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Altruism: an interview with Bahram Elahi, M.D.

Bahram Elahi

The e-ostadelahi.com editorial board has asked Professor Bahram Elahi for an interview on the theme of altruism. Having spent more than forty years delving deeper into the philosophy and thought of his father while carrying out his own research and experimentation, he has made Ostad Elahi’s philosophical and spiritual work known to a wider public through his numerous publications. In this interview, he explains the meaning of altruism for those who are striving towards perfection and provides us with some keys to its reasoned practice.

What place does altruism hold in Ostad Elahi’s practice of spirituality?

Cultivating a love for others within ourselves is one of the foundations of true ethics. Indeed, altruism is one of the pillars of Ostad Elahi’s spiritual practice, coupled with focusing one’s attention on the Source and struggling against the imperious self.

On a practical level, how does one engage in altruism?

Helping others with generosity and benevolence often occurs through very simple acts: lending an attentive ear, paying a sincere compliment, making a friendly gesture or any other sign of support. We can help others in all sorts of ways: with our belongings, through our actions and words, but also using our thought and intention alone. For instance, cultivating the will to do good unto others or having the firm intention of helping them already bears a positive effect on others and ourselves, even if the opportunity to realise that intention does not arise. Those who care about their process of perfection should include the practice of altruism in their spiritual program.

What is the benefit of being altruistic?

In general, helping others benevolently, whether this help is of a material, psychological, or spiritual nature, is as useful to ourselves as it is to others, or even more so. It enables us to cultivate positive thinking and to be at peace with ourselves. It also provides us with spiritual capital that we will take with us to the other world. The value of this spiritual capital is so great that in some cases, it is enough in itself to propel the soul to higher levels. On the whole, altruism plays a determining role in the quality of life the soul will enjoy in the other world.

Isn’t it somewhat paradoxical to seek some “spiritual benefit” in the performance of an altruistic action when such an action is supposed to be based on compassion and love for others?

Altruism out of a sense of duty applies to everyone, while altruism out of a sense of compassion and love for others is a virtue to be acquired. Those who have reached the level of practicing the latter are few and far between; such individuals are spiritually advanced and have reached the state of self-abnegation and detachment. As long as we are in the grips of our egoistic and mercantile ego—as is the case with most, if not all, of us—the love we feel for others is motivated by self-interest; that is, it is merely the expression of the love we feel for ourselves.

It seems difficult to separate altruism from emotion, from the sort of instinctive love that drives us to be compassionate and benevolent.

Human beings are naturally egoistic, but they also have altruistic impulses that stem from their ethical impulse. The ethical impulse originates from the super-id, which pushes us towards the Good and drives us, for example, to behave benevolently towards others and to be helpful to them. Some people cultivate this impulse; others repress it. The state of well-being that derives from the satisfaction of the ethical impulse has a very different quality than that which derives from the satisfaction of an egoistic impulse of the id. This qualitative difference is comparable to the distinction between the joy one experiences from saving the life of a man or animal in distress and the satisfaction felt by a bounty hunter or animal hunter. In short, this joy constitutes a sense of pride, a feeling of enduring elation that is both light and profound. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the extent to which those who devote themselves to others out of pure humaneness or for the sake of attracting divine satisfaction feel inwardly fulfilled. Yet, this is a fact that anyone can verify through practice.

Are there any conditions for the practice of altruism?

In order for our altruistic acts to have an optimal effect, we should consider the following points:

  • We should do our utmost to dismiss any intentions aimed at gaining a profit or benefit, which means we should act in a selfless way, without expecting anything in return. Similarly, we should proceed in a discreet, unpretentious manner to avoid hurting those we help and to ensure they don’t feel indebted to us. In any case, what matters is not so much what we do for others as the intention that motivates us to perform a particular action.
  • We should behave in a contextually appropriate and balanced manner. For example, when we are about to help someone, we should take into account our own situation and the means at our disposal, while trying not to infringe on the rights of those who depend on us or to inflict any undue harm or strain on others.
  • Except in cases of absolute necessity, we should not impose our help on others but offer it instead, respecting who they are and what they want, without judging them or feeling superior to them. The point is to respect the dignity and freedom of others.

What if someone doesn’t spontaneously feel compassion for others and tends to remain indifferent to their plight?

