis, Tennessee depicting the struggle for civil rights. | Source

Martin Luther King not only recognized the need of basic human rights for all people, he was willing to place himself in great danger trying to improve the lives of others. On the evening of April 4, 1968 he was assassinated on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.

“I said to my children, 'I'm going to work and do everything that I can do to see that you get a good education. I don't ever want you to forget that there are millions of God's children who will not and cannot get a good education, and I don't want you feeling that you are better than they are. For you will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be.”

"Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness."

"Life's most urgent question is: What are you doing for others?"

"Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."

The balcony of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated.
The balcony of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. | Source
Former President of Uruguay José Mujica
Former President of Uruguay José Mujica | Source

José Mujica

José Mujica, the president of Uruguay between 2010 and 2015, has been called the world's poorest President, although he doesn't feel poor. He said:

"Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more."

He regularly donated a whopping 90 percent of his $12,000 monthly salary to charities benefiting poor people, only keeping $1,250 for himself. He said:

“I do fine with that amount; I have to do fine because there are many Uruguayans who live with much less.”

For comparison, lets look at some of the world's richest heads of state. The Sultan of Brunei is worth $20 Billion Dollars. He lives in the largest palace in the world and owns thousands of luxury cars. Morocco's King Mohammed VI owns 12 palaces and spends about $1 million a day, according to Forbes. President of Chile Sebastián Piñera owns the national television channel Chilevision and LAN Airlines.

José Mujica not only donated a huge chunk of his salary, he also leads a very modest lifestyle: he drives a shabby Volkswagen Beetle and lives on a farm a few miles away from the country's capital Montevideo. As the President of Uruguay, he had no bank accounts, no debts, no possessions and his favorite companion is his three-legged dog, Manuela.

Maybe the reason for José Mujica's generosity is that he spent a large part of his life working as a farmer and knows what it is like to be poor, so he's sympathetic towards the needs of others. Either way, our politicians could learn a lot from this guy.

Mother Teresa of Calcuta, portrait painting by Robert Pérez Palou.
Mother Teresa of Calcuta, portrait painting by Robert Pérez Palou. | Source

Mother Teresa

Albanian by blood and Indian by citizenship, Mother Teresa took altruism to a whole new level. Insatiable in her desire to serve, she dedicated her life to spreading the message of god's love, showing, once again, that you don't have to be rich or famous to be generous.

She started working among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta, having no funds and no staff besides the volunteers. She was willing to love and care for those nobody cared for, eventually creating a network of Missionaries all over the world. In 1979 she was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, but no award can truly express the profundity of her devotion to channeling god's love for people. Mother Teresa is perhaps one of the brightest stars of compassion the world has ever seen.

"We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love."

“People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway.
If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.
For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”

“At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done.
We will be judged by "I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.”

“A life not lived for others is not a life.”

“If you can't feed a hundred people, feed just one.”

“People are unrealistic, illogical, and self-centered. Love them anyway.”

“I pray that you will understand the words of Jesus, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Ask yourself “How has he loved me? Do I really love others in the same way?”

“I must be willing to give whatever it takes to do good to others. This requires that I be willing to give until it hurts. Otherwise, there is no true love in me, and I bring injustice, not peace, to those around me.”

The elder Dobri Dobrev, a holy man from Bulgaria.
The elder Dobri Dobrev, a holy man from Bulgaria. | Source

Dobri Dobrev

Although the name Dobri Dobrev is not internationally known, he is considered a holy man in Bulgaria. He is the very spirit of altruism, which is just another word that means: love for people.

Dobri Dobrev is 98 year old. Every day he walks 10 kilometers from his village to the city of Sofia (Bulgaria) to beg for money. People know him - like we know the naked cowboy from the Times Square. What's different about Dobri is that he donates everything he earns — over 40,000 euros over the years — towards the restoration of decaying Bulgarian monasteries and churches and the utility bills of orphanages. He eats whatever people give them, walks everywhere and wears homemade clothes and shoes from raw skin.

Now, maybe this man doesn't have the same global impact as, say, Mother Teresa had (although who's to say he doesn't?), the force that moves them is ONE and the same. In my book, he's one of the world's coolest people. Long live Dobri!

Mahatma Gandhi, 1946
Mahatma Gandhi, 1946 | Source

Mohandas K. Gandhi

Mohandas Gandhi is more widely known by the name 'Mahatma' - great soul. He is one of the world's most beloved human rights advocates who applied the principles of non-violence to social change.

Deeply appalled by the plight of Indians in South Africa, he joined the struggle to improve people's lives, unequivocally demanding equal rights through the satyagraha ('devotion to truth'), a non-violent way to rectify societal imbalances.

During his struggle for the benefit of others Gandhi was imprisoned 13 times and fasted on 28 different occasions. One of his last fasts was to protest the splitting of India into two states - India and Pakistan. On 30 January 1948, he was assassinated in Delhi by a Hindu nationalist. During his trial the shooter said: 'Before I fired the shots I actually wished him well and bowed to him in reverence'.

Gandhi is certainly not a one-dimensional character. His life and philosophy were complex, even controversial at times, which invited incisive criticism as well as millions of passionate supporters.

I don't want to romanticize Gandhi; I want to remember him for the great gift he bestowed on humanity: a non-violent way to effect the violent politics of Earth. His commitment to non-violence was truly remarkable, especially considering the kind of oppression he was fighting. And I believe that overall he was a powerful and positive force in the world, so haters to the left.

"Man becomes great exactly in the degree in which he works for the welfare of his fellow men."

"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."

"I cannot imagine anything nobler or more national than that for, say, one hour in the day, we should all do the labour that the poor must do, and thus identify ourselves with them and through them with all mankind. I cannot imagine better worship of God than that in His name I should labour for the poor even as they do."

"My life is an indivisible whole, and all my attitudes run into one another; and they all have their rise in my insatiable love for mankind."

"An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind."

"I hate privilege and monopoly. Whatever cannot be shared with the masses is taboo to me."

"Whether humanity will consciously follow the law of love, I do not know. But that need not disturb me. The law will work just as the law of gravitation works, whether we accept it or not. "

"I believe in the essential unity of all people and for that matter of all lives. Therefore, I believe that if one person gains spiritually, the whole world gains, and if one person falls, the whole world falls to that extent."

"It is easy enough to be friendly to one's friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business."

"If your heart acquires strength, you will be able to remove blemishes from others without thinking evil of them."

"I first learned the concepts of non-violence in my marriage."

How to let altruism be your guide


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