Kindness vs Courage for Survival
When I was in the third grade at school, my teacher finished the year with a brief poem. It went:
“Life is mainly froth & bubble, Two things stand like stone: Kindness in another’s trouble, Courage in your own”.
My 8-year old self pondered over the meaning of “froth & bubble” and the significance of the words went right over my head. However, I liked the rhythm and the brevity of the poem, and so it stayed with me.
Decades later I reflect on these two important human qualities: kindness and courage and what they have in common. One requires us to act with compassion when another person is struggling or out of their comfort zone; the other requires us to face head on times that we, ourselves, are struggling or out of our comfort zone.
From an evolutionary perspective, the development of courage is a clear advantage to survival. But kindness? How does the quality of kindness help us survive? After all, if food is scarce and you kindly share it, there will be less left for you and your offspring. Helping a stranger may appear not to provide any evolutionary advantage, so why is our brain hard-wired to be social and connect to others in this way? There may be several reasons.
Firstly, you would hope that if you’ve shown kindness to others when they need it, they would return the favour. But I’m sure you know that this is not always so, at least not on an individual level. However, living in a tribe, a community, and supporting each other in that context has certainly provided evolutionary advantages relating to safety from neighbouring tribes or wild animals. It provided security in the sharing of food, shelter and hunting skills. It meant that the care of children could be shared and also expanded the genetic pool from which to find a partner, which increased the likelihood of having strong, healthy offspring. If you couldn’t show kindness in your tribe, you may be ostracised, which would reduce your chances of surviving and passing on your genes.
It’s also interesting to note that regular mindfulness practice can increase our capacity for kindness. It does this by increasing blood flow to several parts of the brain responsible for connectedness, empathy, compassion and positive emotions. Ancient civilisations would have had many traditional mindfulness practices by other names. For example, consider the act of grinding flour from grain, walking soundlessly in the jungle staking an animal, ceremonial dancing or even braiding a child’s hair. These are all actions that require awareness and focused attention, qualities that describe mindfulness practices.
Acts of kindness can both altruistic and selfish. I was crossing a busy city street the other day and noticed an elderly woman with a white cane (showing she was sight impaired), waiting for the pedestrian lights to change. When it did, I considered asking if she needed help but was afraid of offending her independence. However, she walked very slowly and before she could get halfway across the road, the lights started flashing and the timer showed only 15 seconds left before they changed to red. I went back to the woman and asked if she’d like help to finish crossing before the traffic lights went green. She gratefully accepted and expressed her thanks several times. “You’re so kind”, she said. Why was this act of kindness selfish? Because it made me feel great! I actually felt ashamed at how good it made me feel to help this woman, until I realised that if acts of kindness didn’t feel good, we might be more reluctant to do them. Acts of kindness feel great for both the doer and the recipient, they’re a win-win.
However, in the madness that has erupted over the Coronavirus outbreak, I’m reminded that acts of kindness can take courage. In recent weeks we’ve seen a complete lack of kindness or support of others in our community via individual stockpiling of supermarket products. Verbal and physical altercations as shoppers grab the last packets from the shelves shows a selfish side of humanity that does not support our successful evolution. It takes courage to share. It takes courage to trust that if we each only take what we need, there will be enough for us all. It takes courage to face our fear of this poorly understood illness and accept that we’re all in this together and we have a better chance of survival if we help each other. We live in a country of privilege and plenty, a country that has one of the best health systems in the world. We can afford to be both kind and courageous as we walk this unknown road together.
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