Like it or not, you are connected at an intimate biological level with everyone that comes across your path.
Suppose I find myself on an elevator with a stranger. Maybe I’m feeling stressed that day, so my breathing is faster, more shallow. I’m nervously shifting from foot to foot. Studies show that this tends to influence the stranger’s nervous system. His heart rate might increase. His body might even produce more cortisol (a stress hormone.) It’s as if he’s borrowing my “second-hand anxiety.” By the same token, maybe I’m feeling especially relaxed that day. My breathing is deep and steady, my posture relaxed, an easy smile on my face. This tends to trigger a similar relaxation response in the stranger’s body. Your nervous system is constantly being influenced – often at very subtle, unconscious levels – by everyone around you. In fact, you could say it’s difficult to know where your nervous system ends and someone else’s begins.
The Whole versus Parts
When you act from “selfish” interests, you are more likely to find yourself jousting with various other nervous systems. Your left foot is distinct from your right foot, yet both belong to a larger body. Can you imagine what would happen if your left foot went rogue, deciding to serve its own ends without working in coordination with the rest of your body? You would likely walk round and round in circles. When your body is at its healthiest, you don’t think of it in parts. You don’t think of it as a group of organs. You experience it as one, seamlessly connected whole. At some level, every person you meet becomes part of your larger “body.”
The Greater Good
I remind myself of this built-in connection to others when I’m trying to make a difficult life decision. I appreciate the fact that my choice will have an impact on the nervous systems of loved ones, casual acquaintances, complete strangers. So when I’m uncertain which path to choose, I ask myself a question: Which path would likely benefit the most people? This isn’t about being “selfless,” or even making a personal sacrifice. You can look at it strategically. If I make a choice that benefits as many people as possible, I’m guaranteeing myself a lot of support in this decision. My nervous system won’t have to shoulder as much of the burden if I’m inviting many other nervous systems to participate. And I “invite” them simply by carefully considering the impact of my choices on others.