In order to help others, we need to cultivate an internal disposition to want what is good for others. Such a disposition naturally drives us to be helpful and to provide others with assistance in a selfless way. If this disposition does not come naturally, the only way to find the required motivation is to compel ourselves to practice altruism out of humaneness and, if one believes in God, for the sake of attracting divine satisfaction. The best strategy is to put ourselves in the place of others so as to become concretely aware of their needs and troubles.

Altruism is often understood as a social concern, the notion of getting involved in various causes or good deeds with respect to those who are in need or less fortunate. Do you see it that way as well?

Being involved in the types of causes you are referring to is naturally tantamount to altruism. For example, those who commit themselves to improving the living conditions of their fellow beings or defending animals from harm are obviously performing altruistic actions, as we understand them here. In the practice of altruism, however, helping those with whom we are close or in daily contact, such as our spouses, children, parents, neighbors, etc., takes precedence. Thus, acts such as placing ourselves in the position of our spouses to better support them, taking it upon ourselves to lighten their load, or remaining faithful and not betraying them are of paramount importance.

If we are in the grips of our “egoistic and mercantile ego”, how can we possibly cultivate selflessness?

Daily life, both in the family and professional context, is a goldmine for experiences that will enable us to cultivate this selflessness. For instance, we should anticipate that others will not always notice what we do for them, or might even prove to be ungrateful, or, in some cases, may even seek to take advantage of our generosity. These various responses are a sort of test for measuring the sincerity of our intention. Any impulse towards the Good will have to overcome some opposition to accomplish its goal.

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  1. Mahdi Nov 22, 2009 6:19 pm 1

    This is a very interesting issue and thank you very much for the interview. A couple of questions that the interview raises for me are the following:
    1) If I understand it right, the main drive for altruism comes from our super-id. So does this kind of mean that the super-id sees altruism as a spiritual nutrition or say reward for itself, so that in the end unconsciously it wants a “payment” or feel good factor?
    2) How much is the level of altruism dependent on the society we live in? As an example, in some African societies altruism is quite strong(as an example see the Ubuntu philosophy among African societies) while it might not be so strong in other societies. How much is altruism and the super-id affected by the society we live in?
    3) Altruism is also common among animals, although among them it’s, if I’m not wrong, more called “Kin selection” but if I’m not wrong, animals don’t really have a super-id. What is the drive among them for altruistic acts or is their altruism different from that of human beings?

  2. Carlin Nov 22, 2009 8:39 pm 2

    Thank you Professor Elahi and the editorial board for bringing this article to us and for the wonderful reminder that our actions, however great or small, have an impact on others. When I see random acts of kindness or altruism, I cannot express how much happiness it instills in me and I am not even involved in the situation! When I am involved, the satisfaction that I get after giving my help is far more lasting and uplifting than any material possession I gain. Even when my help is denied, I still feel happy that I have at least put myself out there rather than looked the other way. With the Holiday season in full swing and people still struggling financially, it is a great reminder that we can be altruistic with whatever we have to offer, not just monetarily.

  3. Erin Nov 23, 2009 2:14 am 3

    Thanks to the editorial board for this interview. To learn that to be altruistic you don’t necessarily have to do something “big” but you can cultivate this beautiful characteristic in your daily life through simple acts.

  4. Juneone Nov 23, 2009 5:15 am 4

    I never thought of “contextually appropriateness” when it comes to altruism! This seems an essential component if I really want to check how sincere and benevolent we truly are. This system of thought leaves no holes…love this newsletter…

  5. ramin Nov 23, 2009 5:40 am 5

    great interview, i leaned here that you can kill two birds with one stone ,and that is by doing th act of altruism you will be at peace with youself and at the same time you are accruing capital for the other world .this should alone motivate doing this act

  6. OCMaj Nov 23, 2009 7:48 pm 6

    This was by far the most complete, consise and useful article I have ever read about this subject. Thank you so much for such a wonderful interview.

