Human beings are in some ways like bees. We evolved to live in intensely social groups, and we don’t do as well when freed from hives.
Nicholas Kristof included this quote from Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis in his recent column in the New York Times. Entitled “Our Basic Human Pleasures: Food, Sex and Giving,” Kristof makes a case for why it makes sense to walk the talk:
Brain scans by neuroscientists confirm that altruism carries its own rewards. A team including Dr. Jorge Moll of the National Institutes of Health found that when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex.
The implication is that we are hard-wired to be altruistic. To put it another way, it’s difficult for humans to be truly selfless, for generosity feels so good.
Kristof is my consciousness muezzin whose steady focus on what really matters is my kind of call to prayer. He repeatedly reminds us of what it means to be human and how to stay connected to that humanness. In addition to wrirting an op-ed column, he and his wife Sheryl WuDunn cowrote Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Tireless. Passionate. Empathic.
The proclivity in all of us to serve others has been writ large over the last few weeks as the outpouring of giving and concern for Haiti’s beleaguered population has flooded our lives. I am humbled and grateful by this response, especially at a time when so many of the features of life in 2010 make it easy to slip into a place of cynical detachment.
Hive mind, social capital, collective consciousness, the wisdom of crowds—I embrace the power of the collective and our need to feel part of that pulsing plasmatic energy that is life on this planet. Whether standing shoulder to shoulder in a stadium full of fans or just cascading through the never-ending blinking of updates on Facebook, there is a hum of connection when we are communing with each other. But as an artist whose work only happens in solitude, I feel an essential tension between these two polarizing nodes. How do you successfully craft a both/and life, one that is in flow when in the gaggle as well as when you step away?
I’m not expecting to find an answer since I don’t believe a perfect algorithm exists. Too much of one cries out for more of the other, then the teeter totter shifts. And the ballast will be different for you than it is for me.
So here’s a hats off to all of you who have given of your time and your money for relief to Haiti. Hats off to the fact that we can still be mobilized, that we can still marshal a collective consciousness of caring. Thanks be.
With that let me sign off for 10 days. I am headed for California, both north and south (which, as a Californian, I know is a distinction that matters) to visit my daughter who just recently moved from Florence Italy to Glendale California. I’ve queued up a few of my favorite poems to show up here while I’m gone. So stay tuned, there are some knock your socks off poets coming your way!
I’ll be back online for real February 7.
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