For the last couple of years, I have seen speaking publically about my second book, The Constant Choice. It is a book discussing both good and evil, behavioral traits inherent in all of us and how we can shape our own nature through daily choices. I suggest a possible sources of evil and good in our DNA--not that we are controlled by our genetic structure, but that we are inclined to certain behaviors as a result of evolution. Such a view has enabled me to understand the central, formative experience I had as a child growing up in a Communist work camp in Romania.
In my speeches I am gratified that my audiences enthusiastically agree that doing good is the key to a meaningful and fulfilled life. And that we all have the capability to do good things for others and reward ourselves, in the process, by becoming better people through daily choice.
In many cases, a listener will come up to me, or write to me later, wondering "How can I, as one individual, make a difference in the world?" So I remind folks of Gandhi's reply: 1) start where you are 2) use what you have 3) do what you can.
Recently, David Brooks brilliantly explored the same subject in a column "Building Spiritual Capital." He opens his column with a story of a grandmother and her eight-year-old granddaughter who do just that: they use what they have and do what they can. They board a bus and mutually choose to sit with an obstreperous homeless man who has the whole side of the bus to himself because no one will sit near him. The grandmother and girl nod to each other with mutual understanding every time the man asks something of them: they both silently recognize the need for compassion and caring. In Lisa Miller's book, The Spiritual Child, she writes, "The nod was spirituality shared between child and beloved elder: spiritual direction, values, taught and received in the loving relationship." And that spirituality naturally, effortlessly spilled outward to the homeless man. They calmed him down and kept him company--and it was just what he most desperately needed right at that moment.
As Brooks summarizes: "The grandmother was teaching the granddaughter the wisdom that we were once all strangers in a strange land and that we're judged by how we treat those who have the least."
Atheists can do good as well and often the anti-God contingent is highly focused on making the world a better place. But spirituality gives the individual an edge. A relationship with a living presence of love and goodness--however an individual imagines it--makes it far likelier that love and goodness will motivate a person's daily behavior. Brooks cites studies that demonstrate how those who have a spiritual understanding of life are much less likely to succumb to depression and will navigate the perils of adolescence with greater likelihood of a healthful and happier outcome in their early adulthood. Brooks writes:
Miller defines spirituality as "an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding." Different people can conceive of this higher power as God, nature, spirit, the universe or just a general oneness of being. She distinguishes spirituality, which has a provable genetic component, from religious affiliation, which is entirely influenced by environment.
What's crucial is an openness to possibility and hope: a willingness to believe that every little choice, every little encounter with another person during the day, can plant a seed. Those seeds grow in other souls, spreading the likelihood that those treated with compassion will pay it forward by showing it to someone else.
Brooks even suggests, and rightly so, that schools could teach children about all the different ways in which spirituality has been understood around the world: a class on the wisdom inherent in the various spiritual traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. While schools can't advocate any particular religious tradition, a class on "wisdom traditions" could extract the core elements and teach what's common to all of them. As he writes, "It should be possible to teach the range of spiritual disciplines, in order to familiarize students with the options, without endorsing any one."
With scientific studies about how meditation affects the brain, and the studies Brooks himself cites about how spirituality can help protect against mental illness, I would expect it would be a class most students would find both engrossing and extremely helpful, at any age. In today's world, goodness needs more converts.