  7. Noel Nov 25, 2009 2:45 pm 7

    Altruism is something that I have always aspired to but seemed out of reach. After reading this interview, what was for me an abstract ideal became very tangible and practical. It motivated me to experiment with the suggested strategy of putting myself in the place of others throughout the day at work. I interact with many people at my job all day long and this can certainly be challenging. Now I am trying to view my workplace as a goldmine of experiences that I can use to develop the quality of altruism in myself. Trying to put myself in the place of others is already changing how I view the people I interact with and I notice that when I remember this strategy during the day I feel a bit kinder and more generous towards them. In my opinion, if practiced on an on-going basis, this simple strategy can be life-altering. Thank you for a this wonderful interview.

  8. Zulu Nov 26, 2009 3:52 am 8


    Here are my thoughts:

    #1: The source of attraction to spirituality is from the super id. Our love for God also stems from the super id. My understanding of super id is that it is a force that produces a natural urge towards metaphysical matters (divine or non-divine; based on how it is directed). Super id acts exactly like the id but super id’s impulses are spiritual and the id’s are biological. They both work based on the pleasure principle but in the case of super id it is spiritual pleasure. The thought process you were mentioning sounds like coming from the ego (reason). I think super id is in charge of generating the natural tendency to draw us toward spirituality and then it is upon the ego to control and direct it on a right track.

    #2: We are all influenced by our environment, positively or negatively. For a spiritual traveler it is important to strive to adopt the divine principles regardless of his/her environment. There might be aspects of the divine principles that are observed in certain societies; such as altruism in the Ubuntu philosophy in African societies. This will help the people of that society to cultivate altruism as a “sense of duty.” But our goal is to cultivate it as a “sense of compassion and love towards others” which is something completely personal and internal. This requires spiritual advancement and certain level of self-detachment. In order to reach such level one needs to work on one’s intention which is clearly explained in the interview above.

    #3: As you mentioned, when studying ethology, one becomes quite impressed on how animals show altruism toward their own species or even to other species. But I doubt that the source of such acts in animals is even close to the altruism that we see in human beings. If that animal is showing true altruism, then how come it can immediately change its behavior and hurt or even kill the same or other animals? If a being has a minimum sense of altruism it won’t be capable of doing certain hostile acts that we see in most animals. I suspect the altruistic acts we see in animals stem from their animal soul and are merely automatic and instinctive. I would categorize it under primitive affective states which are governed by animal soul. As a result, animals do not have any control on such affections they exhibit. We can also see the same thing in a human being. Not all compassionate emotions come from super id. Some might stem from the id since the id is also responsible for some of our psychological behaviors such as affections and etc.

  9. Mahdi Nov 27, 2009 6:09 pm 9

    Dear Zulu,

    thank you very much for your reply! It really makes sense to me and I see things better now. I think that I should re-read the passages on the super id in Prof. Elahi’s books for a better understanding of the subject, but yes, now that you said it, the super id seems to be more about spiritual instincts than actual thought.
    Also the comments on the other 2 questions are a great help for further understanding. I guess we need to look at two different kinds of altruism when dealing with reasonable species/humans and those without.
    Again, thank you very much!

  10. ls Nov 28, 2009 4:57 am 10

    What a great article. Thank you to both the editorial board and Dr. Elahi for a more clear and concise view of Altruism.

  11. Eliza Nov 30, 2009 9:21 pm 11

    I like the paragraphs we should do our utmost for our intentions. We should behave in a contextualy appropriate and balanced manner. We should act in cases only as absolute necessity.

  12. Linda Dec 06, 2009 9:31 pm 12

    I am very intrigued by this interview, especially the response to the question addressing the social context of altruism. For some time I have been thinking about getting involved in some kind of cause while assessing different ways through which I may be able to contribute to social change. What I was not including in my assessment -and the article brought into spotlight for me, was to begin this journey with my brother who in great need of help and attention! Simultaneously, this interview has raised new questions for me: if everyone thinks the way suggested in the interview i.e. “…helping those with whom we are close or in daily contact, such as our spouses, children, parents, neighbors, etc., takes precedence” who will take care of those in need, those who are less fortunate? Will there be any time and energy left to be altruistic toward society?

  13. Ali Tinat(Zoghi). Dec 06, 2009 11:36 pm 13

    A most empowering and heartening interview due to the simplicity, directness, and naturalness of guidelines offered here by Dr. Elahi. I love the part pertaining to daily life and how one can practice altruism, not by going out of one’s way, but simply by being alert and paying attention to the needs of those within one’s own surroundings. After all, isn’t that the ultimate challenge, for to do so, one must have both a sense of balance as well as inward and outward focusing?

