I spent the first few days of my visit shopping for the latest fashion in trendy boutiques and sipping tea with childhood friends in the new and popular chai khanas or tea houses. Every so often, I was reminded of the goodness of humanity through random acts of kindness from people I encountered by chance. The person in the bakery offered me a seat and a cup of steaming tea if I waited a few minutes for the fresh batch of macaroons I had come in to buy. The poor and destitute massage lady who looked after her deaf and blind adult daughter refused money for her services because I was a visitor in town. The young boy who begged me to buy the flowers he was selling ran down the street to call my driver to my car, even after I refused to buy his wilting goods.It made me think of thoughtless actions I performed every day. I brushed aside the little kids who sold flowers and coconut slices at traffic lights. I shooed away those selling little knick-knacks in open-air parking lots as I stepped out of my car. I did so because I have grown up believing that these kids lie and cheat. I have been told that they pretend and exaggerate their misery and hunger. Somehow, in the heat, the noise, the traffic, and the chaos of shopping in the traditional strip malls, I found it easiest to turn a blind eye and rush forth with my agenda. If and when the pangs of shame fluttered somewhere deep within me, I rationalized my actions and washed away the guilt of having more than my due share of the earth’s bounties. A visit to a school the following week made me aware of the selfishness of my pleasant life. I had taken my children to visit a small school for children of neighboring slums founded by a few women I had known in my school years. These children had never attended a school before. Their lives were spent rummaging the garbage for a bite to eat and begging by the side of the road for a lucky penny. Many were orphans, some of the most forgotten souls of nature. Yet there was gratitude and hope written in their lonely eyes that gnawed at my heart and made me sit alongside them while they shyly copied the alphabet and diligently colored in their pictures. As we were leaving, my son, also overcome with emotion, took off his wrist band and handed it to a little boy as a gesture of friendship. We walked silently back to our car, our minds numb, our hearts full. Suddenly, there was the sound of panting and the pitter-patter of little feet. As we turned around, we saw the little boy running to catch up with us. He stopped, then hesitantly walked over to my son and handed him a little heart shaped yellow sharpener. He then looked up, smiled, turned away, and ran back.
From nature’s worst afflicted and society’s most rejected, here was a heart big enough to carry the world. From a little child who had likely known little love in his life, here was enough love to give away perhaps all he possessed. What was it that made the poor rich in the virtues that we struggle to impart in our young and practice ourselves in our daily acts? What were the strengths of character that enabled them to live with the misery they face everyday and yet remain remarkably graceful and positive?
Perhaps it is adversity itself, and the strengths that it builds. For adversity humbles us and reminds us of our limits and our rightful place in the universe. Adversity makes us grateful by preserving small anticipations and accepting the good we find without questioning it. Adversity gives us faith to rise above despair and in so doing, answer the call of the soul. The poor may not have the material riches we possess, but I can’t help wondering who is really the richer or poorer amongst us.When we carry on acquiring knowledge and increasing our intellect, we gain a big brain, one that is capable of analysis and critical thought. But without the humility, gratitude, and hope that adversity entails, we border on cynicism and self-righteousness in the way we view the world. My rationalization in denying the suffering I saw around me reflected not the supposed ease with which the poor lived everyday, but the failure of my own imagination in appreciating what I have been given through nature’s random act of kindness.
What I need is a heart big enough to match the bigger brain that I feed everyday. Action does not come from reasoning alone. It is in living with character strengths and in blurring the distinction between the heart and the brain that I can rise to my best possible self and live the meaningful life that is the ultimate human endeavor.
Brooks, D. (2015, April 11). The moral bucket list. The New York Times.
Brooks, D. (2014). Should you live for your resume…or your eulogy? TED2014.
Damasio, A. (1994, 2005). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Penguin Reprint Edition.
Emerson, R. W. (1836-1870, 1983). Emerson: Essays and Lectures: Nature: Addresses and Lectures / Essays: First and Second Series / Representative Men / English Traits / The Conduct of Life. Library of America.
Jackson, M. (2015). While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change. Green Writers’ Press. ISBN-13: 978-0996087261
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Islamabad, street view, and eraser courtesy of Homaira Kabir and used with her permission.
Student courtesy of srizkl
Plant growing through crack (hope) courtesy of kleuske
A very heartfelt piece. Maybe our “educational” institutions have it reversed. Rather than teaching to our minds, they might be encouraging the heart. Reciprocity is a basic strength, but I don’t recall where it would fit in the List of 24. Social Intelligence? Gratitude? Humility?
