On Blood and Altruism

Scene 1:

The other day, I was walking down Santa Fe towards my usual bus stop and I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned my head and came face-to-face with a man, probably 6’2″, muscular, who was literally covered in blood. I kid you not, there was blood all over his face and hands, with fresh red rivulets dripping from one of his eyelids and his impressively disfigured nose. His face was not even swollen, indicating that he had recently acquired his facial adornments. I nearly shat my pants.

He asked me for money.

“Por favor, ¿una moneda señor? Para el bebé, tiene hambre y no puedo encontrar trabajo.”

Deer in the headlights. I’m sorry, what? Is there a tacit, “or I’ll pulverize you” at the end of that humble plea? Is this some kind of asshole tactic to get money from people, or did you just kill somebody?

Not knowing exactly how crazy this guy was, I fished quickly for a coin in my pocket, handed it to him, and watched as he broke into a wide smile and thanked me profusely.

This is so confusing. So you’re not going to pulverize me or demand my wallet (or take my backpack with my laptop in it?).

I asked him why he had blood all over his face.

“Perdón, em— por qué … el sangre?”

He answered: “El boxeo.”

Boxing. 

I’m just going to believe that. Whatever you say, fella.

***

Scene 2:

The other day, I was on the 132 going from Córdoba to Rivadavia, listening to the cumbia blasting from my bus-neighbor’s headphones, when a homeless woman boarded the bus. She was an older lady, dark skinned with wild hair, dressed in an enormous quantity of oversized shirts and baggy olive-green pants. She wore no shoes. In her hands was a stack of paper- small ripped pieces of newspaper, arranged in a stack which she held carefully between both arms as one might hold a baby. She surveyed her audience and said nothing. She turned around and walked to the front of the bus, and started handing out the slips of paper.

One by one, she offered a ripped piece of newspaper each person on the bus, extending her arm gently and retreating quickly if someone waved to signal disinterest. She worked slowly through everyone at the front of the bus, then through the people standing in the center, and eventually arrived at my seat, the first of the seats in the back of the bus.

She offered me a slip of paper. She offered it to me slowly, cautiously, as if I might reach out and strike her arm away. We made eye contact. I took the slip of paper.

She kept on through the back of the bus, shuffling slowly through the crowd. She reached the last person, straightened up, put the remaining papers into one of her many pockets, and walked back towards the front of the bus.

One person in front was already holding a two-peso bill and waved it in her direction. She approached him, received the money, and dipped her head a little.

“Gracias, señor.”

Other hands were outstretched holding coins or bills. She went from person to person, dipping her head each time as she received their offering.

I looked around at my bus-neighbors. Almost all of them were holding or fishing for money for when the woman came their way (except for my bus-neighbor, who was still with his cumbia and whatever was outside the window).

I, too, retrieved a 2-peso bill from my wallet and sat waiting, watching, almost excited for my turn to give my money to this woman.

Well, she eventually did come my way, and I gave my pesos to her, as did almost everyone else on the bus. She thanked me and each other person, and then everyone at once— “Gracias a todos”— and then God— “y gracias al dios”— and then got off at the next bus stop. Her pockets were literally bulging.

***

I do have a few thoughts about what was going on here, but I’d love to hear your ideas as well, my dear readers, as I’m still somewhat perplexed by these two situations.

First off, bloody-man.

Lets first assume that he was actually boxing and then decided, immediately after being thoroughly defeated and not winning any money, that he needed to find a way to feed his baby.

Why didn’t he clean himself off first? He literally had not wiped his face or stopped the bleeding, and his nose was clearly in bad shape. Did he consciously understand that his menacing state would result in an easy few pesos?

I suppose that’s somewhat logical, although perhaps ineffective, as I imagine people would be likely to either run away or give the bare minimum to get him to go away.

It also seems like a quick way to get noticed by the police, although the police are much less of a presence in Buenos Aires than in most parts of the USA…

Alternatively, if this was an act or technique that this man regularly employed to ‘scare up’ some money, do you think it would be effective? If this were the case, I would have to conject that it would be effective because one would not undergo such regular pain and humiliation unless the payoff was significant.

Really though, he was big and bulky enough that the blood was unnecessary, so I strongly doubt that this guy had actually planned this as a technique, so…

Thoughts?

As for paper-slip-lady:

This situation I find very intriguing from both a psychological and sociological point of view. Why did the woman hand out the slips of paper, and why were people so willing to give to her? Both parties are worth consideration— the woman herself, and her audience, the crowd.

