Tag Archives: #altruism

# 63 Consider the Goodness of Humanity

pink-dottrees on the water

       Many years ago I chanced upon The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono.  It is a brief story, written in 1954 as a piece about an unforgettable character.

The story begins around 1913 when the author is taking a long trip on foot through the valleys of the Provence.  He comes upon a valley that is barren and devoid of trees, villages, crops.  The wind blows across the barren plain.  The spring is dry.  The few remaining homes are in disrepair.  The author meets there a farmer by the name of Elzeard Bouffier who is watching over his sheep.  Bouffier lives in a neat, well ordered cottage and offers the author a bed for the night.

The next morning Bouffier is up early with a sack of acorns and an iron rod a yard and a half long, pointed at one end.  He makes a hole in the earth, puts the acorn in, and covers the hole.  He tells the author that for three years, he has been planting acorns in the wilderness.  Though Bouffier was 55 years old, he had planted one hundred thousand trees.  Of those, twenty thousand had sprouted.  Of those, he expected to lose half, but that ten thousand would grow where there had been none before.  Bouffier goes on to explain that his wife and son had died, and that he had withdrawn into this solitude.  He felt that the land was dying for want of trees.

       The author goes into the French Army for five years and survives the War of 1914.  When the war is over, he decides to return to the valley.  The oaks of 1910 were now ten years old.  The author spends the day walking through Bouffier’s forest in silence.  “When you remembered that all this sprang from the hands and the soul of this one man, without technical resources, you understood that men could be as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction.”

But Bouffier was not finished.  Though now 60 years old, he had been planting birch seedlings which had begun to sprout in 1910.  There were now clumps of birch trees as well.  Because of the trees, the water reappeared in the springs.  The wind scattered the seeds.  Then willows, rushes, and meadows appeared here and there.  But the transformation was so gradual that no one noticed.  Hunters in the forest who now hunted game assumed the forest just reappeared of its own accord.

In 1935 a whole delegation came from the Government to proclaim the “natural forest” that had grown up around the town.  The whole forest was put under the protection of the State and the trees were forbidden to be cut down.  During these years, Elzeard Bouffier continued his plantings of seedlings and acorns, day after day.  He became so solitary he lost the use of speech altogether.  Yet he is happy in his simple life.

The author goes back in 1945 and is amazed to see now a whole town has grown where there used to be but a few hovels.  There is a fountain in the center of the town, and a linden tree, planted as a symbol of hope.  There are fields of barley and rye.  The old streams, fed by the rains and snows that the forest conserves, are flowing again.  On each farm are maples and tall grasses.  More than ten thousand people live in comfort, owing their happiness to Elzeard Bouffier.

Giono closes, “When I reflect that one man, armed only with his own physical and moral resources, was able to cause this land of Canaan to spring from the wasteland, I am convinced that in spite of everything, humanity is admirable.”


Giono, J.  1985.  The Man Who Planted Trees. Chelsea, Vt.:  Chelsea Green Pubs.


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# 2 Reflect on the Ripples in the Stream

pink-dot                                                                                     Prow in the water.jpg

That the five bystanders all came together in a synchronous effort to save this man from imminent death was nothing less than a miracle.  What they did with the experience was even more enlightening.  For Carla Chelko it was a chance to redeem the horrific memory of her brother’s death a year earlier from a heart attack, after her efforts to save him failed.  Plunkett went on to help Chelka’s son raise money for his missionary work in Africa.  Following the publicity of the event, Dr. Davis received a stream of gratitude from people, something he rarely ever got in his medical specialty of anesthesiology.  Dr. Winston, the resident, took the experience as confirmation that cardiology would be his life’s work.  For Dr. Gott, the incident gave his life a sense of meaning and purpose.  Wheeler, the paramedic, won a lifesaving award for her part in the drama.  The memory of that day helps her ward off the tough-minded cynicism that comes with a daily stream of muggings, shootings, and child abuse she is witness to in the big city.  “Something like this makes you a stronger person,” she said.  “It’s made me think, ‘How can I be a more positive person?’ “ 

*  The result of the coming together of these people in an act of moral beauty that transcended the moments and hours it took to save this man from certain death.   The effect was like the wake of a boat as it moves across the stream   You create a wake that moves outward, creating currents that impact the water and the creatures around you.

