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The Power of Nice

survival of the nicestA new book,  Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made Us Human and Why it Pays to Get Along, by Stefan Klein,  is revisiting the idea of  “survival of the fittest,” and just what that might really mean in terms of human social interaction.   Reviewed in the wonderful journal,  Greater Good: the Science of a Meaningful Life, ( Does Nature Select for Nice? ),  reviewer Joseph Ferrell says, “Klein argues that selflessness, not selfishness, creates more genetic success, and that proof for this has been gaining momentum among scientists, gradually challenging the “survival of the fittest” model in evolution.”

“If our ancestors had not learned to follow common goals, they would never have become sedentary, never have crossed the oceans and colonized the entire earth…never have invented music, art, and all the comforts of a modern life,” writes Klein, suggesting that the rise of civilizations are likely the result of a selflessness that  is vital to our species’ continued success.

Oftentimes it doesn’t feel that way – that selflessness leads to more success than selfishness.  Big business, big government, brute strength, loud propaganda, steamrolling bosses and coworkers, drivers apoplectic with road rage,  and pushy people on the street and subway would seem to suggest  otherwise, that nice people get kicked to the curb while the self-absorbed rise to the top and reap what often seem to be undeserved rewards.

But if you feel you’re one of the “nice” people – and probably most of the people reading this would feel they fit that category – think about your day, about your circle of friends, about the stranger who smiled at you, or said “excuse me,” or who helped you pick up something you dropped.  More likely, those folks outnumber the others,  who typically substitute volume for substance.

Our work with FIRST youth robotics teams reveals to us regularly the power and promise of selflessness.  In FIRST parlance, it’s known and celebrated as “Gracious Professionalism.”  FIRST students together Coined by Dr. Woody Flowers,  FIRST advisor and Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gracious Professionalism, or as the kids call it “GP”,  is “a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.”

Gracious Professionalism, Dr. Flowers says, is  a vital part of pursuing a meaningful life, and he  urges FIRST students to “Go be kind and creative.”

Dr. Flowers gets the power of compassion in a competitive world.

And, indeed, a FIRST tournament can be one big noisy nerdy,  love fest, a combination of fist pumping, chest thumping, gear grinding competitive robotics mashed up with those same competitive kids line dancing with linked arms  happily caterwauling to 80s karaoke.  They understand that even in a field of obvious winners and losers, they are still all friends, bound by their unique shared community that endures beyond the field competitions.

They have learned that they can be nice and successful, and the wonderful schmaltzy rewards of their larger community reinforce that understanding.

No less that Charles Darwin himself pondered the question of altruism and its role in natural selection. In “The Descent of Man,” Darwin wrote, “He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.”

The question is not, then, “Why is the world so cruel?” But perhaps more appropriately, “How can there possibly be so much kindness in such a cruel world?”  That is the miracle, made abundantly obviously by a nature video gone viral over the last few days, of a hippo gently shoving an injured gnu ashore.  In what way would helping the gnu benefit the hippo?  And yet, the hippo helps.

Clearly, compassion and kindness persist in the most unusual and trying of circumstances.

Instances of heroic selflessness are legion throughout human history, and everyday acts of random kindness are abundant.  Cooperation and collaboration – “Coopertition” FIRST kids know it as – ensures not only individual survival, but the success of a community.

It’s not hard to see what drives some people to ruthlessness.  The real wonder is what makes so many, so nice.

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Lives of Holy Curiosity

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAs with all great journeys, there are more questions now than answers, not the least of which is, where shall we go from here? As that remains to be answered, all we can do now is keep living life to its fullest.  - Andrea Willingham, our daughter

Life is a work in progress.  We’ve always told our children that.  Sometimes we need them to remind us of that, too, when we lean towards sedentary thinking.

We’ve also always told our children to “Question everything,” to not make a habit of accepting things at face value. Sometimes, as you get older, it’s easier to just accept things. Questioning – and dealing with the sometimes complicated answers – can take a lot of energy, not to mention brutal self honesty in assessing situations and deciding how to proceed with both the questions and the answers sometimes.

In a recent article in Mindshift (Why It’s Imperative to Teach Students How to Question as the Ultimate Survival Skill ) author Warren Berger ( A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury)) . observed on “Pi Day,”  the anniversary of Albert Einstein’s birthday, as well as my own, that questioning “was a big theme for Einstein, who told us, “The important thing is not to stop questioning,” while also urging us to question everything and “Never lose a holy curiosity.”

Berger designated March 14 “Question Day 2014″ , which I think is my new all time favorite holiday.  I hope this trends!QuestionDayHeader2

Apparently at one time it did.  In  2008, Einstein’s birthday was observed as  “National Question Day”  by the Inquiry Institute, a consulting organization founded by Marilee Adams.   But it didn’t seem to catch on.  I hope Berger’s effort meets with greater success.

“Questioning is a critical tool for learning,” says Berger. ” It helps us solve problems and adapt to change. And increasingly, we’re coming to understand that questioning is a starting point for innovation. In a world of dynamic change, one could say that questions are becoming more important than answers. Today, what we “know” may quickly become outdated or obsolete—and we must constantly question to get to new and better answers.  Questions also spark the imagination.”

With our children grown, and asking new questions that only they can answer, my husband Steve and I found ourselves reevaluating some of  our life and work, and asking hard questions about our own way forward.  It can be especially difficult to set free the things you’ve created.  Like children, the creations we birth often take on lives of their own; bending,  and sometimes breaking,  under the influence of other forces, and other ideas, becoming things other than expected.  If these creations are meant to be, they’ll persevere, follow the course of their own history, unfold in their own way. If they’re not meant to be, they won’t.

