I grew up in Chico, California. In the past, if I mentioned Chico to anyone, they would smile and bring up Sierra Nevada beer, our local claim to fame or mention a relative who went to Chico State. However, these days, mentioning Chico results in saddened faces and inquiries into the well-being of my family.
On November 8, the most destructive fire in America's history started a deadly rampage through Northern California. It completely destroyed the town of Paradise, right outside my hometown. Paradise is mainly a retirement community, and so many of its residents are elderly, living in assisted living communities nestled deep within forested neighborhoods. As of today, there are over 1,000 people unaccounted for. Each day reveals more names of those who perished, unable to outrun the flames. It is hard to imagine, here on the other side of the country, what has become of my beloved hometown and the sadness and devastation that has taken hold of my friends and neighbors. The stories of pain and loss are too heartbreaking to comprehend.
In the wake of September 11, people began sharing a famous quote from Mr. Rogers: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
Today, I am overwhelmed by the humanity and heroism coming out of California. From the garbage collectors who pulled 90 year olds to safety, to the school bus driver who thought quickly and doused the 22 children on board with limited available water to prevent burns and smoke inhalation. Big acts like the San Francisco 49ers hosting the Paradise football team, and small generosities like grocery stores giving out free produce and turkeys. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised by GoFundMe campaigns, and the people of Chico have evacuees living in their homes.
These acts of kindness are overwhelming. They show the best of who we are and they show that, in spite of our differences, human beings are hard wired to help each other. In 2009, the New York Times published a study contradicting the existing notion that humans were naturally selfish and flawed. The study showed that the desire to help others starts very young and is not a learned behavior, but rather a natural instinct. The study talks about the idea of shared intentionality, understanding that humans share a desire to cooperate towards a greater goal. Ultimately, this concept is what separates us from our chimpanzee cousins, and shapes our humanity. In essence, it is exactly these acts of kindness, generosity, and altruism that make us human.
Other theories offer that empathy is what brings out our desire to help each other, and while some people are born with more empathetic tendencies, this soft skill can be learned, expanded, and strengthened. Empathy goes beyond compassion and involves the ability to place yourself in someone else's shoes and emotionally understand what that person is experiencing. I've worked with leaders on building their "empathy muscle" by incorporating daily practices like intentional eye contact, question-based interactions, and active listening.
Whether the desire to support others in times of need is encoded in our DNA, or strengthened by our understanding of other's pain, or a mix of both, there is no doubt that moments of great suffering bring out opportunities for great generosity. As I check in with my family and friends in Chico, their updates are often equal parts tragic stories and uplifting accounts. I find myself as overwhelmed and moved by the goodness of the community as I am heartbroken by the loss.
There will never be a lack of tragedy in our world. Suffering continues to exist. Let's not wait for the next big catastrophe to show our humanity. Check in with each other. Look each other in the eyes. Imagine the world from the position of someone else. You never know when you may need to rely on the kindness of others.