After finishing my evening chores I entered our bedroom and found Cindy with raised head from the neck up. This is an “in between” state for her. She’s not asleep, but neither is she attentive to what is going on around her. For example, her head did not turn or acknowledge my presence upon entering our bedroom. Instead she has a vague look of anguish.
I sit down on the bed, gently lean her head back and start to stroke her hair. For most couples, in a much different type of relationship than ours, this gesture would be a type of foreplay. Instead, I am driven to relieve her anguished look, relaxing her as she closes her eyes.
I write repeatedly how I am motivated by the joy of life evident in Cindy and in our relationship. The opposite also is true. I am motivated to relieve her anguish whenever detected. In both cases the ultimate cause for what I do is empathy. When one feels the joys or sorrows of another, the motivations are to maximize one and minimize the other. As I stroke her hair I reflect on when I first embraced the reality of empathy. This reflection amounts to a Christmas tale.
The setting was the Tacoma Mall in Washington, my first year out of high school. I knew I was not mature enough to attend college yet and went out west to spend a year living with my oldest brother in Olympia. I was at the mall to do the Christmas shopping for my brother’s family. That is when and where the most simple yet profound event of my life occurred.
In high school I was involved much more in extracurricular activities than the classroom. I played sports, performed in theater and bands, joined several clubs, wrote for the school newspaper and became senior class president. You might say I was a teenage socialite. I was not cliquish, indeed, just the opposite. I was involved with so many different types of people that I became an “anticliquester.” (I propose that as a new word!)
Yet I also was a deep, logical thinker by nature, which helps explain why I could succeed in high school despite a severe lack of interest in any subject except socializing. The drawback to my logical thinking came during junior year English when I was introduced to the vocabulary word “misanthrope,” defined for me at the time as a person that believes all human behavior is self-motivated. As is too often the case with gullible young people I accepted this philosophy uncritically, my mind logically working out the angles by which even good deeds are done for personal gain.
That ultimately civilized cynicism was about to receive a fatal blow in the Tacoma Mall. I stood in the Baskin & Robbins line at the food court, with an older, somewhat unkempt woman in front of me. Back then an ice cream cone was fifteen cents; the sales tax in the state of Washington on fifteen cents was one penny. When the woman in front of me had to pay for her cone she had not taken into consideration the extra penny.
She started rummaging through her pocketbook in search for another penny. Given her appearance I was uncertain whether she would find one. I instinctively grabbed a penny out of my pocket and slapped it down on the counter.
As soon as I did that a magical transformation came over me, like the frog who became a prince, as I realized I had slapped the penny down without thinking. I hardly do anything without thinking; in fact, I hardly do anything without overthinking; but the sum was too insignificant to be premeditated generosity. The woman seemed to be in distress and something instinctive, not calculated, compelled me to do something about it.
That “something” was empathy. After I ate my ice cream cone I frolicked through the mall. I went up the down escalator and down the up escalator. My heart felt so buoyant I could have floated. Sounds silly, right? Consider the burden cynicism imposes on a person’s life and health. Consider as well that alleviating the burden of cynicism starts with no longer being cynical about yourself.
Little did I know back then that such a simple thing as a penny spent would blossom into a life’s mission many years later. Fortunately, as a young adult I only had to overcome a vocabulary word to embrace empathy. Many Americans would have to overcome decades of civilized and authoritative influences before shedding a misanthropic view of humanity. Unfortunately, human nature tends to become what we perceive ourselves to be, in defiance of our natural empathy. The longer we believe we naturally are bad or greedy the more we turn that falsehood into truth.
There are not many voices contrary to these civilized influences, but I try to be one of them, equipped now with the latest research regarding altruism. I now know the physiologicale basis for my euphoria over a penny spent long ago. Oddly enough, if I paid for that woman’s cone based on premeditated generosity I would not have felt so euphoric afterwards. Altruism has to be entirely selfless, no expectation of gain, no general reciprocity, not even an expectation for feeling good about it, in order to provide the emotional, brain and longevity health benefits that have been documented for selfless deeds. Altruism simply needs to be the natural response to empathy, with a release of certain hormones our “only” reward.
This means that if I were to be Cindy’s caregiver to prevent a guilty conscience, chances are I would not be as healthy as I am right now (though the largest credit for my health has to go to vigorous exercise). I know, as her eyes close while I softly stroke her hair, that easing my conscience is not what motivates me. I watch over Cindy, eager to both ward off anguish and share in any remaining joy, because empathy compels me to do so, much like I was compelled to slap down an insignificant penny on a counter long ago.
May we all, this Christmas season and beyond, shed our civilized cynicism and embrace our empathetic and altruistic natures.