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4. Street Retreat: The Debt of Love

Barasch, Marc Ian Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

We’re all in the gutter,
only some of us are looking at the stars.

—Oscar Wilde

LAST SUMMER I SAW AN IMMENSELY FAT WOMAN—350 POUNDS at least—struggling to step onto a Manhattan bus. Wheezing with effort, perspiring through her floral print dress, she couldn’t hoist her foot onto the platform. Her knee, encased in layers of flesh, wouldn’t bend. The driver, with an exasperated sigh, bolted from his seat to try to shoehorn her through the door.

The passengers gaped and craned, their expressions ranging from embarrassment to scorn to a sort of horrified fascination. As schedules unraveled and tempers frayed, the irritation grew more audible. The thought flashed through my mind as it did through nearly everyone’s: How could anyone allow herself to get so obese? Then I saw the expression on the woman’s face: mortification. And my heart broke—for all her hard days and for all my hard thoughts.

Why was my first response not compassion but a series of assessments that went off like a string of mental firecrackers before I even knew I’d lit the match? My judgment was so fused with my perception as to be inseparable: She became what I beheld. I was painfully aware of my mind—the mind itself—as a difference engine, cranking out the petty distinctions that keep people apart. And I wished I could dismantle the whole stupid contraption once and for all.

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8. The Altruist

Barasch, Marc Ian Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

If there is any kindness I can show,
or any good thing I can do to any fellow being,
let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it,
as I shall not pass this way again.

—William Penn

IF THERE’S A FACET OF HUMAN NATURE THAT, WHEN YOU HOLD it up to the light, shines bright enough to blind you, it’s altruism. A selfless deed, witnessed up close, is like a lamp blazing up from darkness before your pupils can adjust. We’re a little bedazzled by people who don’t seem to be out for themselves, who do good unto others without stopping to consider if others will do good unto them. We each know ourselves to be capable of selflessness. We’ll lay aside our needs—even our lives—for our nearest and dearest. But beyond the charmed circle, we tend to parcel love out, weighing who deserves what (while placing a subtle thumb on the scale of What’s in it for me?). Altruists seem to have inscribed in their very bones the great writ of all faiths: Love the stranger. They don’t give themselves just to family and very best friends but to pretty much anyone who asks, sometimes till it hurts.

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11. A Little Peace of the Heart

Barasch, Marc Ian Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth;
he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in
sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.

—Psalm 46: 8–10

WHEN I WAS IN THE THIRD GRADE, MY YOUNGER SISTER broke my favorite toy. I yelled at her, she screamed back, and then, to my surprise, she launched herself at me in a fury, scratching me hard on the arm. My reaction was blind, unthinking; I raked my own nails down her forearm, making furrows that, to my shock, began to ooze blood. I was punished, but nothing cut so deeply as the guilt I’d felt at her pain.

I’ve wondered from time to time what happened in this primitive, instinctual tit for tat, a variant of any playground fight. Some kid pinches you, and you pinch them back: There, now you know how it feels! The word revenge doesn’t quite cover it; in an odd way, it’s more like enforced empathy, a need to make others feel, firsthand and in rough proportion, the suffering they caused us.

It’s not such a leap from the dynamics of schoolyard rivalry to the logic of clan warfare: Here’s what it felt like when you dishonored my family, terrified my child, killed my brother. Carried to its extreme, it is the twisted reasoning of warfare itself: This is what it is like to have your church destroyed, your crops burned, your city ruined. See how you like it.

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9. The Elixir of Forgiveness

Barasch, Marc Ian Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

—William Blake

MY EX-PARTNER HAD BEEN MY ENEMY FOR EIGHTEEN YEARS, give or take a few yellowing calendar pages. He was, so far as I could tell, my worst (and maybe only) enemy, an arch villain in a business saga of trust betrayed, idealism tarnished, and labors lost (mine). I’ll spare you the details, but they would rate a turgid Victorian subtitle, say, “Wherein I Am Utterly Ruined.” The man’s perfidy had swept me and my family into a whirlwind of trouble, sickened me body and soul, and plunged me into a dungeon of debt. Worse, it had broken my heart.

We’d set out to create a company whose mission statement was peace, love, and understanding. The business plan was progressive to the nth degree: flattened hierarchies and stakeholder employees, with yoga breaks and maternity leaves for all. I’d given it my all and everything, shouldering the day-to-day and the night-to-night of what grew into a dysfunctional, teetering multimillion-dollar business. Dazzled by the venture’s endlessly spun potential, bamboozled by the partner’s charming-boy fecklessness, I’d stayed on until he’d taken the best and left the rest.

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2. Roots, Branches, and the Clear Blue Sky

Barasch, Marc Ian Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Therefore I say, grant reason to any animal with social and
sexual instincts, and yet with passion, he must have conscience.

—Charles Darwin

SOMETIMES WHEN THE WORLD SEEMS A LOVELORN PLACE, I contemplate a snapshot over my desk of two bonobo apes hugging and kissing with lush abandon, and I perk right up. I’m inspired by these fellow primates whose social life is, in the words of one zoologist, “ruled by compassion.” They are, I like to think, a reminder not only of where we come from but of what sort of creature we are at heart.

It isn’t the usual picture of our evolutionary heritage. The official family portrait that science hangs over the mantelpiece depicts us as brainy, aggression-prone apes driven by selfish instincts and constrained (at best) by a thin thread of culture. It’s only lately that some scientists are stressing the more benign traits we share with higher primates: conciliation, nurturance, our flair for alliance— and especially empathy. More than superior smarts and a talent for predation, it may be our ability to sense what others are feeling that has put us on evolution’s fast track—and will be the saving grace that keeps our stock rolling.

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