First off, I think that this woman knew exactly what she was doing. Of course I can’t know for sure, but I bet she carefully developed this technique after trying other cadging tactics and judging their relative success. Everything was done just right: her image— pitiful, but calm and respectful with some air of dignity; her interactions— which were deliberate and seemingly meaningful as communicated through eye contact and head-dipping, as if your contribution really made all the difference; and her timing— the entire process took no more than 3 or 4 minutes, within which time she effectively built a micro-connection with each person and left them with something.

Which leads us to question the crowd: why was everyone so willing to give to her?

I think that the woman effectively played upon several fundamental human (animal?) psych/sociological traits. The first being a selfish altruism and the second being a group effect. I am an expert on neither subject, so I’ll feed you my interpretation and those links and let me google it for you.

Selfish altruism has been widely studied and can be grounded in psychology and beneath that, evolutionary theory. Humans are social beasts and thus lived in groups during all of our development, and for most of that time we were hunting-and-gathering, thereby living in societies where sharing resources was crucial if we were to survive. Helping the group, therefore, was evolutionarily rewarded and hot-wired into us through psychological selection.

However, bringing this back to paper-slip-lady, what did the crowd (including myself) get from our selfish selflessness?

Well, a ripped piece of newspaper.

But of course, something mentally more. This part, I think, is different for each person based on their experiences and ethical tendencies, but almost surely exists in everyone. Perhaps it’s justifying one’s own circumstantial privilege.  For others it may be a sense of common humanity, as if s/he is helping a member of kin in need. I’m sure there are many more mental justifications, and I’d be interested to hear what they are specifically for you— why do you stop and give money to those who ask for it? What would persuade you to do so or to alternatively walk by in pointed silence. I do not think there is any shame in saying that it makes us feel good. That feeling is deeply engrained in our inner animal and has served us well in building connections, communities, and societies of efficiency and scale. Where do you draw the ethical lines here?

While I do think that paper-slip-lady has developed an innovative technique, I also think that she is still and forever at the mercy of the group effect, which is why her presentation is so important.

In that situation on colectivo 132, we, the audience-group of humans displayed a group effect shared with almost all other animals. When one rabbit detects danger, all rabbits hide in their holes. When one rabbit comes out to survey the scene, it may or may not get eaten. When two rabbits poke out their ears, they may or may not get eaten. But when three or seven rabbits emerge, all of the rabbits come out to play, because they know that the other rabbits know that the coast is clear.

So I bet that it works both ways for paper-slip-lady; that if she doesn’t nail the initial presentation, very few people contribute. On the other hand, we, the audience-group of humans could have then been guilty of the fourth reich, as we all bit that bait and were even excited to do so.

But what is this conversation really about? I think it would be very interesting to do a quantitative research study on panhandling tactics. Such a study may exist—I’m no scholar on the subject—but something about these situations is telling about human behavior and a data table might shed some light. 

What are your thoughts? It’s a favorite and classic debate: is selfless altruism possible? In humans? In animals?

And does it matter? In both situations, they got my pesos…

Summer Summary

So I didnt end up blogging biweekly, or even more than once, and I think thats okay with me. It’s not that I didn’t have anything to say, or that I was too lazy to write, or that I was too busy doing fancy internships and having corporate meetings. I have plenty to say, and I wrote more this summer than any other time in my life, and, as I said before, I pointedly avoided any-and-all career-friendly resume-builders this summer. Plenty of time for all of that.

I came to view this summer as one long, disjointed (yet cohesive) meditation. Yes, meditation— though perhaps my definition of the act is not in accordance with those of antiquity, as I spent very little time in any cross-legged positions— but I did meditate according to this wonderful definition:

Meditation is a practice of concentrated focus upon a sound, object, visualization, the breath, movement, or attention itself in order to increase awareness of the present moment, reduce stress, promote relaxation, and enhance personal and spiritual growth.

This, I did. Usually it was between 9am and 12pm (although those wee morning hours are always contemplative), and usually I was alone at the time, though I could have been sitting on a train zipping through some windmill-dotted countryside with my family quite by my side. Disjointed, yet cohesive, as it is all now bound between black walls; a summer’s worth of thought, poured into a paper vault. A lot of molting happened in these pages.

I am my own best audience, just as I am also my own best companion. Thoreau said something like that. Screw quotes, I go for gist. The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit. Hear that, Joe?

But I actually ended up doing a lot this summer. I’m not good at doing nothing, so I don’t. Instead I chose experiences and activities that I thought would grow my point of view, help my search for self, raise a new perspective— all with the aim of exercising our human-specific infinite molting potential. Lord let me shed my skin!

