Early this morning, while walking our 3-legged dog, Jessie, I heard a steady low-pitched drone overhead. I usually keep my eyes cast downward, wary of gifts left by other dogs on the street. But the hum caught my attention and urged my gaze upwards to the sunny canopy formed by a row of golden ash that I rarely pay much attention to. This is the season of blossoms and there was already a fading yellow carpet of fallen blooms on the road. The entire tree above me was alive with a buzz. The bees were excitedly pollinating, and it seemed that every floral center was occupied by these thousands of workers – committed to their tacit objective to do what every bee does instinctually.
It was a timely experience as I had just come across an online article in the National Geographic, describing a recent study suggesting that flowers can actually “hear” the buzzing of bees and have been shown to adjust the levels of sugar in their nectar, by an appreciable amount (bees, apparently, can detect even negligible changes) to attract more bees. I suddenly saw the giant ash as a big sugar depository, akin to the Canadian maple trees that are tapped for sap, just pumping up their sugar content. Just imagine that flowers can indeed hear! The bowl-shaped flowers or blossoms are like a satellite dish: they collect and amplify the vibrations of low-frequency sounds – those that bees emit.
What does all of this have to do with human communication and empathy? Aside from the scientific wonder of nature’s complexity, there are more ancient mystical approaches to the relationship between the world of nature and that of man. Not so very long ago, a few centuries at most, people spent considerably more time outside (not to mention unglued from palm devices!) – closely observing the world around them in a contemplative and respectful reverie. Henry Thoreau is a good example. But we can go much further back, a thousand years in fact, to an ancient text called Perek Shirah, roughly translated as “Nature’s Song”, in which dozens of elements of the natural world are attached to a verse from Scripture. The idea is that everything in the natural world teaches us a lesson in religious philosophy.
The wild trees, it turns out, teach us to ensure the survival of all that is good (trees, and all the natural habitat) and the “perek”, or poetic passage, was an eco-friendly message long before the concept existed. If we can respect, honor, and protect the trees, we can certainly do the same within our own species. When we are approached by another – be it friend, acquaintance, stranger, or patient – can we sit down with enough energy (think sugar!) and attention to not only welcome that person to connect but also to accommodate them in whichever way would make them most comfortable?
Imagine the physician who sits, not stands, while speaking to her patient. Can you relate to the doctor who finds a blanket when you look cold, or adjusts your hospital pillow or bed so that you can sit up during the interview? Such simple acts of kindness and thoughtfulness point to a much deeper commitment to care, empathy, and understanding.
The flower has evolved to welcome the bumblebee, and even to attract it. The evolutionary advantage is clear: without pollination the flower species will wither and soon disappear. What is the evolutionary carrot for us? The answer is becoming increasingly clear. Even if it’s “not in your job description” to make the extra effort to care (or at least act like you do!), the eventual outcome is non-compliance, dissatisfaction, and disengagement.
The approach of “what’s in it for me?” reflects the current love of individualism and the pure pursuit of happiness which ironically results in growing numbers of disconnected, unhappy, lonely, and sometimes suicidal people. David Brooks, in his recent book, “The Second Mountain”, suggests that we should aspire instead to joy – a deeper state that requires us to focus on others, finding delight in them, giving time and energy to them (again, that sugar theme!), and making their lives better in the process of doing so. It’s about service of the other – not of yourself.
In my next blog, I’ll talk about how we can take care of ourselves first, so we are healthy and not prone to burn out; we’ll be more likely to have the energy for others when we feel good in our bodies and about ourselves.
“CURE you, CURE me.”
We make the effort, our species continues, and the world is a sweeter place for it.
Take home action: Reach out today to someone, to provide some form of selfless duty or service.