  14. esq Dec 06, 2009 11:43 pm 14

    This is a very helpful interview and discussion. Unfortunately we live in a world of “What’s in it for me?” And to change that to “What can I do for you?” it is a long stretch but it is possible. Little by little, and every day might be helpful.

  15. Ali Tinat(Zoghi). Dec 07, 2009 10:25 pm 15

    My response to Linda here pertaining to the notion of altruism -towards those whom we are close or in daily contact takes precedence -is that in no way this sort of help in itself is a denial of being altruistic towards others. The article here prioritizes help in its most essential form i.e. to those who need it most and are immediately available to you. After all, are you going to deny your brother the help he needs in place of those who are totally out of your reach? And isn’t it true that by helping your brother, and enabling him to become an active member of the society, you are in essence bringing about great social change?
    After all, isn’t he a member of this very society you wish to help? All the best to you, Linda.
    Al Tinat.

  16. Mat Dec 09, 2009 8:23 pm 16

    The simplicity of this interview takes care of doubts on altruism and the answers to “how”, “who” and “when” which may arise.

  17. Judith Dec 10, 2009 5:37 pm 17

    Linda, your question is related to my own dilemma. In practice, I have found that it is by far easier and more gratifying to help those I do not know, or those who are not related to me. I have thought about the reasons for this, and my conclusion so far is two-fold. First, it seems there is an element of “id” involved here. I simply enjoy helping those who are not close to me more perhaps due to their obvious thankfulness which seems to actually feed my id. Secondly, in helping those not close to me, I quickly get to see that my efforts bring about the results I intended. In trying to help family members I have found myself frustrated and helpless at times. As an example, it is much easier to donate time to the Thanksgiving dinner at the shelter, than to help a family member with a destructive behavior, who not only does not appreciate anything done for him, but also rejects any attempts to assist him. Can it be that I am more inclined to take the easier and more gratifying path? That is the question I ask myself.

  18. Zia Dec 11, 2009 3:53 am 18

    An interesting insight with very good questions and even better answers. The section regarding the conditions for the practice of altruism truly emphasizes the numerous dimensions we must consider when interacting with others. Thank you to Prof. Elahi and the Editorial Board for this great clarification.

  19. Veronica Dec 11, 2009 4:26 am 19

    I got a nice and solid mental impression of this rather abstract concept. Thank you for breaking down the concept of Altruism and put it into a realistic light, and practical examples.

  20. Lady Dec 11, 2009 2:25 pm 20

    Judith, it seems you have missed one VERY important point in altruism; that is helping others WITHOUT any expectations and I would like to go further to say, expect even bad behaviour, insult, etc. in return. If you keep in mind, that the help you are giving to somebody is for God´s sake and that you wish to satisfy God ONLY, then the reaction of the person at the receiving end will not matter to you; whether positive or negative.

  21. Ali Tinat(Zoghi). Dec 12, 2009 7:41 pm 21

    Judith my response to your dilemma is a simple one:

    Dealing with anything on personal level is far more challenging than in general. This brings to mind the notion of: “I love everyone!” A totally abstract and unrealistic claim for the particular “everyone” does not have a face, place, identity, personality, or character to deal with! Try to live, love, cherish, one person if you dare, is my answer to such claims.

  22. Judith Dec 14, 2009 7:38 am 22

    Ali, I agree with you 100%. My lofty notions of how to practice altruism quickly faded when I moved from the arena of theory to the actual practice. The principle of altruism is not an intellectual exercise. Sometimes it requires a level of tolerance for pain that one may not possess. I found out that helping certain individuals is too painful for me. I realized, much to my disappointment, that I am not as good a person I would have liked to claim to be. I would actually go out of my way to avoid helping certain individuals close to me. I was avoiding pain. My experience has humbled me… I have learned to accept that I am not at a level to bestow unconditional love upon everyone at this point in my journey. Instead, I simply try my best to help whomever crosses my path “for the sake of attracting divine satisfaction,” as so beautifully put by Dr. Elahi. That indeed is the best motivation, and infinitely more solid than a motivation that rises out of my subjective belief in my own goodness.

