There once was a man whose son was given a diagnosis of a terminal illness. Not wanting to accept this terrible news as fact, the man decided to visit his teacher to gain insight. The man visited the kabbalist and prayed with him, hoping to create a miracle and somehow change his son’s fate. But afterward, with deep sadness, the kabbalist told the man that there was, in fact, nothing anyone could do. The man rode away, heartbroken.
As soon as the man left, the kabbalist realized that there actually was something that he could do. He quickly galloped after the man, overtaking him on the road. The man stopped, and the kabbalist explained, “I realized after you left that if I can’t help your son, the least I can do is cry with you.” And they sat down, side by side, on the road and cried together. This is the definition of true kindness, of loving for no reason other than to love. This kind of sharing isn’t easy because it requires deep empathy, compassion, and vulnerability, but it is transformative and, in my opinion, addicting. (It’s the reason why I call myself a Change Junkie.)
Imagine what the world would look like if we loved each other this way every day? What is it that keeps us from giving at this level and how can we elevate? Because, while this parable speaks beautifully to what is possible, it often is much more challenging in practice.
Brené Brown describes this kind of empathy as “feeling with people,” and that it’s as challenging as it is because “in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” The kabbalist in the above parable had to connect with that same deep pain within himself in order to love, empathize, and connect with his student. That parable ends with the son being healed, but the point is that the teacher chose to love even when it was difficult and even when he believed (at least in that moment) that it would do nothing to help the situation.
Human beings are wired for this kind of connection. Empathy and compassion come naturally to us but, thanks to evolutionary conditioning, so do their opposites. We all want to be kind, loving, and generous, and we understand that only good things come from acting on these emotions. We understand that sharing is the cornerstone of happiness. So what exactly keeps us from sharing, giving, and treating others with kindness in every moment? Science has some interesting things to say about it.
In a study by evolutionary biologists D.S. Wilson and Daniel O’Brien, a group of people was shown photos of various streetscapes from Birmingham, New York. Cracked pavement, unkempt lawns, and broken-down buildings were compared to other photo sets that featured manicured yards and clean sidewalks. They then played a game where they were told they would be trading money with someone from the neighborhoods they just viewed. Almost unanimously, study participants felt more trusting of the people that lived in the nice neighborhoods as opposed to the ragged ones. This might seem like an obvious response; tidiness suggests that people respect social norms, for example. But these photos didn’t feature any people.
While this example may seem understandable, our cues for kindness and generosity can be even more arbitrary. University of North Carolina researchers observed people in a shopping mall during the holidays. They found that people stepping off of an ascending escalator were more likely to donate to a charity volunteer than those stepping off a descending escalator. The simple feeling of “going up” as opposed to “going down” was enough to make people feel more giving. Even at this seemingly innocuous level, our surroundings are constantly influencing us – and our generosity.
What all of above cues have in common is that they are wholly related to the physical world. They are sociological observations that our brains have been trained to make depending on our cultural surroundings, how we were raised, and where we grew up.
Kindness, love, and sharing, however, come from a much deeper place. As the kabbalists teach, our physical world is a minute fraction of our experience. Our five senses and their connection to our logical thought are only the tips of the iceberg. We use them to interact with our environment, but they are not even close to being our whole experience. The Physical World accounts for 1% of our reality, where the Unseen World makes up the other 99%. This is where our kindness, empathy, and love exist.
You may be able to see where I’m going with this. How can we rewire our brains to give love and kindness no matter what? It all comes down to choice.
Every day is full of opportunities to choose compassion and kindness. If we want to end the suffering in the world around us, then we have to take personal responsibility for that suffering and make a new choice. There is a saying, “Treat everyone with kindness, even those who are rude to you — not because they are kind, but because you are.” There really are endless opportunities presented to us each day, and we can all push ourselves to be kinder, more open, and less selfish with the people in our lives, no matter what the streets in their neighborhood look like.
THOUGHT INTO ACTION
This week, notice what keeps you from giving kindness, compassion, or love. Is it a fear? A judgment? What is at the root of whatever it is that holds you back? Define it and in those moments, give even more.
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