What remains is us: The Creators.

And we have so many more questions about so many more things! So we forge onward here, in the next chapter of the next stage of our lives of holy curiosity.

We hope you’ll join us!

-Terri Willingham

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We Owe Our Children Lives Free from Violence & Fear

sandy hook

No One is Born Hating Another Person

Mandela

Avoidances Enabled: Highways

Old Baton Rouge Capitol

Storm approaching over Baton Rouge Capitol building

My GPS has this wonderful “Avoidances” feature that allows me to select any of several driving obstacles I’d like to avoid: U-turns, toll roads, traffic, carpool lanes, ferries (?).   When I’m traveling -at least, after I reach my destination – I choose to avoid “Highways.”

bluebonnet swamp

Bluebonnet Swamp

Toodling around  Baton Rouge for the last few days, “avoiding” highways has taken me to some great places in some interesting ways. I’ve seen sights and neighborhoods  that I’d never have enjoyed had a I just hopped up on I-10 or I-12 and puddle jumped between exits.

raccoon

Raccoon in Bluebonnet Swamp

Taking city streets to the Old Capitol area took me through some gritty areas of Baton Rouge, but also gave me an intimate sense of the history and layout of the city.   Driving main roads to Bluebonnet Swamp richly illustrated the wonder of this fantastic urban greenway, bordered on all sides by homes and businesses and busy roads that give no clue to the wild lands they embrace, or the diversity of nature the park protects.

Baton Rouge statue

Statue on LSU Ag Center grounds

In the same way, entering the LSU Rural Life Museum and Ag Center grounds – an amazing 40 acre oasis of history and botanical beauty – along residential roads that give way to boundless fields and acres of forest made the experience of time travel offered by this unparalleled museum of folk architecture and culture even more powerful.

baton rouge

Baton Rouge, LA

Baton Rouge, like all communities  large and small, is more than the sum of its parts.  It is powered by the energy, perseverance and creativity of  its people, made manifest through that people’s architecture, industry and artistry.  Exit hopping on the highway makes it convenient to forget and easy to miss everything in between those exits that makes it all possible and, more important, that makes it all meaningful.

Tomorrow, I have to disable my highway avoidance and make use of those high speed interstates, at least for some major stretches,  if I’m to have any hope of getting back home in a day, which work and life necessitates.  But I’ll be keenly aware of the lives and livelihoods, of the history and communities, that I’m passing by.  And at the first opportunity, I’ll be taking the first available exit off the highway and getting back to the roads that really take you places.

Back Road Reflections

AR back road Last year around this time, my oldest daughter and I headed out for a road trip to Arkansas, where she was competing in the National Taxidermy Association event.  We love our time together, out and about and exploring, and the event itself was fun and edifying and my uniquely talented daughter had a good showing. But the trip turned trying, and painful, when we were in a bad car accident the day before we were to returnIMG_4025 home, struck by a good person but a careless driver.

Things went from bad to worse after that – our dog died before we could get home; our house flooded a couple of weeks later, due to a roofing job gone bad; and a recent lay off just added to the somber (and damp) atmosphere.

But the trip itself, when all was said and done and accounted for, was still good and memorable and meaningful, as road trips often are.   We took the “blue highways” home – America’s slower and more scenic back roads.  The Natchez Trace proved especially an especially calming and thought provoking drive, ambling along the eastern spine of the country, through deep woods and rolling hills, through centuries of history.

road home by Rob McGinnisThinking about that trip, as the date for this year’s journey approached, I ran a “Blue Highways” contest on Fine Art America and the submissions provided a thoughtful look at back roads scenery and history around the country.  The top three winners are featured here in this post, but the rest are all worth enjoying.   Because despite the harrowing start to our trip home, personally detouring ourselves off main highways to take a slower drive home made that journey far more memorable than the accident, providing a soothing balm to its scary precursor.

The back roads of America are the ultimate roads home – through the Autumn Backroad View by Alan Grahamboroughs and little towns and fields and farms and cottages and cottage industries that lie at the heart of who we are, a diverse and multifaceted people, self-reliant, independent spirited folk.

Sometimes we make mistakes – we check our cell phones when we should be watching the road; we get out of our car when we should stay in it and change the course of our own and others’ lives; we say something when we should remain silent, or conversely, we remain silent when we should speak out.  Sometimes we’re foolish and short-sighted, impatient and intolerant.

And other times we are magnificent – our back roads speak to some of that higher purpose, the way they trace ageless tracks throughGlacier National Park by Glenn Barclay our countryside, past the monuments and signs through which we memorialize our past,  and the way the artists among us capture the canvass of our classic  landscapes, or turn a vista into a turn of poetic phrase.   There are always the “helpers” Fred Rogers spoke of, the people you see in every community who alleviate blight, waste, loss, anger and heartache with the stroke of their brush of  compassion and kindness – an art in itself.

And so as we set out on the road again tomorrow, northward bound to Baton Rouge, LA this time, we’ll be angling again for those back roads, taking the opportunity and the time, to travel carefully (defensively!) and thoughtfully.

“Life is a highway”, Tom Cochrane sang.

Sometimes it’s a rough ride.  But if you take the back roads – the roads less traveled – and don’t let the set backs sideline you, there’s a good chance you’ll not only go places and see things, but learn a bit on the journey.

On this Earth Day – Think…

Earth Day