  23. James Dec 14, 2009 4:47 pm 23

    Thank you for making this wonderful interview possible,
    It is an enlightening reminder of why I am here (on earth) and how to refine and better navigate my soul throughout this journey.

    What makes it an in lighting reminder for me is that I have often thought that I had such and so resources I could make that type of altruistic effort that would make a real difference in our world. Reflecting my thoughts and intention towards my immediate surroundings of family, friends and the people I interact with on a daily basis is a wonderful and practical place to start.

  24. Linda Dec 14, 2009 9:46 pm 24

    You explained it very well Judith. Yes there is an element of “id” involved and yes I also noticed the natural instinct that pushes to choose the easier path. And may I add the element of increased expectations?! You see, there are consequences in helping relatives, now my brother is calling me everyday! 🙂 Interestingly, I have heard this phrase used by social/environmental change agents “think local, act local” many times but never realized local really means local, means start with the ones closer to you! Thanks for sharing your insights Judith.

  25. Ali Tinat(Zoghi). Dec 15, 2009 3:26 pm 25

    Glad we are all on the same par, Judith. This is the beauty of Ostad Elahi’s teachings and guidelines for they are all based on his own practical experiences. It is for this very reason that we can use such guidelines as a criteria to measure our deeds at various levels and progress accordingly.

    The notion of being altruistic in general vs. applying it on personal level also brings to my mind another parallel analogy. People, and in relation to prayer and meditation, often say: “I think of God all the time for God is in my heart”. I find that quite easy actually.The challenge for me has been to meditate and think of God on specific times of the day for even 3 times! The contrast between theory and practice is quite evident here, wouldn’t you say so?

  26. Roxanne Dec 19, 2009 1:06 am 26

    Thank you for these valuable insights. It really puts the definition of kindness in a new horizon for me. It teaches me that in order to become a genuinely kind person, I need to focus on purifying my intentions towards God and others, not so much on what kind of acts I do.

  27. neuro Dec 22, 2009 6:51 am 27

    Thank you for a great article. I think it is important that the topic of altruism is being discussed, as it is a fundamental aspect of daily life. I hope to be able to take advantage of the opportunities to show altruism towards others at work, school, and in my daily interactions.

  28. Fritz Dec 23, 2009 6:29 am 28

    I read this article two weeks ago and decided to put some of the points mentioned in the interview into practice (just to experiment). As a result, I have noticed that I am developing more compassion for my coworkers and people I interact with.
    I have to admit that inspite of my initial skepticism, the inner feeling and feedback is quite rewarding. Thank you for a great interview and a powerful insight!

  29. Mariam Dec 27, 2009 2:47 am 29

    Thank you for the great article about “Altruism”. This article helped me to understand the importance and power of listening. Practice of altuism through a simple act like take the time to listen to the problems of others as a means to help a friend. At the same time an important point to keep in mind is that I should not press my friends to tell me what is bothering them or stressing them. To remember not make them feel like they are being interrogated about their personal or private issues even if my intentions are good.

  30. jahan asadizadeh Jan 04, 2010 2:18 pm 30

    thank you good interview.

  31. noel Jan 08, 2010 12:24 pm 31

    Until I read this interview I had never realized that I wanted approval and admiration when helping my friends and family. Even though on the surface, I do want to help them, I became aware of this subtle aspect in myself that also wanted to be recognized and loved for what I did. I began to look inside to see whether this desire for approval was motivating my actions more generally. Lo and behold this internal need was lurking beneath the surface of many, if not all of my actions. Now that I am aware of this aspect of myself, I am self-suggesting that I should help others for God’s satisfaction and trying not to expect anything in return. While this is certainly a long term work-in-progress, I’ve noticed that when I try to correct my intention, I have a more serene feeling when I try to help, seem to be able to help more effectively and feel that my relationship to the Source is closer and more alive. This interview completely changed my understanding of altruism and how to practice it and in doing so opened up another area of self-exploration. Thank you.

  32. hadi a Jan 11, 2010 6:42 pm 32

    Thank you for a great article. I think it is important that the topic of altruism is being discussed, as it is a fundamental aspect of daily life. I hope to be able to take advantage of the opportunities to show altruism towards others at works, and in my daily interactions.

