Altruistic energy

FOR all the talk of American me-firstism, it is reassuring to note that good old American altruism persists too. When the Peace Corps appealed last week for 600 volunteers to work on agricultural projects in famine-stricken Africa, the response was 10 times the number needed: Some 6,000 persons responded within five days, many of them farmers from the Great Plains, enough to staff the African food production project for a decade.

There is probably a far greater reservoir of citizens of all ages who want to help others than is generally recognized. When one thinks of programs close to home -- community programs like volunteer grandparents, or shelters for the homeless -- there is already evidence of considerable individual caring for others.

But society at home and abroad needs more encouragement, counsel, and support. Such help, as with the Peace Corps project, often requires an agency structure to make altruism practical. These programs, frankly, have not been much promoted in Washington the past few years, with government emphasis on self-help and paring of social and economic assistance budgets.

There are swings, it is said, between generosity and self-preoccupation in societies.

It may be, however, that the reserve to be tapped for unselfish service, like a vast petroleum reserve, may offer a far more extensive and constant source of altruistic energy than is generally acknowledged.

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