Early in the summer, I participated in StartingBloc Boston ’12, which was hosted at Babson College in Wellesley, MA. Though I touched upon this experience in “Reflections…“, I want to highlight this experience in my timeline of life events. StartingBloc was important: a five-day entrepreneurial boot camp that brought me into the remarkable company of my fellow fellows, an inspirational bunch of socially conscious, entrepreneurially-minded folks who are all working in unique and impressive ways to change the world. We prescribed to mantras like “CRUSH FEAR,” and “embrace uncertainty,” heard verbal inspiration from folks like Scott Sherman from Unreasonable, and Rachel Weeks from School House, we had entrepreneurial dance parties, and we drank a lot of coffee. This was framed by the Social Innovation Challenge (SIC), in which ReWork, a company that “connects exceptional professionals with companies that are making the world a better place,” challenged us to dissect, analyze, and rebrand key elements of their business plan, company message, and expansion strategy. 100(ish) StaringBloc candidates were separated into 9 (or so) teams, which each presented their innovations in a friendly and competitive forum. PROUDLY, my team, the Blueberries (BLUE, BLue, blue…!) won the challenge, which earned me and my team special interaction with the ReWork founders and a ticket to the all-fellows summit in Chicago in October. Hell yeah.

So that was all really exciting, and most importantly, affirmational of my current aspiration to create something, to start something, to bring something into the world. However, as I have realized repeatedly and again this summer, I have not yet discovered what I am passionate about.

I’ve been doing graphic design for TEDxKabul this summer. If you don’t know TED, you should first hire a contractor to heavylift the boulder you’ve been living under,— and then go immerse yourself in one of the greatest collections of knowledge and discovery ever assembled. It’s glorious— TED presents extraordinary people with extraordinary “ideas worth spreading.” TEDx conferences are independent TED events, where accomplished individuals each give “the greatest speech they can speak” in 18 minutes or less. TEDx events have been organized all over the world- Tokyo, San Francisco, Boston, Mumbai— and now, (in mid-October), Kabul, the war-torn capital of Afghanistan.

And so I’ve been working with Eileen (whom I met at StartingBloc) working on event branding, social media, and infographic design. And from watching video after video, and reading article after article, I have become quite convicted about Afghanistan’s current plight and future promise. I have thought even, after watching&reading such articles, that I could dedicate a solid decade of my life to building Afghanistan, and I would feel righteous and fulfilled contributing what I can to their struggle.

But then I remember MINDS— the nonprofit that I work for at Wesleyan, which works to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness in rural India. Please explore the website for more information, but this is an incredibly important issue of human rights, and another that I would feel righteous and fulfilled contributing what I can to their struggle.

I have elected my path- entrepreneurship- but I have not yet found what I am truly passionate about. I am just as attracted to (or horrified by) this disenfranchised group as I am the next poverty stricken neighborhood. The world is a big place. There’s an awful lot of poverty and disenfranchisement. I will do the greatest good for the greatest number of people that I can, taking into consideration my unique characteristics and attributes. But what will be my angle? Which problem, of those millions, am I to tackle? Cue the age old musing: what is my purpose in life?

As these questions are obviously inconclusive, I return to my current catch phrase, that I’m “gathering inspiration and education” in order to figure it all out. I’m happy with that. I am just about where I’d like to be in this whole process of becoming.

And so I collect! I read a lot this summer, including Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography (written to his son), Walter Isaacson’s biography on Ben Franklin, Sula – by Toni Morrison, a hefty chunk of My Life – Bill Clinton, The Power of Unreasonable People – John Elkington, Audience Evolution – Philip Napoli, and because he’s a creative master, Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

And as Susan Cain stresses in her IMPORTANT speech about the power of the introvert, I spent a lot of time in nature, sitting, writing, (taking pictures). If you sit still enough (and the fates feel kindly), sometimes the mosquitos don’t seem to notice you.

And now summer is coming to a close, and while I’m still prone to never-ending contemplations about best-using-my-life-for-the-world, I think I am a few inspirations closer, and slightly more educated, and also altogether happier than I was at the beginning of summer, as death and time begin to tire of combat. I am ready for my classes, eager to have some structure and predictability in my days, and looking forward to reentering my long-abandoned social spheres. Summer, check. Ready, set, molt.

QUACK

I love graphic design. I took a photoshop/digital imagery class in high school which prompted my interest in learning the program and its many intricacies. I also enjoy drawing (and other forms of visual art). However, I’ve never got a chance to take a class or really dedicate myself to improving.

Regardless, I have recently acquired a tablet (thanks Ma!)- which allows me to draw right into photoshop. In the same vein, I’ll be taking Drawing I and Introduction to Art History next semester. I’m excited- art is one of those things that I’ve always loved but never had time to develop. My aim is to learn how to see with an artistic eye; I don’t particularly care if I can replicate Rembrandt, but artists, through training, learn how to see the world differently.

“Innovation is about perspective shifting.”- Astro Teller, 2011

 

My first tablet creation: QUACK