I like science – as anyone earning a degree in my future field probably should. It affords us the opportunity to achieve an understanding of our universe that is unparalleled in comparison to other organisms. The advancements bestowed upon us as a species due to our scientific capabilities seems unquantifiable. Though, I’m not talking specifically about fancy homes, appliances, smartphones, jets, cars, TVs, etc. It obviously has given us all of our modern conveniences and material possessions that most of us so desperately hold onto. Some of them are great. I love sitting down to NFL Live at dinner time and allowing myself to look at a different fluorescent screen (read: not my fucking laptop lecture slides) for an hour, or being able to take my car 3 miles to my favorite restaurant in St. Paul to satisfy a chocolate-peanut butter-soy-ice cream craving at just about any given time of the day.
Yes, I love modern convenience as much as the next person. But one of the beautiful things about science is our ability to enhance our understanding of ourselves. We now have so many tools to shed light on not only what our innate behaviors are, but why. Through a multitude of disciplines, we can understand what the best known ways to eat, learn, sleep, communicate, love (love love love – I love the word love), etc, are. And we can say them with confidence. And we don’t need to use anecdotes to provide a foundation for our reasons and arguments. The facts are a keystroke away. We have so much data, for just about any given subject, that our individual understanding of our universe is essentially limited only by time and our personal motivation for truth. In an effort to rein in my self-diagnosed ADD, let me touch on one of those subjects in particular.
I read an article recently in Runner’s World that touched on the benefits of positivity. For the sake of me wanting to finish this post before I fall asleep in my bed, let’s consider that as an extension of kindness. The opening line of the article asks the reader if they can recall a time when someone gave them motivation during a run or race. I remembered instantly a long training run in December. It was the longest run I’d ever completed at the time in preparation for the Frozen 50. I was in the last 5 miles of that 35 mile run when I ran by a man who, tacitly, smiled huge and lifted his arm and hand for an unforgettable high five you could have heard from across the river. It had come not a moment too soon. I was dogging it– my pace slowing, breathing and heart rate increasing. I’m sure I looked almost beleaguered and, frankly, down for the count. But after that? I managed some smooth, easy, and relaxed 5 miles back to my apartment. I had all the external motivation I needed from my lonely fan. One stranger. A moment’s kindness and my mental and physical performance changed dramatically. It would turn out to not be the last time complete strangers’ kindness would prove invaluable to me during an ultramarathon (you definitely should read more about it here and here), and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
The above example is what I consider completely selfless kindness. I’m going to say with some confidence that old man was not expecting money or material reward for extending a helping hand (literally). So what mediates such kindness? Is he just some one-off, 3 standard deviations above the normal gentle man who is vastly different from the likes of us conniving, thieving, cold, callous, cutthroat neanderthals? Or is there some scientific basis for the adaptivity of kindness. A sort of intrinsic virtue – one that represents the norm rather than the exception?
As it turns out, I’m not the only one who pondered the question – and the science seems pretty clear in its answer! I read an article from the Scientific American that included the transcript of an interview with a man who has worked extensively on this very subject. His book is already on its way to me (thank you Jeff Bezos). Basically, he uses his own research and personal stories to tell the narrative of how our evolution has designed us to be compassionate, altruistic beings. He credits none other than Charles Darwin (yeah, the survival of the fittest dude) for being a pioneer in describing our human nature to be intrinsically compassionate. This was well before PCR techniques, human genome project, NCBI, all of the tools we use today to quantify our observations. Which means its all the more striking that, in light of today’s science, such observations by Darwin on the evolutionary advantageous act of kindness have been corroborated by studies on kindness and telomere shortening, directed prosocial behavior, compassion training and positive affect, and lots of others. Rather than inundate you all with a literature review you could easily accomplish on your own, let me end this rambling with some of my own parting thoughts.
It seems as a human species, we are apt to forget the things that tie us intricately to the universe at large. I’m no less guilty of it than any of you. Even with kindness. As anyone who has ridden as a passenger in my car, I have some of the most intense bouts of road-rage you could envision short of physical violence. Let’s just say I’m easily excitable…but I promise it’s more often than not in a good way! Even still, the simple things – getting enough sleep, being kind to others, eating right, exercising, being compassionate, saving money, all the things we know we should do can elude us daily. I’d argue the trait we’d do our best to hold onto, if all others were to fail, is kindness. Not only for others, but for ourselves. Kindness (and love, which is even better, but love isn’t in the title of this post so we’re going with kindness) is the foundation of any positive action. Kindness is the underpinning of acceptance, and acceptance grants us the ability to let go of doubt, of fear, of hostility. All of the barriers to unfettered selflessness are dismantled the more we can practice this wonderful virtue. And the best part? It’s not a zero-sum game. The more we give the more we receive, and the more we give the better we’ll feel, regardless of the opportunity for the kindness to be reciprocated. So be kind – you won’t regret it! And if you see me heading down your way on the sidewalk, throw your hand up for a high-five. You’ll have no idea how good it will make you feel.