Good works are links that form a chain of love.
— Mother Teresa
My nickname is eleven-fifty-nine. That is the time I show up at the bank on Saturdays. They close at noon. I know the tellers. They laugh each week when I come in. I laugh too. I always promise I will try to get there earlier next week. I never do. Life just gets in the way.
I went to the bank this past Friday. It is my writing day, and I was writing what you are now reading. I got there about 10 a.m. The tellers laughed, checked their imaginary or real watches and wondered out loud what day it was. I told them not to expect this from me again.
As I filled out the deposit slip, an unkempt, scraggly man carrying a satchel got in line. I noticed the tellers paying attention to him and his sack. My anti-terrorism paranoia took over and I watched as he made his way through the line. I finished filling out my deposit slip and got in line, two people behind him.
He was not your typical stone-faced, impatient customer. He smiled and nodded at the tellers. They each kept a keen eye on him. I heard him tell one teller “today’s the day.” My paranoia burst into full bloom.
When he got to the front of the line, he reached into his bag.
“I got a surprise for you,” he said, grabbing out of the bag something with a handle.
I took the cell phone out of my pocket.
He took something out of the bag:
Then another, and another, and another, handing them, one by one, to each teller as they let out smiles, oohs and ahhs. He emptied his bag and each teller thanked him for the treat.
I put away my cell phone. I reasoned it would be silly to report a bank robbery where there was no robbery, the holdup weapon was a banana, and the “criminal” was a local farmer.
Yes, I have an active imagination.
My teller filled me in: Every Friday for the last three years, this farmer has brought the tellers something he’s grown. “He grows and imports some of the best around,” she told me. She added that they all go to his stand every week, and they are excited to tell everyone about his magnificent fruits and vegetables.
He’s not a bank robber — he’s a one-man marketing genius.
If I went to the bank more often on Fridays, I might have known that generosity apparently has become central to the business model. In fact, there probably is reason to believe we are on the brink of an evolutionary shift toward generosity. Technology has helped increase our awareness of others’ needs.
In psychological and other research, generosity is called by many names: indirect reciprocity, altruism, cooperation, and kindness. But no matter what it’s called, several factors indicate we are becoming an empathic civilization.
Jeremy Rifkin is the founder and president of The Foundation on Economic Trends, which “examines the economic, environmental, social and cultural impacts of new technologies introduced into the global economy.” Rifkin knows a thing or two about the economy. Since 1994, he’s been a senior lecturer at the Wharton School’s Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania—the world’s No. 1 ranked business school.
Rifkin suggests that to empathize is to civilize. His reasoning is impeccable: Our strongest drive is our drive to belong. From birth we are hardwired for attachment. Developmental psychologists have known for some time that we feel another’s pain through empathic distress. The neuropsychologists have joined the party by figuring out that we do this through mirror neurons. These little rascals fire up when we watch others engaging in a behavior and help make us feel like we are engaging too. Whether it’s a movie hero involved in an exciting car chase, a crying baby, or our favorite athlete making a great play, we feel their pain or their triumph. Mirror neurons activate our empathy, and in turn increase our selfhood.
The universal bond for this empathic distress is as primal as it gets: We are all going to die. We have empathy for each other because we’re not dead yet, and we need to celebrate being and flourishing while we can. If we repress our instinct for empathic distress, the underlying element in all that is good, we will devolve to manifesting secondary drives such as narcissism, materialism and aggression. Either we play nice or we destroy each other.
The clever folks at Harvard Business School have published a variety of studies on generosity. One piece of research demonstrated that when subjects were given money and told they could spend it on themselves or give it to others, they were happier being generous and giving it away. Theory and research are rooting for generosity. But what other proof do we have?
The Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti stands out.
In the first hour after the catastrophic earthquake occurred, the microblogging service Twitter got the word out, 140 characters at a time. In the second hour, cell phone videos were being posted to YouTube. By the third hour money was pouring in from all over the globe. Who really cares what happens to people we don’t know in a distant part of the world? Apparently we do. And we showed our concern with money and donations.
So does Blake Mycoskie, the man behind Toms Shoes.
The story is simple. Mycoskie was traveling through Argentina and ran into people who were trying to help get shoes for children who needed them. He decided to find a sustainable way to help. Why shoes? Because they help protect against soil-transmitted diseases that can cause cognitive and physical problems.
If the shoe fits, buy it.
Theory, research and practice suggest it’s wise to support any company that has generosity as a business model. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.
In case you were wondering, the answer is ‘yes.’ Yes, I bought a pair of Toms Shoes, and yes, the bank robber had some of the best bananas and organic vegetables I’ve ever had.