Do we really care about others?

A very dear friend of mine, one I had lost touch with since we graduated from university, called me recently. I was happy to hear from him and immediately started exchanging pleasantries and reminiscing about the good old days. He was always a slow conversationalist, so I jumped right in to ask him about how life was treating him and simultaneously inundated him with what was going on in my life. I was rambling on for about 20 minutes and he graciously filled me in. Apparently, I had a lot of things that I wanted to be filled in on.

I assumed that since he was not much of a talker then, that he would still have the same disposition even today.

When I exhausted my loquaciousness, he finally broke the news. He had called to tell me that he lost his Father. Shell-shocked, I berated him by saying “Why did we have to go through this inane conversation when you had something so heartbreaking to share?” I could almost picture him looking down, shrugging his shoulders, slowly dropping his eyelids before replying “You didn’t let me speak.”

Those five words he said taught me a lesson I will never forget.

Speak Less. Listen More.

Ever since, I’ve vowed to say a little less and listen a little more.

Don’t you think that we live in a world where everyone is talking, and nobody is listening? Or am I the only one? Aren’t we’re all so quick to hand out sage-like advice, but we’re equally reluctant to receive it?

I think we are inherently hyper-focused on ourselves as people. I know I am. We’re anxious that everyone will judge our creased trousers, that lingering mustard stain, or the dust on our computer screen shortly before a presentation. In actuality, no one notices your trousers, your coworkers are unconcerned about your condiment spill, and those dust particles are nothing out of the ordinary. Even if people did notice, they probably wouldn’t care since they’re too preoccupied with their own stuff.

Consider the last time you went grocery shopping, strolled down the street, rode the train, or took the elevator. Now attempt to recall one detail about someone else you met in any of those scenarios. Try recalling a time if you succinctly remember another individual in one of these instances. Not so easy, is it? That’s because we’re all preoccupied with ourselves and our own lives.

All right, maybe that’s an abstract example. But you get what I’m saying.

Do we really care about what happens to others, how they feel, and if they have a good life? Or do we constantly think of ourselves as the object of our pity? Do we aid others for their own sake or for our own benefit?

The simple answer – We don’t really care.

The profound answer – It’s not really that simple.

We treat empathy as a non-replenishable resource. Like fossil fuels. We have it in limited quantities and like all resources we choose where or who we invest it in. And that happens by discretion. Our lives aren’t usually defined by people we don’t meet often, much less by strangers we pass by on the street or on the train. Our lives are defined by the people that are right in front of us, daily.

In his book, the Survival of the Nicest, Stefan Klein argues that selfishness is self-defeating and proves the evolutionary advantages of altruism. In her book, The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand identifies and validates selfishness as a rational code of ethics, and propagates the destructiveness of altruism.  

So, which is it then?

If only we had answers readily available to all of life’s burning questions, then we would have already achieved a level of oneness that we only ever dreamed of.

However, I will leave you with this. I believe that we are more observant, perceptive, and able to think more clearly, when our mind is quiet. The frenetic energy of other people can have a major influence on our own capacity to think clearly if we haven’t developed inner silence. Just as our own chaotic thoughts can induce feelings of stress and anxiety, so too can the words of other people if we don’t know how to remain silent and listen. After all, silent and listen consist of the same six letters.

We all live inside our heads. It’s time we get out.

To my friend – Thank you lighting a candle in my heart. I promise to light another one.

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