The meaning of life is not to be found in selfish hedonism. It is to be found in benevolence • the act of loving kindness • for one and all. That’s what makes it worth getting up in the morning, eating well, exercising, and doing what we do. When we can make life more wonderful, both for ourselves and for others, we will find the best answer to the age-old question, “Why are we here?”
I’ve had a wonderful day. It started with my normal routine: rising, breathing, stretching, tea, and reading. From there I did a 17-mile run-walk (Jeff Galloway style) in preparation for next month’s 4:45 pace team at the Baltimore Marathon. I purchased a new running watch for the occasion, a Suunto T6, and there’s nothing more fun (for “Techno Bob” as my running buddies call me) than setting up and getting used to new technology.
After cleaning up and sharing a Healthy Fruit Chewy with my wife, I spent most of the rest of the day reading today’s book recommendation, Our Inner Ape by Frans de Wall. There’s nothing more relaxing than a day when I can settle down with a good book, and this one certainly qualifies. You can listen to an engaging interview with the author, a leading primatologist, by going to NPR.org.
In its own way, the book introduces the third and final chapter in our series on Optimal Wellness. For the better part of a year we have focused on Nutrition (the input side of the equation) and Fitness (the output side of the equation). It’s a matter of energy in and energy out. The better we balance the equation, both in terms of quantity and quality, the better our health will be.
But there’s more to health than just an energy equation. There’s also the question of purpose. Why are we here? What’s the point? What are we to do with all the energy generated by Optimal Wellness? The answer, in a nutshell, is Benevolence. We are here to make life more wonderful, and de Wall documents just how far back that purpose goes.
In the mid-17th century, Presbyterians in the United Kingdom generated the Westminster Catechism, which starts with the following question and answer. “What is the chief end of man?” “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.” That was their way of saying the same thing. We are here to make life more wonderful.
More than 2,000 years before that, in China, Confucius was asked if there is a single word that could serve as a prescription for all of one’s life. After a lengthy pause, he came up with “reciprocity.” In other words, living by the Golden Rule • helping others as we would want to be helped, and not hurting others as we would not want to be hurt.
That approach to making life more wonderful is found in virtually all major religions and cultures. It is the bedrock of morality, but it is more than just a moral code devised by human philosophers, sages, and rulers. It is imbedded in the natural world, going back millions if not billions of years, as de Wall so eloquently and persuasively describes.
Allow me to reprint the first couple pages of his book:
One can take the ape out of the jungle, but not the jungle out of the ape.
This also applies to us, bipedal apes. Ever since our ancestors swung from tree to tree, life in small groups has been an obsession of ours. We can’t get enough of politicians thumping their chests on television, soap opera stars who swing from tryst to tryst, and reality shows about who’s in and who’s out. It would be easy to make fun of all this primate behavior if not for the fact that our fellow simians take the pursuit of power and sex just as seriously as we do.
We share more with them than power and sex, though. Fellow-feeling and empathy are equally important, but they’re rarely mentioned as part of our biological heritage. We would much rather blame nature for what we don’t like in ourselves than credit it for what we do like. As Katharine Hepburn famously put it in The African Queen, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”
This opinion is still very much with us. Of the millions of pages written over the centuries about human nature, none are as bleak of those of the last three decades • and none as wrong. We hear that we have selfish genes, that human goodness is a sham, and that we act morally only to impress others.
But if all that people care about is their own good, why does a day-old baby cry when it hears another baby cry? This is how empathy starts. Not very sophisticated perhaps, but we can be sure that a newborn doesn’t try to impress. We are born with impulses that draw us to others and that later in life make us care about them.
The old age of these impulses is evident from the behavior of our primate relatives. Truly remarkable is the bonobo, a little-known ape that is as close to us genetically as the chimpanzee.
When a bonobo named Kuni saw a starling hit the glass of her enclosure at the Twycross Zoo in Great Britain, she went to comfort it. Picking up the stunned bird, Kuni gently set it on its feet. When it failed to move, she threw it a little, but the bird just fluttered. With the starling in hand, Kuni then climbed to the top of the tallest tree, wrapping her legs around the trunk so that she had both hands free to hold the bird. She carefully unfolded its wings and spread them wide, holding one wing between the fingers of each hand, before sending the bird like a toy airplane out toward the barrier of her enclosure.
But the bird fell short of freedom and landed on the bank of the moat. Kuni climbed down and stood watch over the starling for a long time, protecting it against a curious juvenile. By the end of the day, the recovered bird had flow off safely.
The way Kuni handled this bird was unlike anything she would have done to aid another ape. Instead of following some hardwired pattern of behavior, she tailored her assistance to the specific situation of an animal totally different from herself. The birds passing by her enclosure must have given her an idea of what help was needed.
This kind of empathy is almost unheard of in animals since it rests on the ability to imagine the circumstance of another. Adam Smith, the pioneering economist, must have had actions like Kuni’s in mid (though not performed by an ape) when, more than two centuries ago, he offered us the most enduring definition of empathy as “changing places in fancy with the sufferer.”
The possibility that empathy is part of our primate heritage ought to make us happy, but we’re not in the business of embracing our nature. When people commit genocide, we call them “animals.” But when they give to the poor, we praise them for being “humane.” We like to claim the latter behavior for ourselves.
It wasn’t until an ape saved a member of our own species that there was a public awakening to the possibility of nonhuman humaneness. This happened on August 16, 1996, when an eight-year-old female gorilla named Binti Jua helped a three-year-old boy who had fallen eighteen feet into the primate exhibit at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo.
Reacting immediately, Binti scooped up the boy and carried him to safety. She sat down on a log in a stream, cradling the boy in her lap, giving him a few gentle back pats before taking him to the waiting zoo staff.
This simple act of empathy, captured on video and shown around the world, touched many hearts, and Binti was hailed as a heroine. It was the first time in U.S. history that an ape figured in the speeches of leading politicians, who held her up as a model of compassion.
From there, de Wall goes on to describe the patterns of behavior • the good, the bad, and the ugly • of our closest living relatives: chimpanzees and bonobos. He also makes frequent mention of other primates, such as gorillas, capuchins, and macaques, as well occasional mention of elephants, dolphins, and other animals.
His conclusion: the more complex the animal, the more we need each other to survive and to thrive. That is why we are here: to make life more wonderful. It’s what makes life worth living. It is the reason for getting up in the morning, eating well, exercising, and being the best we can be. Selfish hedonism does not generate life satisfaction. Benevolence • the intention and action to help others — generates good feelings that last.
In the coming weeks we’ll learn more about benevolence, not only from chimpanzees and bonobos, but also from human beings who have found their way in the world. It’s not easy to maintain a charitable spirit in a stressful world. But that is exactly why we need each other: to make life more wonderful for one and all.
Coaching Inquiries: What’s your reason for getting up in the morning? What are your highest values? How could Optimal Wellness assist you to be more effective and benevolent? How could you make more of a contribution? How could you connect the dots between the input, the output, and throughput of life?
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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
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