Consider this for a few minutes–that your simple act of kindness and compassion might not only affect another person deeply, but  that the effect of that act may move outward to affect other people in indirect ways.

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#1 Reflect On An Act of Moral Beauty



On July 4 Don Plunkett was one among the pack of 55,000 runners who set off to run the annual 6.2 mile run known as the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta.  For those readers who have not lived here in the deep South, the weather in the middle of the summer is especially hot and humid.  He had just crested the hill at the 5 mile point when he collapsed.  The 58 eight year old man was lying motionless in the roadway, not breathing.  Carla Chelko, a physical education instructor, stopped immediately, pried his mouth open and started rescue breathing.  Right away two more runners stopped, both of them doctors.  Dr. Lee Davis, an anesthesiologist, began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  Dr. John Gott, a cardiothoracic surgeon, performed chest compressions.  Next on the scene was a paramedic, Arthur Kaplan, who rushed over with life-saving gear.  With supplies from Kaplan, the four continued to work on Plunkett, but to no avail.  He was turning blue.  Christy Wheeler, another paramedic, arrived within three minutes with a defibrillator.  The first two shocks didn’t get a response from Plunkett’s heart which had stopped.  She cranked it up to the maximum setting.  The third shock resulted in a heartbeat.  The crowd cheered.  Later that day Dr. David Vega and Dr. Dan Winston performed Plunkett’s triple bypass surgery at a nearby hospital.  Plunkett not only survived but came through with no permanent damage to his heart.  It was an amazing coming together of caring and resources, like links in a chain.

Behavioral scientists refer to this kind of event as an act of “moral beauty.”  Studies show that when people witness others being kind to strangers they experience an emotion of elevation.  People have described it as a warm, uplifting feeling  of expansion or floating, typically felt in the chest,.  We feel a welling up of emotion like a wave passing through us.  Scientists do not know yet how and why the human brain processes this information and sends out these signals to the body.

Jonathan Haidt conducted research in which he asked people to write about “a specific time when you saw a manifestation of humanity’s ‘higher’ or ‘better’ nature.”  The participants described themselves as surprised, stunned, and emotinally moved.  The feeling of elevation made them want to do something for others and to become a better person   They described a sense of love for others and a desire to be with others.

I first read about elevation in 2001 and have continued to find it a compelling subject.  Since then many tragedies have occurred all over the world–the 911 attack on the World Trace Center, the tsunami in Indonesia, earthquakes in Mexico, terrorist attacks in Europe, the school shootings in Connecticut, the tornados which hit Oklahoma only recently.  While devastating, all these events are also stories of courage, sacrifice, heroism, and determination.

For many years scientists have theorized that altruism is genetically wired into human beings.  We give up personal interest to help others because, in doing so, we insure the survival of the family, the clan, and the community.  Is elevation also built into our DNA?  Did it evolve to help us overcome grief, to lift us up to our higher, better nature?

For today, onsider acts of moral beauty which you have witnessed–people stopping to help a driver who is stranded, a stranger stopping to return a lost or injured dog. Or consider one you have heard about–the firemen who went into the World Trade Center, the teacher who put her body over the children in the closet of the classroom during the school shooting, the man who jumped onto the subway tracks to retrieve another man who had fallen there.  Be lifted up by it.


APA.  2001, July/August.  Templeton Positive Psychology Prize goes to Jonathan Haidt of U. of Virginia.  APA Monitor on Psychology, Hiskey, M.

“God Tied People Together.” July 3, 2002.  Atlanta Journal Constitution. C1, C2.

Haidt, Jonathan.  2000, March 7.  The Positive Emotion of Elevation.  Prevention and Treatment. 

Photo from the AJC Peachtree Road Race page on Facebook.

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