The power of good example

A professor of psychology from the University of Virginia, Dr. Jonathan Haidt, called it “elevation” – that warm glow that spreads through our chest and brings tears to our eyes when we witness an act of selflessness, compassion, or kindness.  Our breathing slows down, and gladness quickly fills our hearts.  We not only feel good, we are also prompted to do good.

Elevation sets off a ripple effect, says Haidt. An act of nobility works like a pebble of goodness thrown into a pool of accustomed indifference.  It can dispel cynicism and reverse moral numbness. The effect may not always be immediate.  If witnessing countless betrayals and acts of hypocrisy has poisoned our hearts, we would be looking for ulterior motives behind every act of kindness.  We must confront such skeptical reactions in ourselves, says Haidt, if we are to nurture the capacity for elevation in our lives.

The opposite of elevation is disgust, which might seem more common in today’s world.  Haidt’s own research began with the negative side of human experience.  Reading accounts of disgusting and mean behavior must have affected him, for he soon reversed his research focus by inquiring instead into the power of moral beauty.  One can only suppose that moral nastiness also triggers its own ripple effect.

I dug up the article on Professor Haidt’s study this week as I pondered the effects on the national morale of the relentless reports of corruption, betrayal, and deception that have filled our media in the past few days.  By coincidence, the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation is holding its annual celebration of Asian greatness of spirit with a series of symposia in which this year’s RM awardees speak of their work.  I wondered if a shift in focus from Filipino problems to Asian greatness could reverse this poisoned climate. Tonight at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, 7 individuals from various parts of Asia will receive their medals of recognition from no less than the president of our country.

James Michael Lyngdoh, India’s chief election commissioner, will be conferred the RM award for Government Service for his life-long record as a professional civil servant who insulated his country’s electoral process from the toxic effects of excessive politicking.  By refusing to consort with politicians and to bow to political pressure, he shows how far authority can go when it is coupled with integrity.

Gao Yaojie, an obscure medical doctor from China, and RM awardee for public service, saw how ignorance of the perils of indiscriminate blood-selling in poor communities could spread the scourge of HIVAIDS.  She is being recognized for her courage in promoting greater knowledge of this danger even if it contradicts the official image that public authorities wish to project.

Our very own Sheila Coronel, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism’s founding director, and RM awardee for Journalism, is being recognized for initiating a new style of journalism that contributes to the deepening of political discourse.  By giving Filipino journalists the opportunity and the training to undertake rigorous research in support of carefully written special reports, and for being a model of the responsible journalist herself, Sheila strengthens the media as a pillar of democracy.

Shantha Sinha, an academic from the University of Hyderabad in India, and RM awardee for Community Leadership, launched a crusade in her home state of Andhra Pradesh to end the scourge of child labor.  Working on the simple philosophy that child labor violates the fundamental right of children to education and a full childhood, Shantha visited the homes of poor families to persuade parents to send their children back to school.  Through a family foundation, she financed the creation of “bridge schools” in order to ease the reintegration of out-of-school children into the public school system.

Two Japanese individuals, Seiei Toyama and Tetsu Nakamura, are this year’s joint awardees for Peace and International Understanding. Toyama, a 97-year-old retired professor, is being recognized for his heroic effort to arrest the spread of the desert in China by bringing in hundreds of volunteers from Japan to plant 3 million poplar trees in the desert.  Nakamura, on the other hand, is a 56-year-old medical doctor who, for almost 20 years now, has quietly attended to the health needs of refugees and communities in the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Through his writings and lectures, he not only raised funds to support his hospital and clinics, he has also shown an image of Islamic peoples so different from that painted by mainstream media.

And finally, Aniceto Guterres Lopes, a 36-year-old lawyer from East Timor, is this year’s RM awardee for Emergent Leadership.  Aniceto attended the slow and painful birth of his young nation by working as a human rights lawyer during the turbulent years of Indonesian occupation.  When his country acquired its independence recently, Aniceto was given the heavy responsibility of heading the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.

Meeting these individuals in flesh and blood for the first time, one is awed beyond speech.  By their achievements, we dispel the gloom and pessimism that attend our peoples’ struggles for a better life.  We discover new ways of being useful to the little communities of which we are a part.  By the enormity of their spirit, and, even more, by their amazing simplicity as persons, we are prompted to play heroic roles in the conduct of our own ordinary lives.  It is the power of good example.


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