Standing in line at a coffee shop, I watched a man counting out dimes and pennies to pay for his order. The person behind him tapped him lightly on the shoulder and offered “Will you let me pay for your coffee this morning?” The man nodded and they both smiled. Tearing up, I felt a lump in my throat and the warmth of gratitude in my chest. What a wonderful start to a day.
When was the last time you witnessed or participated in an act of compassion and generosity? How did you feel? I argue that these moments are often when we feel something deeply human. And further, I believe that we need as many of these moments as possible — especially in business and politics.
There is a lot of research to support the importance of compassion to our species. Once our most basic survival needs for food, shelter, and physical safety are met, it is human connection that makes the biggest positive difference in the quality of our lives. The most durable happiness and life satisfaction comes from community and purpose – from a sense that your life matters and that you contribute to the wellbeing of others. The most fragile form of happiness comes from accumulating things. Unless…you share the things you have accumulated with others.
In modern politics and business, we often seem to lose sight of this. The examples of excess – where the drive for profits and fleeting political power eclipse human compassion – are all too common. In the United States, there are personal fortunes surpassing $100 billion dollars while it is no longer possible to rent a two-bedroom apartment working full time at a minimum wage job.
We are living in a time when the most vulnerable – those in poverty, the chronically ill, refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers – are being scapegoated and persecuted when assistance is most needed. And perhaps most distressing is the way that traditions of compassion, such as Christianity, are used to defend extreme materialism at the expense of the most vulnerable.
Given all of this, I propose the following:
- We pursue profit and power because we believe that it will ultimately lead to the love and connection that we seek.
- This path to love and connection is ineffective, and it has dire implications for our society, our species, and the environment.
- The surest way to experience love and connection is to practice love and connection.
- Compassion is as important in business and politics (maybe more so) as it is in any human endeavor.
Some corporate cultures have compassion at the core, some see it as a bonus, and some see it as a distraction. Perhaps our outlook depends on whether we see business and politics as integral to humanity or as something separate from humanity.
One reality of being human is that each of us has a finite time on this planet – no amount of profit or power changes that. And each of us makes a difference simply because of our existence. The question that each of us will be left with at the end of our time is what difference has our life made – how well have we loved? The answer to this question will be found in what we practice each day.