This article first appeared on Positivepyschologynews.com.
I am visiting my parents in their home in Islamabad, the ‘garden city’ of Pakistan. I grew up in this city, and I remember the serenity of those early years: the winter mornings of heavy fog, the intoxicating smell of flowers in the spring, and the summer monsoons that brought cool breezes and washed the city clean.
I spent the first few days of my visit shopping for the latest fashion in trendy boutiques and sipping tea with childhood friends in the new and popular chai khanas or tea houses. Every so often, I was reminded of the goodness of humanity through random acts of kindness from people I encountered by chance. The person in the bakery offered me a seat and a cup of steaming tea if I waited a few minutes for the fresh batch of macaroons I had come in to buy. The poor and destitute massage lady who looked after her deaf and blind adult daughter refused money for her services because I was a visitor in town. The young boy who begged me to buy the flowers he was selling ran down the street to call my driver to my car, even after I refused to buy his wilting goods.
It made me think of thoughtless actions I performed every day. I brushed aside the little kids who sold flowers and coconut slices at traffic lights. I shooed away those selling little knick-knacks in open-air parking lots as I stepped out of my car. I did so because I have grown up believing that these kids lie and cheat. I have been told that they pretend and exaggerate their misery and hunger. Somehow, in the heat, the noise, the traffic, and the chaos of shopping in the traditional strip malls, I found it easiest to turn a blind eye and rush forth with my agenda. If and when the pangs of shame fluttered somewhere deep within me, I rationalized my actions and washed away the guilt of having more than my due share of the earth’s bounties.
A visit to a school the following week made me aware of the selfishness of my pleasant life. I had taken my children to visit a small school for children of neighboring slums founded by a few women I had known in my school years. These children had never attended a school before. Their lives were spent rummaging the garbage for a bite to eat and begging by the side of the road for a lucky penny. Many were orphans, some of the most forgotten souls of nature. Yet there was gratitude and hope written in their lonely eyes that gnawed at my heart and made me sit alongside them while they shyly copied the alphabet and diligently colored in their pictures.
As we were leaving, my son, also overcome with emotion, took off his wrist band and handed it to a little boy as a gesture of friendship. We walked silently back to our car, our minds numb, our hearts full. Suddenly, there was the sound of panting and the pitter-patter of little feet. As we turned around, we saw the little boy running to catch up with us. He stopped, then hesitantly walked over to my son and handed him a little heart shaped yellow sharpener. He then looked up, smiled, turned away, and ran back.
From nature’s worst afflicted and society’s most rejected, here was a heart big enough to carry the world. From a little child who had likely known little love in his life, here was enough love to give away perhaps all he possessed. What was it that made the poor rich in the virtues that we struggle to impart in our young and practice ourselves in our daily acts? What were the strengths of character that enabled them to live with the misery they face everyday and yet remain remarkably graceful and positive?
Perhaps it is adversity itself, and the strengths that it builds. For adversity humbles us and reminds us of our limits and our rightful place in the universe. Adversity makes us grateful by preserving small anticipations and accepting the good we find without questioning it. Adversity gives us faith to rise above despair and in so doing, answer the call of the soul. The poor may not have the material riches we possess, but I can’t help wondering who is really the richer or poorer amongst us.
When we carry on acquiring knowledge and increasing our intellect, we gain a big brain, one that is capable of analysis and critical thought. But without the humility, gratitude, and hope that adversity entails, we border on cynicism and self-righteousness in the way we view the world. My rationalization in denying the suffering I saw around me reflected not the supposed ease with which the poor lived everyday, but the failure of my own imagination in appreciating what I have been given through nature’s random act of kindness.
What I need is a heart big enough to match the bigger brain that I feed everyday. Action does not come from reasoning alone. It is in living with character strengths and in blurring the distinction between the heart and the brain that I can rise to my best possible self and live the meaningful life that is the ultimate human endeavor.