Once again, the world has broken our heart.
Once again, we ask, how can people be so cruel?
And yet once again, we witnessed the helpers. We saw people lining up to give blood and help the wounded and speak out against hatred and violence.
Once again, we have been reminded that, despite the ugly acts that compel the world to pay attention,
compassion and generosity and kindness are fundamental to human nature.
In my years of teaching high school, by the time students reached my classroom they were pretty set in their opinion that it is basic human nature to be selfish and competitive. Unless we have governments to keep us in line, they’d tell me, we’ll go all Lord of the Flies on each other and kill people just to get a conch shell.
I taught history, so I am well aware that the past is full of examples of humanity’s inhumanity to others.
But that’s just it — those acts of violence and hatred are inhuman. They are against our fundamental nature.
Our “human nature,” according to the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology, is to be social and engaged and connected to others. We cannot survive without human attachments.
Recent studies have found that the “default network” of the brain — the part of the brain that’s active when we’re “not doing anything” — is the social network. When our minds have time to wander, we think about other people and our self and our relationships. What’s the number one website on the Internet? Facebook — where we can engage and be social. It’s who we are.
In Matthew Lieberman’s book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, he describes a study where two groups of participants kept records each day of their feelings of social pain — rejection, embarrassment, etc. One group received an active medication during the three weeks, the other group received a placebo. By day 9, the medicated group reported fewer feelings of social pain, and the gap between the two groups grew until day 21, when the study ended.
What drug were they taking?, you might ask. Prozac? Xanax?
They were taking Tylenol.
To our brains, the pain of rejection is the same as the pain of a physical injury. Our brains are wired to warn us of the dangers of isolation from others.
You’ve probably heard of the famous prisoner’s dilemma — imagine there’s $10 available for you and another person. If you both decide to cooperate, you both get $5, and if you both decide not to cooperate, you only get $1 each. But if one person chooses to not cooperate and the other one does, that person gets $10 and the cooperator gets nothing.
My students would tell me that “everyone will decide to not cooperate! It’s human nature to trick someone and get the most for yourself!!” But in over a third of cases, people will choose to cooperate, even when the opponent is someone they do not know. And here’s the really cool thing — cooperating activates the reward systems in the brain! These patterns of brain activity suggest to researchers that we cooperate out of a genuine preference for it, not solely out of obligation.
When subjects are given hypothetical situations about winning monetary awards (“you’ve just been given $10!” or “you’ve been given $10 and you can give $4 of it to charity!”), they show greater activity in the reward centers of their brain when they think about giving their money away as opposed to keeping it all for themselves.
Finally, research reveals that we tend to downplay our acts of generosity — perhaps since we assume that people are naturally selfish, when we act in an unselfish manner, we have to make it look like we just did it because we were bored or because someone made us do it. We don’t want to look like a “goody-goody.”
That’s why charities offer little “gifts” when we donate. People give a lot more when they receive a gift from the charity. It’s our way of being able to say, as Lieberman describes it, “I didn’t donate to help. I was buying a candle.”
Lieberman cites the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, who in 1835 said this of Americans:
The Americans … are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of self-interest…. In this respect I think they frequently fail to do themselves justice; in the United States as well as elsewhere people are sometimes seen to give way to those disinterested [that is, not self-interested] and spontaneous impulses that are natural to man; but the Americans seldom admit that they yield to emotions of this kind.”
In Everyone We Trust
After witnessing violent rallies and vehicle-as-weapon attacks in the last week, we’d be forgiven for responding with fear and distrust. Indeed, for many people, fear and distrust have long been an unfortunately necessary way of operating in the world.
But a thought occurred to me the other day as I was driving to the airport, listening to this terrible news unfold: I am placing my trust in everyone around me right now. I trust that the drivers around me are paying attention to driving. I trust that they are not looking at their cell phones or doing their makeup or engaging in something other than driving. I trust that, on the most basic level, they are a lot like me: a complicated, flawed, yet kind-hearted human being just trying to get where they need to be.
When I arrived at the airport, I again placed my trust in everyone around me. I trusted the TSA agents who were keeping us safe, I trusted my fellow passengers to follow the rules and wait patiently in line (which, despite our proclivity for getting angry about long lines and screenings, we all pretty much did). Though the airport was loud and crowded, there were lots of “excuse me”s and “sorry”s and smiles as thousands of creatures big and small navigated the terrain and arrived safely at their final destinations.
The fact is, EVERY SINGLE DAY there are far more acts of kindness and generosity and compassion and connection and TRUST in the world than there are violence and hatred. We’ve placed our trust in everyone around us to be in the world with us in this way. We assume our day will proceed as we’ve expected it to, and we don’t often recognize the beauty of, day after day, having our basic faith in humanity confirmed through smiles and “bless you”s and people stopping at red lights.
I am in no way trying to minimize the fact that bigotry and hatred and racism DO exist, that they impact some of us on a daily basis more than others, and that they are important issues that need to be addressed NOW. We ALL need to confront violent extremism as well as the insidious micro-aggressions and subtle forms of racism that are ultimately about seeing and treating others as “less-than.”
I also understand that, given our individual experiences and histories, not all of us have been able to develop an abiding sense of trust in the world (which psychologists tell us is a pretty basic requirement for mental well-being).
So how the heck do we do this?? How do we nurture our instincts for compassion and cooperation and trust and love in a world that also frequently erupts in violence and rage and hate?
1. Realize that violence and hatred make the news precisely because they are not who we are.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…” pic.twitter.com/InZ58zkoAm
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 13, 2017
Though the world has once again broken my heart, I do my best to trust in the better angels of our nature.
2. Teach kids about compassion.
What if we taught our kids about compassion? What if we taught them that self-preservation is NOT our only instinct? What if we taught them that we also have instincts to give to and care for others? What if we taught them about the mirror neurons in our brains, which allow us to feel and experience someone else’s joy and pain?
That feeling with another person is the very definition of compassion. It’s part of our human nature. We are wired to connect with others and we feel good when we help others.
You can learn some ways to teach compassion to kids here, and you can download a workbook for kids from the Children’s Charter for Compassion here.
3. Practice Lovingkindness.
Mindfulness and meditation aren’t just about attention and non-judgment — they can help us cultivate heartfulness and incline our minds to love.
There are lots of beautiful practices for lovingkindness. Check out the ones below:
- A Lovingkindness Meditation to Boost Compassion from Mindful.org
- A Meditation on Lovingkindness from Jack Kornfield
- Guided Meditation: Lovingkindness from Tara Brach
4. Engage in Conversation.
I get it. The last thing we often want to do is sit down and TALK with someone whose views we find repugnant. But if we have the chance to do so, honest conversation is much more productive than trying to convince someone to see things our way.
It’s time to stop ignoring the comments people make that we find offensive. We could say something like, “Can you tell me what you meant by that?” or “I feel uncomfortable with what you said. Can you explain it to me?”
It’s also time that those of us who have the privilege to feel relatively safe in the world listen to the experiences of those who don’t have that privilege. It might mean honest conversations with people who are different from us, or taking the time to read books like The New Jim Crow, Between the World and Me, or Tears We Cannot Stop to understand what the world looks like from someone else’s perspective.
As much as we might wish that sharing our outrage on social media will do the trick, when it comes to making change, healing the world, and nurturing relationships based in our common humanity, the thing that works the best is old-fashioned, one-on-one connections and conversations.
It’s almost as if we were born that way.
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