Raul is why I changed college majors, attended graduate school, started my business, donated to charity last week and wrote this post.
I came across Raul in Caracas, Venezuela, when I was nine years old. I was staring out the passenger-side window of the family air-conditioned sedan trying to tune out the chatter emitting from my twin 12-year old sisters with whom I shared the backseat. I was sipping syrupy soda through a blue and white striped straw. We were on a congested highway. I had no idea the carefree portion of my life was about to end.
He entered the frame of my window from the left as our vehicle inched forward, a still figure between rigid rows of cars marching past. He was my size but with tattered shorts, no shirt and no shoes. A cardboard tray of potato chips hung from his neck to rest just above his dirty belly, which was strangely large for his spindly body. His big brown eyes locked onto mine, softly questioning.
A tightness in my sternum, which has since become a familiar signal of distress, made me gasp. Nine years of unbroken childhood joy shattered. My thoughts wailed like an emergency siren. Why is a kid my age selling chips on a dangerous highway? Why is he caked in dirt? Where are his shoes? Where are his parents? Why wasn’t he safely inside a car drinking something sweet through a striped straw? Why do adults allow this? Why? Why? Why?
Our eyes tracked each other until he slipped beyond my window. I named him Raul.
Meet your Inner Giver
How could a child in seconds influence my decisions for decades? It’s not who he was, but whom he awoke in me. It turns out I had an “Inner Giver” who was dormant until that afternoon. She’s the part of me that contributes to others without seeking a return, per the definition of “giver” in Adam Grant’s bestselling Give and Take. Raul shocked my Inner Giver into wakefulness and I’ve since grieved over the injustices of the world, empathized with the suffering of others and yearned to serve.
To be fair, I have other less upright inner characters also running the show, if my life can be called that. My Inner Princess insists on soft sheets, holiday ski trips and chocolate in the cupboard that costs more than a day’s worth of food for most of the planet’s inhabitants. If you think that’s loathsome, you should meet my Inner Victim. She’s insufferable.
Despite my crowded psyche, the Inner Giver has staked her corner. I might not respond to her urging, but she’s vocal every week, if not every day. She even throws tantrums. Once she insisted that I backtrack 10 miles of driving to give a panhandler a pizza I was bringing home from a party. As life transforming as my Raul incident was to me personally, however, it’s yawningly mundane to society.
Even the most fortunate among us can’t avoid grieving over the sad lot of our world, empathizing with strangers in distress and feeling pulled to help right both. I’m not special. Everyone is preprogrammed with an Inner Giver. Well, almost.
Between one and three percent of the population lacks an Inner Giver. They’re called sociopaths. In fact, this is precisely the medical definition of a sociopath: Someone with a “pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others.” Sociopaths, however, are the exception that proves that Inner Givers are the norm. We don’t treat the absence of an Inner Giver lightly. We label it mental illness and consider it anomalous. In other words, the Inner Giver is a cornerstone of human normality.
Shock awoke my Inner Giver. You might not have needed such drama. Your first conscious memories might be tinged with a desire to vanish the darkness that enveloped your parents or siblings or starving children on TV. Whatever the path to expression, unless you’re an extreme sociopath, you have an Inner Giver.
You might think your Inner Giver, being such a serious character, will dampen your wellbeing. Exactly the opposite, however, is true.
Free your Inner Giver
Dozens of studies demonstrate that an active Inner Giver or, if you prefer dry academic language, “prosocial behavior,” boosts happiness and health. Your Inner Giver lowers depression, anxiety, inflammation, cholesterol, high blood pressure and pain; and improves marriage and friendships. It’s so salutary that Dr. Stephen Post from Stony Brook University suggests that doctors universally prescribe two hours of Inner Giver activity a week.
Unfortunately, the modern lifestyle has stripped us of the interdependence that, historically, made it easy to fill Post’s prescription. Ten thousand years ago, we needed each other to rear children, build shelter, secure a meal or do just about anything. Our Inner Givers were everyday protagonists. Today, we parent without the help of extended family. We lock ourselves inside structures that strangers built, not our neighbors. We sit alone eating food that was industrially produced, not collaboratively gathered and communally prepared. We’ve all but banished our Inner Giver.
Sebastian Junger, in his book Tribe, summarized it perfectly. “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
I’m not suggesting you fix your neighbor’s leaky pipe, especially if you don’t have a plumbing license. It’s important, however, to realize that your wellbeing depends on an active Inner Giver.
If you want happiness and health, free your Inner Giver.
PS: For six simple ways to unleash your Inner Giver at work through a practice called job purposing, see prior post.
This post was originally published on LinkedIn.