OIt’s my birthday today. 35. In some ways, it’s a big number. In others, it’s just another birthday. But I woke up this morning and my media feeds were filled with angst-inducing opinion pieces and disturbing political updates. Not exactly what I wanted for my birthday, be it a big deal or a little one.
In a World So Full of Ugly
I think that those aforementioned updates are important things to know, to think about, and in whatever way I can, to take action against. They impact my life, and yours, and, the world being what it is, everyone else’s, too. They matter. But I don’t have scads of higher education for nothing. I know that the good stuff matters as much or more than the negative and the depressing.
In desperate times, when I feel that everything I personally value is being attacked by an unstoppable government machine built on lies and graft–generally a good description for American politics, no matter which way you like to vote–it’s important to highlight the positive aspects of the human psyche, individually and in a larger cultural context. What that translates to, for me, is a herd of tiny kittens armed with bazookas that shoot rainbows and make the sound of giggling babies–or its metaphorical equivalent. We can’t have everything.
Nor do I want to infer that we should ignore the troubling headlines in favor of a sunshiny, Polyanna-esque head-in-the-sand approach. What I’m talking about is a real, intense confrontation of what ails the world. What I mean is to look for the helpers, just like Mr. Rogers talked about, and to be one.
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
― Fred Rogers
There is nothing weak about the Helpers. There is nothing quimbly or quavery about their approach. I don’t think anyone who has the intelligence of a box of rocks ever called a real helper a “crybaby.” Because, while each of us has a right to experience the emotion of despair or exhaustion, it shouldn’t stop us.
Science and Religion Are in Agreement
While I tend to try to skirt this particular false dichotomy, one that pits two systems with very different concerns against one another, for this, they happen to align rather nicely. There have been any number of scholarly explorations and even attempts to measure the impact of altruism on the altruist–or the act of helping on the helper. Here, I’ll link to a nice, chatty-yet-scholarly piece that will explore this further. The long and short of it is that giving and helping make you feel good.
That’s right. The act of being a good person makes you feel good. And science can measure it. Your dopamine levels spike, as your body rewards you for not being a piece of shit waste of DNA, because our species’ early survival depended upon cooperation and group cohesion. That’s why, however violent a religion’s rhetoric may be toward the Other beyond the bounds of the community, it will advocate for tolerance of that same Other when they become a part of the community. Do you know why? Because to treat the community member that is Other as an outsider endangers the social dynamic and balance of powers within the group. And that’s a no-no.
Many religions also integrate acts of kindness to those in need into their basic doctrine. It’s a central tenet of Christianity, of Judaism, of Zoroastrianism, many different aspects of Hindu tradition, Buddhism, and one of the Five Pillars of Islam. That’s right. Even violent, anachronistic religions like Christianity (no, that’s not a typo) teach that we must be good to our fellow group members, and that reaches beyond fellow believers. It means everyone within your community. And while it may often be described simply as “altruism.” It’s a bit more complex than that. Please see this slide:
The Local Is The Global
When I talk about community, most of you will think of your town, your neighborhood, your congregation. Or you might jump right to the nationalistic conclusion–your beloved country. The truth is that, while we still operate on the original programming of our distant ancestors–in which we can easily remember and interact with about 200 people, but our recollection gets a bit hazy after that–our community is the world. It’s every reclusive society, every drastically different government, every chaotic state in constant turmoil with a different political faction in control each week.
Sounds a bit daunting? Well, it is. There are more than 7 Billion people on the planet at present. How can anyone possibly care for, much less show active kindness to them all? You cannot. And I think that this sort of overstretching of our empathy is what’s led to some flocking to the banners of individuals who advocate isolationist philosophies–the take-care-of-your-own ideologies and the Us-Firsters–unfortunately, isolationism and xenophobia never helped anyone, even those who sought to pull the security blanket of shunning others tight about them.
No, I think the key is that we must simply not actively seek to destroy, harm or hate that indistinct and faceless number of 7 Billion. We must, in our government’s policy and our daily individual practices put a bit of thought into how they will impact others, both that amorphous group of humans presently alive in other places and our own, as yet unborn, descendants. And the way to achieve that is to start small. Start with now, here, this. Start with smiling at a stranger, hold the door, pay a bus fare for someone who looks like they could use a break. Volunteer for an hour at the holiday soup kitchen to feed those who don’t have a place to enjoy a holiday feast, help someone collect dropped papers or books, put away a grocery cart you see in the middle of the parking lot, or pick up a piece of litter on the street.
There is so much you can do to make the world a better place, and it requires almost no effort or forethought on your part. You know, I really didn’t intend for this piece to become so long or involved. I was just going to say, “Hey, it’s my birthday. Here’s what I want: Everyone, please do something nice, share a positive story, help a friend or a stranger with something big or small.” Well, I did that, too. So, I hope you will. We have to stop treating Love as something inchoate and ungraspable, and start seeing it as a very real, tangible manifestation of being human. I think it’s the only way we’re going to save the best part of ourselves, to act, with decisive compassion and speed, to be Helpers.