If you're lucky, one day someone will come into your life and be a role model for you as an individual. If you're doubly lucky, that role model will inspire you to look beyond yourself to the good you can do for the world. I'm doubly lucky. In my first job after college, I was Executive Assistant at The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. There, I had the good fortune not only to learn about global ethics and morality from Elie Wiesel himself, but also to work with the then Executive Director, Daniel. Each day Daniel and I worked together, I hoped to "grow up" to act with even half the compassion and generosity of spirit that he did, as he endeavored, at all moments, to make the world a better place.
Sometime later, while I live-streamed the Change Your Mind, Change the World Conference from my office in Brooklyn on May 15, 2013, I kept thinking of Daniel. I couldn't help it. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, along with esteemed Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, was saying that global well-being radiates out from individual human compassion and generosity.
As Daniel's Executive Assistant for two years, I saw and heard him interact with dozens of people. He had two standard questions he asked everyone: The first was "how are you?" and the second was "how can I help you?" His eyes were alight as he said this, even if he was on the phone; he couldn't wait to hear what this person was about to say next. And even when, as all executives must, he had to do serious business, put pressure on a situation, or handle conflict, I witnessed Daniel treat each and every individual with respect. His reaction was never "this person is flawed." Instead, it was always "there's something going on here that's not right." To me, this meant that Daniel accepted that humans are, undeniably, human, and subject to the confusion of outside forces. It's not that people are fundamentally "bad," it's that people often have challenging or unhappy life experiences that, unfortunately, cause them to behave unkindly.
The Dalai Lama said as much at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. His Holiness said that our basic human nature is gentleness. But, we grow up in the social environment, where we need money, which breeds too much competition, which causes the positive aspects of our nature to become more dormant while the aggressive parts become more active. Moments earlier, Dr. Richard Davidson talked the science of this philosophy, telling us that research in human infants showed there's an innate disposition toward altruism and generosity. He also cited a separate experiment with adults: when people were given $100 to spend exclusively on themselves or exclusively on other people, the people who had the opportunity for generosity were, at the end of the day, happier. The problem, it seems, then, is not human nature, but human society.
The conference was addressing big, global thoughts like these. But the global starts local. And for me, the most local I can get is Daniel. Today, Daniel and I are no longer colleagues but remain dear friends. This is how our conversations go:
"How are you?" he asks, with that glow in his eye and a smile so warm it could melt an ice cream cone in winter. Typically, I gush about my life for the time it takes to savor two artisan cocktails. Then, he asks, "How can I help you get to where you dream of going?" Every thought and ambition I share with him is met with enthusiasm. He tells me "Oh, I'm so excited!" and "I can't wait!" as if he's psychic and knows for a fact that all of my dreams will come true. But it's not that he's clairvoyant -- it's that Daniel has unflagging, bone-deep faith in the capacity of people to do wonderful things. When I try to turn the conversation around to him to hear about all the wonderful things he's undoubtedly doing, it's nearly impossible. And if I do yank it out of him, he's the epitome of humility. "I couldn't believe I was there," he said of one recent experience consulting with world leaders, "The whole time I'm thinking, me? I'm a Jewish boy from Long Island."
From all of this, Daniel has become a voice in my head, reminding me to show compassion first, and think about myself later. Admittedly, I don't always do this. But because of him, I aspire to do this more often. I aspire to pause and ask someone how she is or how I can help before launching in to the latest thing on my mind. And, when I fail to ask these questions, I try to catch myself, attempt to correct it, internally recognize my misstep and vow to do better the next time. At times when I face an ethical dilemma, or a situation where I feel wronged or slighted, I think "what would Daniel do?" and "what would Daniel say?" In each challenging moment, I try to channel his compassion, to take the road that always gives people the benefit of the doubt, that always assumes we are altruistic and well-intentioned before we are selfish and cruel.
Now, this is not all just to exalt Daniel. (He isn't perfect, just like the rest of us.) But what I mean to say is that I think Daniel is on to something with this compassion of his. Daniel is a recognized leader in philanthropy and is consistently invited to speak, consult, and work with world leaders to discuss causes ranging from modern day slavery and human trafficking to Himalayan art. I believe his big secret to his popularity (and sorry if I'm selling you out, Daniel) is his compassion and generosity of spirit. In his heart of hearts, Daniel wants to make the world a better, kinder, gentler place to live. Every day, he interacts with individual people and makes their worlds better, kinder, and gentler. And because of that (and his intelligence), he gets to influence big influencers who have the capacity to change the course of humanity for the better.
The hashtag for the conference was #imagineaworldwhere. When I #imagineaworldwhere, it centers on what I learned, and am still learning, from Daniel and thought leaders like the Dalai Lama -- human compassion on an individual level has a ripple effect to, eventually, benefit all of humanity. So, here are a few hashtags I hope you'll consider: #imagineaworldwhere people are compassionate to one another everyday; #imagineaworldwhere we sincerely ask "how are you" and "how can I help you" prior to asking to be served ourselves; #imagineaworldwhere we assume people mean well before they are mean; and #imaginaworldwhere the kindness between two human beings becomes the kindness between four, forty, four-hundred, four-thousand, million, billion.
Again, I'm lucky. I get to have Daniel's voice in my head reminding me to think this way, and the benefit of his company to model compassionate and generous behavior and its positive impact on human society. But for those of us who don't have our own Daniel, I believe that his lessons are attainable. It starts with one person (you) asking another (it could be anyone), sincerely, "how are you?" and "how can I help you?" before you ask for anything for yourself. If we could all practice this, even once a day, then we'll get closer and closer to living in the kinder, gentler world we now imagine.