It has been conventional wisdom among scientists and philosophers that kindness, compassion and empathy are learned behaviors, taught by elders, society and religious leaders. Now more research is coming to light that shows how empathy is actually embedded as a basic instinct -- an instinct we share with other mammals, not a “humane” exclusive. According to Frans de Waal, in his book The Bonobo and the Atheist,
“We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity in primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch through rational reflection, we received a huge push in the rear from our background as social animals.” (p. 17)
We can trace the connection between kinship and kindness linguistically. Follow the etymology of “kind” back to the Old English gecynde meaning “natural” and “genial.” In other words, it is natural to be nice. Gecynde itself is a cognate of cyn, “family.” Our modern word “kin” stems from this, and is related to Old Norse kyn, Latin gens, Greek genos, Sanskrit jánas … you get the idea.
Our innate sense of kindness is not always indiscriminate, however. As de Waal states,
“All of nature is build around the distinction between in-group and out-group, kin and non-kin, friend and foe. Even plants recognize genetic kinship, growing a more competitive root system if potted together with a stranger rather than a sibling. There is absolutely no precedent in nature of individuals that indiscriminatingly strive for overall well-being.” (p. 183)
Just because there is no historic precedent for unbiased altruism, it doesn’t mean it is impossible. Consider Neuro-Linguisting Programming (NLP): “the use of word-meanings, which describes how the language of our mind produces the qualities of our behavior.” Although Wikipedia, having defined the concept, offers lukewarm support at best, I believe it makes sense. As we learn through our five senses and an increasing command of language, we develop identifiable patterns of behavior. We can also use the senses — and language — to modify these patterns of behavior.
We already have a limbic-brain predisposition toward kindness and compassion -- at least toward those we recognize as “kin.” Our challenge, indeed our hope of survival, lies in expanding that recognition to the whole global community.
Again, de Waal’s research with primates shines hope on extending kindness to all our “kin” on the planet:
“But even if there can be little doubt that morality evolved for within-group reasons, without much consideration for humanity at large, this is not necessarily how it needs to be. … The more we expand morality’s reach, the more we need to rely on our intellect, because even though I believe that morality is firmly rooted in the emotions, biology has barely prepared us for rights and obligations on the scale of the modern world. We evolved as group animals, not global citizens. Nevertheless, we are well underway to reflect on these issues, such as universal human rights … [W]e humans have a long history of building new structures on top of old foundations.” (p. 235)
There are examples everywhere you look of improbable acts of kindness between very different species, as between age-old human foes. The opportunities for altruism are as boundless as our imaginations.
What can you do today to contribute to universal kindness through global kinship? I welcome your comments.
When does an event become more -- a portent, perhaps?
Last weekend I was walking in the woods with a friend and our four dogs, and we thought finding a few ripe blackberries would be the high point of our time out in nature. Suddenly we heard a squeal or screech, followed by high-pitched yiping from my dog Millie (the most laid-back of all the dogs), so I called her to come out of the underbrush. All at once the bushes parted and a DEER ran out, not 6 feet from us, crossed the path and took off through the woods -- followed by the other three dogs. Millie finally made it back from where she had been entangled, and I checked her all over for bites and scratches before putting her on the leash. Eventually the other three dogs came trotting back and we leashed them all, and headed on toward the trail end.
Before we got to the top of the hill, the deer came bounding back from the way it had gone, crossed the trail behind us, and stopped behind a group of trees not more than 12 feet away. While it was moving, the dogs were barking and straining on the leash, but as soon as it stopped, they stopped fussing, and my two just stood there watching it. It looked back at us, not moving for what felt like several minutes. I could see it was a doe, and probably not very old. She was tall and skinny and had a brushy white tail. There was a lighter patch of fur across her forehead, not white but lighter brown than the rest of her fur. She had widespread, deep brown eyes and seemed intensely curious about all of us. While we were watching her, a runner came up along the trail. We were blocking the trail -- mesmerized as we were -- and whispered to the guy as we pointed out the deer. He seemed unimpressed and took off jogging again. Even his movement didn't spook the deer, so I struggled to get out my cell phone and take a picture one-handed. Eventually something caused her to move just before I could snap the picture, and she ran off into the woods, all the dogs barking and straining against their leashes as she went.
That by itself would be amazing enough. But it wasn't all. We saw the deer on the other side of the trail as we started down the hill. Again, she stood still and watched us. I whispered to her how beautiful she was; I didn't need to tell her we wouldn't hurt her (as long as we kept the dogs leashed), because it seemed as if she knew that. She was about 20 feet away this time but still watching us intently. Seriously, I would not have been surprised if she had spoken to us -- she was that keen in her gaze. Then she ran off again.
We saw her one more time! We were crossing the bridge over a bog, and we could even hear cars and people in the parking lot ahead. But she came into the clearing in the bog, with her tail tucked between her haunches, and stood watching us yet again. Fortunately the dogs all sat down on the bridge and just looked through the railings at her. She was about 20 feet away again, and stood there long enough for me to get the cell camera out again. Except without my glasses, I had no idea if I even got the deer in the picture. (And I have not yet found a way to download the photo from the cell phone.) Finally some noise from the people up ahead got her moving, and she ran across the bridge in front of us -- dogs straining at the leash, almost pulling my friend off her feet -- and disappeared into the woods on our right.
How many times does something have to happen before it becomes more than just coincidence? In ancient times, when people were more attuned to the rhythms of nature, they would recognize the message of Deer. We are left to wonder: why did it show up four times? Is there a significance in its moving from right to left and back again? What did it see that drew it to us over and over? Did it indeed have a message?
Modern culture's most accessible interpreter of natural phenomena is the late author and teacher Ted Andrews. Here's what he wrote about Deer in Animal Speak: "When a deer shows up in your life, it is time to be gentle with yourself and others. . . . Are you trying to force things? Are others? Are you being too critical and uncaring of yourself? When deer shows up there is an opportunity to express gentle love that will open new doors to adventure for you."
And one other suggestion from Medicine Cards, by Jamie Sams and David Carson: "You may not be willing to love yourself enough to feel your fears and let them go."
For now, here I am in the woods, coming face to face with my worst fears (including poverty and homelessness) yet cheered that such stately and gentle messengers as Deer exist to help show the way.
Christin Whittington is a practitioner of energy medicine – helping people restore balance in their bodies, their health and their lives using a combination of Reiki, Reflexology, Jin Shin Jyutsu, Qi Gong and herbal medicine.