I’ll admit it, I’m terrible at checking the weather. It’s just not part of my morning routine. So, even though I spend 30 minutes a day walking to and from the train and to my office, more often than is reasonable I end up trudging through a downpour as everyone around me pops open their umbrellas.
So the starting point here is that it’s on me.
That said, the other day, while I walked home from the train in the leafy suburb I call home, the rain turned from steady to torrential. I was apparently one of few people who was surprised by this turn of events, since, as I got out of the train, the line of cars waiting to pick up passengers was 30 deep rather than the usual 5 to 10.
As I slowly made my way up the hill, my light blue shirt having turned a deep shade of violet from the downpour, I scanned the lineup of cars, looking for a familiar face. And, when it became clear that I didn’t know any of the drivers, I couldn’t help but wonder: is anyone going to give me a wave and a nod and offer me a warm dry seat?
Why does no one roll down the window to help? To boil it down, how we act in these situations is the result of our assessment of four things:
- How dire is the need of the person?
- What is the perceived social cost and benefit of action?
- How much do I perceive that I, and I alone, am responsible for taking an action?
- In the story I tell myself about myself, how do I act in these sorts of situations?
Put this way, it’s pretty clear why I got drenched on my walk home: my need was far from dire (it’s just a bit of rain); it is mildly socially awkward to invite someone in to your car; lots of people could help so we have a Kitty Genovese situation (bystander effect) going on; and….well, what about #4?
This last one – the story we tell ourselves about “how do I act in situations where I have the opportunity to help?” – this strikes me as the wildly unaddressed leverage point for anyone in the social change business.
Since launching my Generosity Experiment in 2008 I’ve been trying to understand what it takes to unlock the sense, in myself and in others, that in situations where help can be given, more of us will be the kind of people who chose to act.
While this is lifelong work, as I trudged through the rain I reflected on some of the things I think I’ve learned so far:
That everyone starts in a different place, and that these starting points come first and foremost from the values we were taught at a young age.
That there are real, powerful social norms that hold us back from acting.
That pushing against these norms creates real discomfort. And that pushing through this discomfort creates a giddy sense joy that can be addicting.
That one of the most important jobs that social groups perform is to tilt these norms in favor of care of others….and that, as these social norms become weaker as societies modernize, and as we hide behind our screens, car windows, and devices more and more, it is the job of new actors to set a new set of norms.
That, for those folks who routinely do more than the least that’s expected of them, their work began with a decision it’s not enough just to believe we all have the same potential. What’s required is living that belief through actions.
That part of the story we need to tell ourselves is that it (whatever “it” is) is up to us, not to someone else.
That, like everything else in life, the first step towards living more generously is the belief in and commitment to making a change in ourselves. It is in that moment of decision, and in the actions that reaffirm that decision, that we open up a new conversation about who we are and what we can become.
That there’s a profound sense of alone-ness in the world, and that finding moments to break through by creating a personal connection is one of the most powerful things we can do.
And, like everything else in life, we must find the balance of pushing ourselves to be better and forgiving ourselves for our limitations today.
In the end, I didn’t mind so much getting wet – my kids certainly didn’t seem to care when they ran to greet me as I got home.
Plus, if I am honest with myself, I wasn’t sure I’d have opened my door for me walking by. Not yet. But I’m working on it.
And yes, I’m also working on remembering to bring an umbrella.