  33. Sammi Jan 24, 2010 8:37 pm 33

    Something that jumped out at me and I had not known/considered before was the following: “The value of this spiritual capital is so great that in some cases, it is enough in itself to propel the soul to higher levels.” I had always thought of altruism as something that earns you “spiritual points” and not as something that directly changes your soul’s substance to help you advance spiritually. Dr. Elahi’s following point really crystalized the importance of altruism for me and its place in practical and cognitive spirituality: “Cultivating a love for others within ourselves is one of the foundations of true ethics.” That makes more sense to me now with my new outlook towards altruism, because in order to practice it correctly as Dr. Elahi describes, it is essential that we make fundamental changes in our attitude and behavior. And this makes the practice of altruism not optional, but essential.

  34. Lia Feb 07, 2010 3:50 pm 34

    This was indeed a great interview, lecture and lesson for me. I definitely benefit from all the aspects of altruism that have been discussed but what I learned and loved the most was to pay attention to my act(s) of altruism and recognize first if it stems from my ethical beliefs or from my true compassion for all beings. I find it a great practice for me to promote the latter.

  35. Holly Feb 22, 2010 12:40 am 35

    I always thought I had developed this characteristic, however, after reading the interview I realise how far away I am in understanding and practicising this concept. My first lesson is being aware of one’s intention, for example in helping others and to want nothing in return; no material or emotional gains—I can say that almost always I have received one of these in return. Secondly, to show kindness, forgiveness and gentleness to those closest to me even when they frustrate me, defy me and hurt me, is the true meaning of altruism in my personal context and that is the second lesson I take from this interview, I really hope that I can practice them. Thank you so sincerely.

  36. Bijan Apr 11, 2010 4:39 pm 36

    I enjoyed reading this article. what I need now is to practice these points to cultivate altruism in myself.
    What really works for me is that important strategy: putting myself in the place of others to be totally aware of their needs and troubles.
    Many Thanks for this great interview.

  37. Naghme Dabaghian May 17, 2010 10:36 pm 37

    Altruistic action on a practical level means “in every situation, put yourself in the place of others”
    this means to wish for others every good that I wish for myself and to refrain from wishing for others any harm that I do not wish for myself. By observing this golden rule I not only help others but in reality myself. The goal is not necessarily to satisfy what others may desire but rather to avoid treating others in ways I do not want to be treated myself. In his 100 Maxims of Guidance Ostad Elahi says: hidden in the heart of every human being is a divine particle so, attracting the hearts of others is attracting the divine grace.

  38. Zara Nov 15, 2010 8:01 am 38

    Thank you for making this wonderful interview possible

  39. Eileen Feb 15, 2011 7:12 am 39

    Thank you Prof. Elahi for this interview, for really explaining and clarifying how we should act to practice altruism, about the importance of our intentions and about the possibilities to “propel our soul to higher spiritual levels”. After reading everyone’s comments, I feel profoundly affected by the sharing of thoughts, feelings and experiences, in this case, on the subject of altruism.

  40. wire Oct 07, 2011 3:15 pm 40

    This is a major point that I am dealing with lately:

    “Any impulse towards the Good will have to overcome some opposition to accomplish its goal.”

    Tests of sincerity are some of the hardest for me…the key is to recognize them as tests, and then move beyond the imperious self’s voice telling me to stop…

  41. pb May 06, 2012 1:01 pm 41

    we often have my children’s friends staying with us for a few days and at times I find it difficult to be generous when the stay becomes too long and our spaces and food etc is used more than I like. I then get caught between feeling mean and at the same time used. So my ego leads to emotions of anger and grudge but then I think: “What is wrong with you? Try to be generous and kindly explain them what bothers you”. (Easier said than done!)
    Its difficult to know how to behave, especially when they pick up on the fact that I’m not happy at times.
    Now having read this interview, I am thinking I should consider this an opportunity to be more generous but don’t know how to deal with the feeling of being used.

  42. Smith5000123 May 10, 2012 5:42 am 42

    Quite a fascinating interview. It brought to light some things I didn’t know about altruism. Being altruistic myself, i found it interesting to learn what’s going on in my head when I help someone.

  43. MLE Jun 22, 2014 9:13 pm 43

    One of the greatest thinkers of our time. His words seem rooted in experience and realism which gives them impact and universal reach; crossing constructed cultural and societal boundaries.

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