“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”—Plato
My son, a freshman in high school, has an easy-going, nonjudgmental personality that attracts other students. A few weeks ago he came home with this story: Another freshman, Shaun (not his real name) had showed my son a tooth, still in the boy’s mouth, that had rotted all the way down to the gum line. Shaun showed his tooth with an air of bravado, but it was not hard to sense that Shaun was asking for help in the only way he knew how.
After hearing the story, my wife called a school guidance counselor with whom we are friendly. The counselor promised to get dental help for the student. Given how the school operates, we have no doubt that that is exactly what happened. As importantly, we have no doubt that the guidance counselor, a firm but kind man, will be looking out for Shaun in other ways.
My wife and I were perplexed though. Just a few weeks earlier, the local hospital had sponsored a free dental screening at the high school for students who didn’t have a regular dentist. All Shaun’s parents had to do was sign a release form; Shaun would have received needed care. Under these circumstances how could Shaun’s dental needs have been neglected? That was not our business, nonetheless we did wonder.
We asked our son what kind of young man Shaun is. Our son described him as pretty nasty and unpopular. I began to reflect on the life Shaun is living. He is clearly having a hard battle. His life is rough; his behavior compounds his problems. By and by, Shaun is ignored by his classmates; and apparently, his parents ignore him as well.
In his book The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk reports on a classic nature/nurture experiment by Canadians Rod Cooper and John Zubek. They began with two “genetic” strains of rat pups—rats that had shown over many generations to be “maze-bright” and those who were “maze-dull.” Maze-dull rats made on average 40 percent more mistakes while running the maze. A sample of rat pups were raised in one of three distinct environments—enriched with many stimulating toys, normal, or restricted (just food and water). Normal conditions, produced what they expected—“maze-bright” rats outperformed “maze-dull” rats. But they were shocked by the results in enriched and restricted conditions. In both of these environments, “genetic” differences disappeared. In enriched conditions, both types of rats were equally smart ; in restricted conditions, both types were equally stupid. There were no statistically significant differences in performance.
Shenk’s interpretation of the research is startling: “There is no genetic foundation that gets laid before the environment enters in; rather, genes express themselves strictly in accordance with their environment.” In other words, the effects of nature and nurture on our development are completely inseparable.
In our daily lives we all encounter Shauns, and it is easy to justify the judgments we make about them. We assume that they should know better. We assume that they know the “correct way” to behave, and yet with conscious volition, they misbehave. It is easy for an air of superiority to creep in, even as we think about walking the proverbial “mile in their shoes.” As we feel sorry for the Shauns of the world, we feel special. And someone who feels special can never be kind.
The new genetic research tells us that our judgments are completely faulty. There is no possible way for us to accurately and fairly judge (as opposed to discern) the behavior of somebody else. It is possible to discern the behavior of another and hold them accountable and responsible for their choices, if it is our role to do so. But if we discern without judging, we will be a lot kinder as we go about it. We can drop our stories about them and our own feelings of superiority and specialness. We are responsible for how we react to the behavior of others; we choose to discern or to judge. If we judge, we focus on their choices; and we neglect to examine our own moment-by-moment choices.
Like me, when you honestly observe your own thinking, you may notice how often you ruminate over the choices that others are making and how often you neglect to look at your own. Can we catch in-the-bud a judgment we were about to make over the behavior of another? Can we make another choice to drop our judgments? Do we see ourselves and the person we judge as human beings, both in the same boat—trying to make our way in the world? If we don’t perceive that sameness, we perceive specialness as we look through the eyes of our ego. Are we not all challenged to choose to access the part of the mind that helps us rise above our nature/nurture conditioning?
These choices to be kind and to drop judgment will make all the difference in our lives. Wendy Egyoku Nakaos, the abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, helps us with this evocative reminder: “May we open to a deeper understanding and a genuine love and caring for the multitude of faces, who are none other than ourselves.”
Are you doing the Inner-Work of Leadership?