There are some very important anniversaries to be observed today – Parliament passed the Tea Act, Marines attacked Tripoli – and many birthdays of note, including such heavyweights as Edward Gibbon and Samuel F.B. Morse.
But one man who celebrates today is particularly fascinating – he is a perfect example of the mysterious call to service that some human beings demonstrate and most do not.
So, many happy returns to Mayor Cory Booker of Newark NJ, who turns 43 today.
Cory Booker grew up in nice affluent community, was raised by two highly successful IBM executives, doesn’t seem to have suffered from much discrimination and took all the prizes available to a bright young male American, including a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford.
For some reason, he settled on Newark – blighted, corrupt and downtrodden – as the recipient of his gifts. He served on the City Council, ran for mayor in 2002, lost, ran again in 2006 and won. From 1998 until 2006 he lived in one of the city’s worst housing projects – Brick Towers – and after it was torn down, moved to a really bad neighborhood.
All the statistics on how crime is down, affordable housing is up and schools are improving are here, but he is a mayor with a big difference: he has open office hours so residents can talk to him personally, he’s been known to patrol the streets in the wee hours and even shoveled snow for a retiree once.
Dude, on April 12, he rescued a woman from a burning building! Seriously, what more could you ask?
He seems utterly selfless in his dedication – the very personification of altruism. Where does that come from?
Altruism has been studied by scientists, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and neurologists. There are anthropologists who will tell you that evolution is not just about survival of the fittest, but also survival of the kindest – check out what slime mold gets up to.
Neurologists have several theories, apparently depending on the kind of experiment conducted, but we do seem hard-wired for altruism. Sociologists have found that altruism is good for your health – a group of older subjects studied showed that those who volunteered were healthier, happier and had a 44% lower death rate than those who did not.
All religions put altruism right up top when it comes to moral values – it is central to Buddhism and all in all for Jains.
So, given all this, why do the Cory Bookers of the world seem so exceptional? Not just among politicians -where they are to say the least highly unusual – but in the wider world as well.Why do people who rescue others or come to the aid of a drowning dog or share what little they have always make the news?
Psychology offers a theory: the very altruistic also seem to have very highly developed feelings of empathy. They are more able to identify with ‘the other’ than most of us and in fact may eventually be seen to be talented in the same way as a painter or musician, artists with a special gift.
Cory Booker, btw, is a master of social media – you can keep up with his exploits on Facebook. He is also the subject of two movies: Street Fight, the story of his first mayoral campaign, is available on PBS, and Brick City, a Sundance Channel documentary, can be found there. Here is the trailer: