Isn’t this evidence that humans are by nature compassionate, caring and generous?

Yesterday, a friend forwarded an email that she had received from someone in Sendai, Japan. It was an intimate and moving portrait of survival there—a story no doubt many of us our hearing these days. I was particularly struck by these few lines:


Utterly amazingly where I am there has been no looting, no pushing in lines. People leave their front door open, as it is safer when an earthquake strikes. People keep saying, “Oh, this is how it used to be in the old days when everyone helped one another.”…

I come back to my shack to check on it each day, now to send this e-mail since the electricity is on, and I find food and water left in my entranceway. I have no idea from whom, but it is there. Old men in green hats go from door to door checking to see if everyone is OK. People talk to complete strangers asking if they need help.

Reading my February 28th copy of The New Yorker a few weeks back, I underlined this paragraph describing Egypt’s Tahrir Square:

The scene was indescribably moving. There was no hierarchy or formal organization on the square, and yet lines of protesters guarded the barricades while others swept the garbage into neat piles and manned the checkpoints to search people for weapons. People brought food and water and medicine into the square and gave it out for free.

How many times have we heard this story before? When the system breaks down, we seem to unleash on each other our innate human generosity. It’s as if our transactional culture—our daily lives of buying and selling to acquire the goods we need—is the illusion. As soon as that culture dissolves, we find ourselves turning to one another, offering compassion and kindness, sharing what we have with friends and strangers. It is my experience that every time our transactional culture breaks down—in times of human-made and natural disasters, in times of grief and illness—gift culture is what remains.

What I don’t understand is why it’s so difficult for us to sustain that spirit of generosity. Once the crisis is over, what is it that delivers us back into the arms of insecurity and distrust?

Perhaps we don’t need to answer those questions. Maybe what we might do instead is become deliberate and intentional about experimenting with gift culture in ordinary times. Maybe we can practice extending our generosity when no one’s life is at stake.

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