When I tutored high school kids I would take time at our first meeting to ask what they could teach me. This was an afterschool program and they knew they were struggling at school. Perhaps they felt dumb, slow, stupid … all those put-downs we hurl at learners of a different pace. Anyway, I meant it, and said it won’t be 50-50 for the time, but more like 90-10. One girl wasn’t engaged but I insisted. She eventually mentioned that she knew chisanbop (Korean method for using fingers like an abacus to do math) a little bit. I lit up. She lit up! She shared my first lesson right away, and it make her turn to learn so much easier.
Lynx, Seattle, WA, USA
Your prose speaks to my heart like compassionate poetry, dear Homaira. I could feel myself in Pakistan along with you. Your honesty and openness re: your re-framing your childhood life experiences is uplifting. You are a terrific example of mindfully pausing…then making an action plan to see and poignantly embrace the reality of difficult lives, up close and personal. I feel you using a promotion mindset with yourself to open the your empathy doors. To notice random acts of kindness and to pay them forward with gratitude and a warm heart, talk about living your best self life. Please keep writing. I hope you saving your stories for a book. Thanks so much for your insights and love of life.
What a great story, Lynx. I’d add Capacity to Love to your list of strengths. Your heart was open with empathy for your students, and you Appreciated the Beauty in each student. I think Hope may have been there, too, as you were hoping for the best with in them as well as from yourself to help educate them how to live their best selves life by your example. Great Creativity on your part. Your kindness jumped out as well as your perspective, Fairness, and Open-mindedness. I’m all smiles and thank you for sharing…Good Teamwork, too!
Dear Lynx, if only all teachers were like you…You are what our students need – a teacher who “teaches to learn”. You will relate to this piece on Compassion in Education: http://www.dailygood.org/story/1089/-i-teach-to-learn-compassion-in-education-nipun-mehta/
Thank you for sharing! Btw, the chisanbop sounds very interesting – I will look it up!
Dearest Judy, you always raise me many notches in my own self-evaluation!!
I try, for I believe that if we can be mindful of our every thought and action, we may be able to live more fully in our relationships to ourselves, others and the beautiful world we will leave behind for future generations. I am sure you live your life the same way.
Thanks so very much, Homaira. I try to live as you do, yes. But your eloquence is in a class all its own.Positive psychology has taught me how to accept who I am, warts and all! Blessings.
I never learnt how to write, dear Judy and always doubted how well I could express myself. Until I read that writing happens when you are fearlessly truthful and have keen psychologically insight. Isn’t that the best and most exciting way to live! Thank you for your infectious joie de vivre!
Thx Homaira for the link on compassionate education. As I have worked on various projects within the institution of education I have given time to it for study and thought. First, there are three overlapping circles, teaching, learning, and education (the institutions that offer degrees). Teaching is offer from outside the person. Learning occurs inside the person. Education is a set of expectations and requirements that the person is obliged to undertake via mandatory requirements (most of K-12) or semi-voluntarily (post high school).
The differences between the quality of learning, engagement, and retention when the person is in a voluntary context versus a mandatory context are enormous and untapped by education. I am interested to read what your son makes of his lesson in reciprocity (in a voluntary context) as he matures. Probably things no amount of “education” can erase.
I am in the same boat as you are, Homaira. I never learned to write anything other than technical psych reports. Living is learning. PP makes that learning all the sweeter. Thanks for your camaraderie.
I am not sure if my heart is breaking or opening in reading your inspiring article! Maybe it is a little of both that helps us to understand more deeply how to live our lives in a generous compassionate way. Thank you for your ability to capture these tender moments. The image of the pencil sharpener is one that will stay with me.
I honestly wish for more teachers like you! Ryan and Deci’s work on integrated and intrinsic motivation vs extrinsic or introjected provides some answers: http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2000_RyanDeci_IntExtDefs.pdf
However, there is no doubt that learning cannot happen through education alone. Life happens in living it, not merely in the head. My son is naturally gifted with a very grateful disposition that appreciates reciprocity, is motivated by sympathy and values our continual dependence on others. However, I too fear the effects of “education” and capitalism in subtly devaluing his greatest strength in his own eyes. I try my best to provide him with the fulfillment of savouring his heartfelt actions by talking about them at the dinner table, and often having him write about them in various ways – how it made him feel, how it impacted the other, how it impacted those who may have witnessed it etc. It is the best way I know how to integrate life, learning and education.
I would love to hear of more ways from you!
Thank you dear Jan. In your comments, I appreciated the mindful way in which you can stay with the unease of life’s paradoxical nature and yet see the beauty of the journey. My heart too aches with pain and joy – pain for the fate of life’s unlucky beings and joy in the inherent goodness of humanity.
I am so grateful that positive psychology allows us to open up to it all and be mindful of the responsibility we carry to make lives better, not just for ourselves, but also for those with whom we are undoubtedly attached in this vast flow of life.
I am truly grateful for the friendship of kind and thoughtful people like you in our collective journey.