I had a cool thing happen to me recently. Well, the cool thing really happened to my 93-year old dad and I just came along for the ride.
For someone of his age, he’s in great shape. Surprisingly to many, he still drives although he doesn’t go too many places — the local library to check out and return books, a few stores to get the things he needs…..and an almost daily ritual to a local Subway restaurant to order the same turkey sandwich. In fact, he’s been doing the Subway run for so many years that the folks there know him and begin preparing his sandwich the moment they see him arrive — a fact that he takes great delight in.
A while back, he started mentioning that he was having his sandwiches paid for by an anonymous donor. At first it was off and on and then lately it has become more regular—in fact, now it happens pretty much every day. He has had no clue who was paying. The only thing that the staff at Subway would tell him was that this unknown person wanted to honor him for his service in World War II. If you interact with my dad very much, you might start hearing stories about the great war.
Just recently I visited my dad for a week and on the first day we, of course, went to Subway for lunch. After his meal had been covered and as I paid for my sandwich, I quietly asked the staff if they were covering his lunch. They said they weren’t and stressed that it really was anonymous donors who did not want to be known.
A couple of days later, the mystery was inadvertently solved. As I accompanied my dad again to Subway, we noticed a TV camera and reporter in the restaurant. As soon as we entered the door, the reporter asked if he was Mr. Gilbert — she wanted to do an interview with him. She went on to share that someone had started a Facebook page to raise money to pay for his lunch, the TV station found out about it and they wanted to do a story on the giving. She filmed dad buying his lunch and interviewed him at his regular table. The story ran that evening on the news and was posted online.
The Facebook page describes quite sweetly how the donor was called to start this process of giving. The TV segment has gone on to touch many people with the story being picked up by many other websites and as a friend of mine said “going viral”. (By the way, in the news report that is me standing with my dad ordering food and sitting with him at the table eating.)
Yes, this story is personal for me because this is “my dad”, a man I respect and love. I am happy that such a wonderful thing is happening to him. But more than that, this story is such a great reminder of our natural tendencies as people to want to reach out and show our care and concern for others. Both the original creation of the Facebook page and the reaction to the news story is evidence of that fact.
The world and our news is full of stories of conflict and our mistreatment of one another. Deep down in our souls, something inside us knows that this negativity is not our truth. Somewhere we know that we are here to care for each other.
Hardwired for Care and Concern?
Although I am a big proponent of evolution, one of the problems with applying it strictly from a materialistic viewpoint — that is believing that we are driven totally by “selfish genes” towards a “survival of the fittest” for further reproduction — is that it is difficult to find justification in such a model for altruistic behavior. Yes, one can certainly find materialistic explanations for altruism.
But as Lynne McTaggart points out in her book The Bond: How to Fix your Falling-Down World:
“The problem with the selfish-gene theory, and indeed all theories attempting to rationalize altruism from the point of view of survival is the vast number of exceptions to the rule. Research of every variety offers instances in which animals behave in what could be called ‘random acts of kindness’: extraordinary self-sacrifice, compassion, courage, and generosity toward other members of their own species, member of other species, and even toward humans, often to their own detriment.”
In chapter 7 of her book entitled “Born to Give” she cites numerous studies which point towards exceptions to the selfish gene theory and lead us towards her conclusion that:
“A basic drive for cooperation and partnership, even sacrifice, rather than selfishness and naked survival, appears to be intrinsic to the biological makeup of all living things.”
The story of this basic drive within humans is outlined by historian Jeremy Rifkin in his bestselling book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. It is a sweeping history of humanity from a new lens, one that is based on the “radical new view of human nature…emerging in the biological and cognitive sciences…forcing us to rethink the long-held belief that human beings are by nature, aggressive, materialistic, utilitarian, and self-interested. The dawning realization that we are a fundamentally empathic species has profound and far-reaching consequences for society.”
Rifkin’s massive book of over 500 pages then goes on to detail our human history through a filter of how we grew and evolved in our human care and concern for one another. Eventually he notes that “the unfolding global crisis that is beginning to envelop civilization forces us to ask whether we have reached a turning point in the history of the human race”. This is the same conclusion that I came to in my 2012 book Be Yourself: Evolving the World Through Personal Empowerment when I pointed out that the external crisis we experience is evidence, in my opinion, of our being at a “choice point” for our evolutionary future.
As Rifkin points out: “The empathic predisposition that is built into our biology is not a fail-safe mechanism that allows us to perfect our humanity. Rather, it is an opportunity to increasingly bond the human race into a single extended family, but it needs to be continually exercised. Lamentably, the empathic drive is often shunted aside in the heat of the moment when social forces teeter on disintegration.”
We certainly have great evidence of such disintegration as we look out at the world. The seemingly endless news of war, violence, political polarization and human mistreatment of the planet and one another can fill our consciousness and push aside any desire to expand our circle of care for others. That’s why stories such as the one of my dad’s are critical. They offer us instead evidence of altruism and remind us of the “better angels of our nature”. They point us in a different direction, towards a higher path. They remind us of our greater truth.
The question then becomes, what are we going do and be as we are reminded of this truth?
Expanding Our Circle of Care
It is my belief that when we are touched by such stories of generosity and giving, they call us to reply in kind — to find ways to give and share with others in our own lives. And not just with those with whom we feel a personal bond but to expand our circle outwardly with empathy and care towards more and more “others”.
Imagine yourself in a circle or bubble with yourself in the middle and the boundary of your bubble extending outwardly to encompass those for whom you care. How big is your circle? Who do you care about?
Hopefully you care about yourself. If you don’t have a degree of self-care or self-love (as I have written on previously), then you may have a hard time caring for others. You cannot give what you don’t have. And, hopefully you care about others beyond yourself (otherwise one might be considered egotistical or narcissistic).
But then how far does your circle extend? It’s relatively easy to care about our family, personal friends and people who are “like us”. People who are from the same race, country, economic standing or who believe as we do (spiritually, politically, etc) are certainly more “comfortable” to be around. Hence, we can with minimal effort extend our circle of care to include them.
But what about those who are different? What about those whom we might demonize or label as our enemies? Can we extend our circle of care to encompass them as well? This is where it becomes more challenging. But it is also that higher ground where we are called to travel.
Jesus was calling us into this territory when he stated in Matthew, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Elsewhere in Luke he adds, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Jesus, what a radical.
But what’s the other path? Shrink our circle to only care about ourselves and those who are like us? Continued hatred toward others? More verbal and physical violence? Contributing to further disintegration of our human social bonds?
Which one are you going to choose?
Every day, in every interaction with every other person, we each have a choice. In such moments, we can continue to feed the disintegration of our global human bonds by focusing on “winning” or “being right” or whatever our excuse is for continued divisiveness and conflict. Or, we can choose to expand our circle of care and concern, let go of the need to “win” or “be right” and take personal responsibility for strengthening our bonds with others.
Maybe in our own world, in our own way, we can find a way to “buy someone else’s lunch” and help create a better world.
Check out all of Mark Gilbert’s books here. His book Our Spiritual Evolution: Transcending the Third Dimension is an accessible guide to looking at life through a spiritual evolutionary lens.