When Did You Stop Caring?

Here’s some news you can use: Former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, labeled the “butcher of the Balkans”, has finally left the stage. His body was found Saturday in his prison cell.

Milosevic is allegedly responsible for the deaths of at least 250,000 people—almost twice as many civilians as America’s political leaders killed in Hiroshima and more than six times as many as they’ve killed in Iraq (estimated between 33,489 and 37,589, according to a website that tracks these vital statistics).

Why should you care? Why shouldn’t you? Each of these humans had loved ones. They were mothers and fathers and children. Some were elderly. Many were babies. They baked the bread and repaired the cars, and washed the clothes. They mattered.

When did we stop caring?

I saw a powerful play last week: “I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda”. It was another personal story of triumph over the breathtakingly brutal genocide there, and another dramatic reminder that the rest of the world simply didn’t care.

Earlier today, about 100 citizens gathered in a university classroom to share their concern about the Americans and Iraqis who have died and many more who must try to survive in what’s left of the unstable country we’ve bombed and invaded for reasons that remain an elusive target. On the way to that meeting, I passed thousands of shamrock and green top hat-wearing folks packing the downtown Chicago sidewalks after the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Who would dare to parade through the streets of Baghdad these days?

When did we stop caring?

I’m sure that the answer is different for each of us, but according to a study in the March 9, 2006 issue of the journal Science, we might have begun caring for others long before we realized it. In a world where we’ve been told that we were born as sinners because two newborn creatures in adult bodies made a poor choice thousands of years ago, this was news I really could use.

The journal report documents a dramatic experiment at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The cast of characters included 24 toddlers and one Felix Warneken, a psychology researcher. Reportedly, Warneken performed a series of mundane tasks as the toddlers watched: hanging towels with clothespins and stacking books.

As his drooling, diapered audience watched, Warneken pretended to be challenged by these tasks. And this is where it got interesting: Almost every time Warneken dropped clothespins or knocked over the books, the 18-month old baby with whom he was experimenting quickly scrambled to help him. If the baby didn’t help, it was because Warneken didn’t appear to need it. This happened 100% of the time.

Not once did Warneken ask for help, but a video of his experiment revealed how the toddlers discerned that their help was warranted. But before making a move, the baby glanced at Warneken’s face, then at the dropped clothespin. Not once did a toddler bother to help when Warneken deliberately pulled a book off the stack or threw a pin to the floor. But if his facial expression broadcast that he was helpless, the baby immediately crawled to the pin, pushed himself onto his feet and eagerly returned the object to Warneken.

What was the payoff for the baby: A toy? A Zwieback teething biscuit? A piece of fruit? Nada. Zip. Zilch. These kids didn’t even get a thank you. Warneken didn’t want to manipulate the outcome or taint his research by training the babies to expect praise whenever they helped. Remember, this was a test of altruism. True altruism, true caring gives without expecting personal reward.

This was a small sample, only two dozen babies. But the fact that each of them behaved the same way, 100% of the time, is very significant. Whenever I encounter a new personal development or New Age technique for manifesting a “better life”, I look at it through this lens: “If it doesn’t happen 100% of the time for 100% of the people, it’s not a law. It’s a possibility, a potentiality, not a law.”

I’m impressed that Warneken got the same results 100% of the time. It leads me to believe that at a very early point in our lives, we cared. We not only cared, but we cared enough to extend ourselves to help others—even strangers. We saw someone in distress and we were motivated to bring them some relief. What does that say for the theory that we are inherently bad, natural born sinners.

According to this study, it is quite the contrary. We are inherently good, caring, and helpful. We naturally extend ourselves, even when there’s no personal reward; that’s who we really are. At some point, we made a conscious decision to be less than that.

When did we stop caring?

Every decision we make has a natural outcome. But every day offers new opportunities to make different choices and create different outcomes. We can choose to destroy others’ lives and others’ homelands or we can choose to care. We can choose to huddle in small groups to heal ourselves, our personal relationships and our own communities, or we can let them die.

But if we are naturally altruistic from the time we are 18-months old, it appears to me that the path of least resistance is to care for ourselves, care for others, and help those in need, without expecting reward or recognition.

I wonder what a difference that would make in our world–starting with that rising body count.