You may think of life as dog-eat-dog, but that’s not the whole story. If it were, life would have ended long ago. Other qualities have been more critical to our survival, including empathy, mutual aid, reciprocity, and a community of concern. These benevolent dynamics are not our invention and are not unique to human beings. They are, rather, in strong evidence in many animal species. By extrapolating and building on these tendencies, human beings have developed the sensitivity that makes life worth living. Read on to catch some inspiration of your own.
I’ve had another wonderful day, although this one was of a very different sort. Last week I wrote from a spirit of exhilaration; this week from a spirit of appreciation. Both are wonderful. Last week I started the day by run-walking 17 miles, in preparation for the Baltimore Marathon, followed by a leisurely reading of Frans de Wall’s latest book, Our Inner Ape. This week I started the day in the hospital, to make sure that my bloody urine was benign rather than evidence of a raging urinary tract infection. After some rest and antibiotics, all is on the mend. I’ll be out running again by Monday.
So how could both days be wonderful? It’s all about benevolence. Last week, when everything was right with the world, I felt cared for by the universe itself. This week, when the universe threw me a curveball, I felt cared for by my wife and the staff at the hospital. It was her caring and concern that helped me to decide to go to the hospital earlier rather than later; it was the caring, concern, and competence of the hospital staff that helped me to get better. What could be better than that?
Benevolence is the way the world works. It is the undergirding principle of life itself. Contrary to popular opinion, evolution is not about survival of the strongest. It’s about survival of the kindest. Only through empathy, caring, reciprocity, and cooperation do species and their individual members manage to make it from one generation to the next.
In June my sister-in-law and I had the fun of watching a raccoon mother and cub return to their nest after a night of foraging. The nest was in the attic of an abandoned house. To get into the attic, the raccoons had to climb up the downspout and then make an acrobatic twist in order to climb onto the roof of the house. Mother raccoon had obviously done this many times before, with her growing cub in tow.
The day we watched the escapade may well have been the cub’s first chance to try the climb alone. With great persistence, the cub tried and tried, first one way and then another, to negotiate the acrobatic twist. Unfortunately for the cub, it was unsuccessful. As it tired and grew increasingly distressed, the cub started to cry and whimper for its mother. The mother was, at first, unmoved. The crying escalated in volume until the raccoon finally gave up and fell to the ground, some 10 feet or 3 meters below. That led to quite a commotion, as the cub hurt its leg with a yelp and then limped its way back to forest edge.
This finally and quickly brought the mother out of the attic and back down the house to care for her young cub. She ran across the yard, curled herself around the cub several times, and started licking the cub until the crying stopped and things settled down. She then grabbed her offspring, now almost as big as she was, by the scruff of the neck and quickly negotiated the climb back up to their attic lair. Apart from such caring and concern, the cub may not have survived this and other ordeals.
Such is the foundation of natural benevolence upon which we humans build. Benevolence is not the invention of our higher intelligence. It is not something we overlay on life as though it were a foreign language. It is rather the natural language that we are endowed with through millions and billions of years of evolution. It is the first language that all humans share in common, not only with each other but with all of life.
That is the assertion and analysis of Frans de Wall in his many books and essays. As a lifetime researcher into primate and animal behavior, he does not see human morality as breaking with but as building on the past. It is a small leap, given our complex brains, to go from caring for offspring, to caring for family groups, to caring for species, to caring for the planet itself. We are the great extrapolators who can take just about anything to ever-higher levels of abstraction and application.
Therein lies the connection between science and religion, a connection that I have studied and observed since my days as an undergraduate student, more than 30 years ago. I created my own major, “The History and Philosophy of Science,” as a cross-disciplinary program involving classes from the history, philosophy, psychology, and religion departments at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
From that time forward, I have understood science and religion as soul-mates rather than as adversaries, and I have been particularly intrigued by the things science has to teach us about the things of the spirit. If we want to be whole in life, in the sense of wellness, then we have to understand the whole of life as science is uniquely in a position to grasp.
That’s what attracts me about evolutionary theory when it comes to health and wellness. If we want to learn about nutrition, fitness, and kindness, then it behooves us to understand our past and present from an evolutionary point of view. Arguing about the perfect diet, workout, or approach to life without understanding our genetic and behavioral antecedents is groundless. We may have lots of opinions, but without data we have little upon which to base our decisions.
We’ve already covered the evolutionary wisdom that lies behind Nutrition (the input side of the equation) and Fitness (the output side of the equation). It should therefore be no surprise that we would turn to evolutionary wisdom when it comes to the throughput side of the equation as well. It is a basic of principle of evolution that organisms do best in the environments, with the relationships, and through the patterns of behavior to which they have been longest adapted. In the case of human beings, that elevates loving kindness to first position.
Like chimpanzees, bonobos, and many of our animal “cousins,” human beings are social organisms that depend upon supportive interactions with others for not only our survival but also for our happiness. No one is an island and no one can go it alone. Just as the raccoon cub depended upon its mother for comfort, encouragement, and assistance (who may need similar attention herself one day), so too do we depend upon each other for all that and more. De Wall describes how the situation evolved in these terms:
Early human societies must have been optimal breeding grounds for survival-of-the-kindest aimed at family and potential reciprocators. Once this sensibility had come into existence, its range expanded. At some point, sympathy for others became a goal in and of itself: the centerpiece of human morality and an essential aspect of religion.
It is good to realize, though, that in stressing kindness, our moral systems are enforcing what is already part of our heritage. They are not turning human behavior around, only underlining preexisting capacities (Primates & Philosophers, 2006).
So let that be a lesson to us. Notwithstanding all the competition and aggression in the world, as people strive to stake their claim and make their mark, there are even more evolutionary advantages to collaboration and altruism. Benevolence is not the purview of saints; it is the common treasure that has gotten us to where we are today and that will continue to move us forward into the future.
Coaching Inquiries: What would it take for you to approach others with more empathy and consideration? What would be the advantages? What would be the disadvantages? Who could you reach out to in the coming week with a helping hand? How could you do so with intentionality and joy?
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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.
Your last LifeTrek Provision spoke to me here in Bosnia. The title, “Why Are We Here?”, grabbed my attention. Actually I knew what you would say on it. 🙂 In the Quran, in chapter 90 verse 4, God says, “we create man so that he works hard.” I remember this verse often. Your Provision reminded me of poem that makes a similar point. I like it a lot, and I’m sure you will like it too. Here it goes:
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered.
“Forgive them anyway”.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
“Be kind anyway”.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you.
“Be honest and frank anyway”.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous.
“Be happy anyway”.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow.
“Do good anyway”.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough.
“Give the best you’ve got anyway”.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God.
“It was never between you and them anyway.”
Last week’s Provision opened my eyes. Thanks for the science lesson! I noticed that Michael Bungay Stanier offered you his book. I’ve really admired him for a long time; how cool to see he is connected to you! It’s a small, wonderful world.
I’m late in coming to your Provisions, but they are just in time for me! They are so meaningful and just my own thoughts sometimes. May I use these with my clients? (Ed. Note: Absolutely! You have almost 10 years worth of material archived on our website. Enjoy!)
Your last Provision was great. Thanks for the information!
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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