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Friday, 6 November 2015

Altruism

I've always dreamt of a sewing room in my house. A workshop seems too far-fetched an idea for a home our size. My sewing machine sits in the living room, and goes as far as the kitchen table where I usually work. A recent visitor to our house saw my sewing machine sitting in its corner in the living room and asked me how much it cost. Even though I thought it was an odd question, I still gave her answer: I had paid €280 euro for my SINGER TALENT 2 years ago from a local store. She told me she had bought a sewing machine from a discount supermarket for €99 about a year ago.

"And what do you use it for?" I asked her.

"I haven't used it," she said, not showing any signs of regret. "Do you use yours?"

Another odd question, especially since the sewing machine was surrounded by fabrics and other sewing paraphernalia. Apart from five large quilts, my sewing machine has made countless other items, including many gifts and charity items. I use it at least once a week, if not more. My friend asked me to show her what I make on it. She was surprised by the quilts I had made (quilting and patchwork in the modern sense is not a Greek hobby), but she was particularly intrigued by a small pile of sewn fabric sitting in front of the machine.

"What are these for?" She was genuinely perplexed by my 'mug rugs' (or pot holders and oven mitts, if you prefer, or even wall hangings if you have a special affection for the animal pictured) with a donkey cutout sewn on the top. I explained that I had made these for the Agia Marina Donkey Rescue in Iraklion, as a way of supporting the work the charity does. a charity I support. Charity starts from the home, and for the last few years, especially since the Greek crisis, I have always supported charities based close to my locality. My last lot of rug mugs sold out very quickly; I hope the new batch does too.

I make these donkey mug rugs by hand and finish them off by machine, because when I go into the kitchen to use my sewing machine in the evenings, my family sometimes notices and asks me to come and sit with them in the living room. I take up the offer so they don't think I don't want their company.

My friend stared at me blankly. "You make them for the donkeys?" Oh-mee-gee, I thought, the difficult part has just begun. I have a lot of explaining to do. It's not easy (and not much fun) having to explain everything to people who know very little. Even when you do explain it to them, they cannot understand what you are talking about because they lack the direct 'tangible' experience needed in order to understand certain concepts. I am especially wary of how I explain the part where I mention that I spend time making things without payment for others to raise money from. They really don't get that bit. If they did, they themselves would also probably be donating something to charity (if not time, then money).

If I were asked the same question in Western society, I would be able to look shrewdly at the person and ask: "Where is your altruism?" But you can't do that with people like my friend: you have to explain the meaning of altruism to her if you want an answer. In the Greek language, that is not as easy as it sounds. In Greek, altruism is translated as αλτρουϊσμός (al-troo-is-MOS). But that is simply a transliteration of the English word - in other words, the Greek word entered the language not just as a borrowed word but as a borrowed concept. Another translation of altruism is given in Greek dictionaries: φιλλαληλία (fi-la-li-LI-a): 'true love for other people'. But that is closer in meaning to φιλανθρωπία (fi-lan-thro-PI-a), which is where English gets the word 'philanthropy' from. Wikipedia mentions that altruism can also be called selflessness which is translated into Greek as ανιδιοτέλεια (an-i-di-o-TE-li-a): 'a characteristic of someone whose final actions (τέλη) are not (αν) dictated by self (ιδιο)-interest or personal gain.' But this word does not necessarily encompass the moral sense of altruism as the word is used in English.

Respectful citizen Mr Panteli, by Panos Tzavelas, who was a devoted communist all his life. 
Respectful citizen Mr Panteli (click here for the meaning of this Greek name), you have a shop somewhere here, you sell stuff, you make lots of money, you go to church on Sunday, you have a wife, son and daughter, modern furniture, colour TV, and you eat spiritual food. Respectful citizen Mr Panteli, so what if thousands of  black, white and yellow people die of hunger on this earth, just as long as your son's OK so you can leave him your name and money... Did you know Mr Panteli that others give up their youth and life to make true the dream of a slice of bread, so you can eat too, and what did you give Mr Panteli? Full of fear, irresolute, Mr Bean, you fouled up dreams and souls, an empty skin without breath. Respectful citizens, the young generation, bury those respectful people among the grains, and those who made Mr Panteli, they're useless worms on this Earth!

Hence, to a certain extent, altruism as it is understood in English is still in its nascence in Greek. The many different varieties of crises that the country has been through in such a short period of time have not helped people in thier quest for self-actualisation - but then again, you could easily get through your life without any need to feel altruistic. Take my friend as an example: she can buy a sewing machine even though she doesn't need one, so I suppose she has met her safety, physiological and social needs. But buying a sewing machine when you don't need one shows that she hasn't fulfilled her esteem needs. She still needs to build up her confidence before she moves on to self-actualisation.

Not that altruism is not understood in Greece. Let's take a very close Greek friend of mine who related this to me recently: "We have a severely disabled child, and we love him very much. It wasn't our choice to have this child. But that's the way God made him, and we accept him as he is. But I'm not an altruist like my French friends. They have a son with the same disability as my child. They couldn't have children, so they decided to adopt a child who they could provide a better quality of life to. They chose a severely disabled child, something I would not have done myself. They are the true altruists.".

I did actually wonder why my other friend hadn't used her own sewing machine. She told me she'd always wanted to own a sewing machine and when she saw it at the supermarket, she thought it was the perfect opportunity to buy one, although she admitted that she wasn't sure what she'd do with it. "I thought I might use it to mend or alter something, but it's really quite cheap to buy what we need these days." In many ways, my friend is right. Few designers can compete with the €1 shops in terms of price. Even in a poor country like Greece which has been overrun by deflation, life is still quite cheap these days.

Bonus photo: Thanks to Demetra, Gabe and Joanie for their fabric donations, some of which I used in the donkey mug rugs. I also made this quilt from them.

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