“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Last week, I drove to visit my parents. They live in a sleepy desert town east of Los Angeles. Since I have been living in Southern California for the last 15 or so years, I make it a point to see them at least once a month, but lately the frequency of my visits has decreased to once every other month. There isn’t a specific reason for this; only the nature of time and growing up, I guess. My mom had just returned from a long trip away, so I was especially excited to spend quality time with her and my dad.
Usually, going home feels like settling your ice cold feet into a warm blanket after a long day out in the snow. There’s a slow easing into the creature comforts of home, and eventually, it washes over you, that feeling of belonging and love, of family.
This time, however, I arrived to find the house completely quiet, dark except for the tinge of light coming from inside my parents’ bedroom. Just as I raised my hand to knock on their door, I heard the drone of my dad’s snoring over the evening news playing on their bedroom television. Greeting my parents would have to wait until morning.
When I woke up the next day, I heard the faint sound of water splashing on concrete. The weather forecast for the next few days didn’t call for any rain. I followed the sound out the door into the garage.
Through the haze of sleepiness, I found my dad crouched on a tiny plastic stool, scrubbing my car’s tires and wheels with a worn toothbrush the size of a toothpick. His hands soaked in car wash soap suds. Sweat dripping down his brow in the hot sun, he resembled one of those master craftsmen, straining with focus to complete their day’s work.
Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit, but the amount of care he put into washing my car was no less astounding. It wasn’t as if my car was in desperate need of cleaning. So, why did my Dad spend his morning on that stool making sure I could eat off the hood of my now impeccable car? Perhaps, for my Dad, giving his time might simply feel good.
With current research suggesting the rewards of generous actions such as donating to charities range from more happiness to lower risks of early death, experts say that the giver benefits more from a gift than the recipient.
But, compassion doesn’t just reward the individual; it inevitably spreads. In 2017, a team of researchers led by psychologists from Stanford University and Harvard University found that compassion is greatly influenced by behavior standards.
“People do not just report feeling more empathy when they observe others’ empathetic responses,” the researchers state, “but they also act on this empathy by helping those in need.”
In other words, if you see others acting with generosity, it’s likely you will join them.
What would Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Britain during World War II whose fervent appeals for public action made him so legendary that Gary Oldman won an Oscar playing him, have thought of such scientific data? His words quoted above speak to the intrinsic relationship between life and generosity, a phenomena that runs deeper than the comfort we have giving the usual physical gifts at birthdays or holidays. Something more intangible.
In 2010, archaeologists from the University of York in England discovered that early humans such as Neanderthals between 500,000 and 40,000 years ago developed the beginnings of human empathy. The evidence revealed instances of the injured or sick, having been routinely cared for and comforted presumably by family or other kin.
“Compassion is perhaps the most fundamental human emotion,” said Dr. Penny Spikins, a member of the archaeologist team.
My dad didn’t wash my car on that hot, sunny morning because he wanted to feel good about himself; he did it because he loves me.
Looking back at my childhood, I admit that I sometimes failed to notice my dad’s countless acts of kindness. They weren’t the grand gestures I would see in my favorite movies or television shows. Even though my dad worked a lot, he made the time to mow the lawn, fix the bathroom sink, or put together my desk. All of these actions came from a love he had for me and our family. Through his example, I learned empathy and generosity.
Although compassion might be the most fundamental human emotion, gratitude is its natural offspring. Studies have shown gratitude “not only helps people form, maintain, and strengthen supportive relationships, but it also helps people feel connected to a caring community.” Without gratitude, all those seeds of love that get planted fail to grow.
Sparked by a newfound gratitude for all the small things my dad has done for me, I constantly look for ways to give back to him, whether it’s sending him a short text message in the morning or teaching him how to use his new phone. It’s the least I can do for a man who’s given me so much more than I can ever give back.