Human nature

Sand swept inland by Hurricane Sandy.

This week’s posting is a bit tardy – in the continuing aftermath of Hurricane Sandy I’ve been helping on the night shift at one of the city’s shelters and, more recently, been helping to check on the occupants of high-rises and housing project buildings in some of the areas affected by the storm. It’s been a busy few weeks and it’s been somewhat thought-provoking as well – I hope you’ll excuse another posting that strays somewhat from my normal line of musing.

The shelter I was working at was hosting several hundred people who’d been evacuated from nursing homes, hospitals, and psychiatric facilities; and it was staffed by a mixture of city workers, volunteers, and a Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) comprised of medical professionals from Ohio and North Carolina. There were also some AmeriCorps members with us – the AmeriCorps and volunteers helped with much of the work of running the shelter (cleaning, passing out food, accompanying patients who were transferred to other hospitals or nursing homes, helping clean and change incontinent patients, and so forth) – many of the volunteers came from Montana, Washington State, and elsewhere on the far side of the continent. And the shelters aren’t the only place where people have come from a great distance to help us out – a few hours before sitting down to write this I was in Union Square where I talked with an electrician from Ohio and saw utility trucks from Alabama and Kentucky – people who traveled hundreds of miles to help New York City get its electrical grid back up and running. Sure – they’re getting paid for their work. But they weren’t forced to come here – thousands of people agreed to travel hundreds of miles to help us out, leaving their families behind for however long it takes.

At the shelter, I spent some time talking with the DMAT and was struck by their obvious dedication as well as by a comment by one of the DMAT members – that the number and dedication of the volunteers they’d encountered in New York City. The team member with whom I was talking said that he was amazed that, in the big city, there were actually too many volunteers and that they were willing to tackle anything asked of them – even changing adult diapers and collecting the trash. And for my part, I never saw a volunteer try to shirk or avoid anything. Searching the buildings brought me in contact with still more helpers – National Guard from Boston along with more NYC volunteers. And, again, whether carrying food and water to the tops of buildings that had no elevators, gathering information, or anything else that was asked of them. And you hear similar stories over and over – again, even in the big (and heartless) city it seems that at least some people are willing to put themselves out to help others.

At this point there are a number of directions I could try to take this posting. The most obvious would be to marvel at the altruism that lies at the core of even the jaded inhabitants of Gotham. And it is also tempting to discuss the biological roots of altruism – the subject of scientific research over the years. But there’s something else that I think is also worth considering – how we choose to see and interact with the world in which we live.

Anyone who pays even cursory attention can see a lot of bad in the world – all we have to do is to watch the news. It is tempting to look at our wars, murders, terrorism – even at negligent parents (or children) – and to be driven to despair. And from there, it’s not a far stretch to conclude that we just have to stay on guard – it’s harder to be caught unawares if we are constantly on alert for an attack and we can’t have our trust betrayed if we never extend it in the first place. And it makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint – a caveman who’s always looking for an attack is less likely to be killed by a cave bear or an enemy tribe. We most likely evolved to be cautious, suspicious, and to extend trust only grudgingly because that made our ancestors more likely to survive, and those genes would have been passed down to us.

At the same time, humans are pretty pathetic compared to much of the animal kingdom – we’re not very fast, not very well-armored, our teeth are fairly small and dull, we have no claws, and so forth. What we’ve got going for us is our intelligence, our adaptability, and our ability to band together – a group of humans can take down any predator and any game animal, just as a group of humans working together can survive hardships that would doom a group of individuals trying to make it on their own. We are at our best when we work collectively to overcome tremendous odds. Our DNA also inclines us towards altruism and collaboration.

So we find ourselves with competing genetic imperatives – to work together to help to stack the odds in our favor against a world that is trying to kill us, while simultaneously being wary of all of the things (and people) that are trying to kill us. Both of these approaches can be rationalized and understood and both are justified – the question is which we will choose to give the lead as we go through our own lives.

This is more than a “glass-half-empty/glass-half-full” debate, but that really is the basic concept. While the way that we view our fellow humans is flavored by our experiences – by those who have cheated, attacked, threatened, or otherwise wronged us as well as those who have helped us – we do have a choice in how we respond to these interactions. We can choose to assume the worst of others (dominated by our fears of being harmed), or we can choose to assume the best in others (and to put ourselves at risk of harm). But we are not required to see the world – and our fellow humans – as inherently good or bad; it is a choice that we can make.

I’d also like to point out that it’s not just our volunteers and DMAT members who have elected to put the interest of their less-fortunate fellow citizens ahead of their own self-interest. Anyone in law enforcement, anyone who fights fires for a living, our soldiers and sailors, not to mention our teachers, priests, and most of our public servants – these are all people who are talented enough and who work hard enough to make more money if that was all that motivated them. And these are all people who have chosen professions of service in which the rewards are certainly not monetary.

None of us can choose the world we live in – we are presented with the world as it is and we can either accept it or not. But we can choose how we react to what we experience in the world – whether we choose to dwell on the positive or the negative in our dealings with others.

In the last two weeks I have seen far more of the good that people have to offer than of the bad. For a congenital optimist such as myself, in spite of long hours and the toll taken by Hurricane Sandy and yesterday’s winter storm, it’s been a good week.

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