In some ways, there is nothing more natural. Foals and shorebirds can fend for themselves the day they’re born, but human children remain helpless for years. They must crave attention; without it, they would die.
But instead of subsiding with age, the drum major instinct spreads across our lives. We’ve even elevated it into an ideology, defining success as the ability to beat our enemies and outshine our peers — as though self-obsessed competition will make us thrive.
This notion is both comically and tragically backward. Decades of evidence demonstrate that social connections sustain us. Chronic loneliness increases mortality risk about as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. We flourish not by besting others, but by being part of something greater than ourselves. By clamoring for status, we deprive ourselves of one thing that would actually help us — each other.
In a revealing series of studies, the psychologist Jennifer Crocker and her colleagues asked freshman college students about their social goals. Some cared most about making a good impression: showcasing their strengths and hiding their weaknesses. You might think this is a wise strategy among young adults sizing one another up, but it wasn’t.
The more students focused on themselves, the more lonely, depressed and anxious they became, and anxiety in turn made students worry even more about their image. Scratching the itch of their drum major instinct, they made it worse.
That cycle is everywhere in our culture. We crave wealth, overspend and end up broke. We desire attention but end up alone. We sprint toward what we want and away from what we need.
As King saw it, our addiction to self poisons not only our personal relationships but also our culture.
“Do you know,” he preached, “that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? . . . A need that some people have to feel . . . that their white skin ordained them to be first.”
To admire ourselves, we cut down other groups, even other nations, and devolve into reckless aggression — which King called a “suicidal thrust that we see in the world today.” A half-century later, we still see it.
But if the drum major instinct is poison, there is an antidote. Let’s call it the drummer’s instinct: an urge not to lead the parade, but to be part of it — in rhythm with others, creating something together that no one could alone. The drum major instinct zooms us in on ourselves, but the drummer’s instinct drives us to care for our bandmates, and it runs deep. Young children crave attention, but they also prefer kindness over cruelty, and spontaneously help others in need.
Where the drum major instinct depletes us, the drummer’s instinct fulfills us. In her studies, Crocker measured not just the college students’ desire to stand out but also to be kind. Students who held these “compassionate goals” suffered less depression, anxiety and loneliness. They received more support from their peers, but that is not what predicted their well-being. Those who helped others were most likely to thrive.
This pattern, too, is widespread. Children and adults draw joy from helping others. Doctors who feel compassion for their patients burn out less often. Colleagues who support one another perform more effectively and are more fulfilled at work. And older adults who volunteer live longer and remain healthier than those who don’t.
The evidence is uncontroversial — by serving others, we help ourselves. Why, then, do we keep making the same mistakes? I see two reasons.
First, individualistic cultures like ours valorize selfish pursuits, and then teach us — wrongly — that whether we like it or not, selfishness is at our core. This turns up the volume on our desire for attention, making the drummer’s instinct harder to hear.
Second, people often help others to help themselves. We give to charity for that rush of “warm glow,” or to confirm our character in moments of doubt. We advertise our virtues by changing our profile picture, or donating just enough to get our names on the opera house wall. These acts are generous on the surface, but hide the drum major instinct underneath.
This shallow kindness can also be a trap, because it extends only as far as our own comfort. Speaking in 1967, King said: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. . . . It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” When we benefit from those structures, real kindness requires moving beyond what makes us happy.
King said the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. But he also cautioned against complacency, which he called a “negative peace.” In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, he wrote, “time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. . . . Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God.”
The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, when we bend it that way. When we choose whether to be a drum major or drummer, we change how we live and how we feel. But if that’s our only priority, we’ve already made the wrong choice.
The holiday honoring the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — the third Monday in January — was first observed in 1986. In 1995, it was designated a national day of service. With the 25th anniversary of the MLK Day of Service on Jan. 20, six volunteers — an advocate for sexual assault victims, a cuddler of sick babies, a cancer survivor helping child cancer patients and others — reflect below on how service has made a difference to themselves and others.
Jamil Zaki is an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.”
Aiding the homeless: 'It's such an honor to help them'
As a teenager in Chicago, Gabi Bello often spent her weekends wheeling around a clothing rack in a wagon with her friends to hand out donated coats and sweaters, along with hot chili and cornbread, to homeless people near her neighborhood.
“I always loved seeing their smiles and I loved how it made me feel to do it,” she said. “Interacting with people in need always reminded me of what my parents had taught me: ‘Bless others like you have been blessed.’ It just felt like the natural thing to do.”
So in 2018, when Bello, now 19, left Chicago to become a human services and social justice major at George Washington University in the District, she realized that she wanted to continue to help homeless people in some way.
As a new student in a new town, she said she found it important to remain connected to the world beyond the college campus. Bello found the perfect way to stave off homesickness and make new friends by signing up as a volunteer at Miriam’s Kitchen, miriamskitchen.org, a charity that provides hot meals, clothing and help with housing to D.C.’s most vulnerable residents, with the goal of ending chronic homelessness.
A year and a half later, Bello is still there, volunteering after class 15 hours a week as a team leader for engageDC — an organization at GWU that partners students with nine community organizations in the District, including Miriam’s Kitchen.
Managed by the university’s Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, engageDC has helped Bello to remember that not everyone is fortunate enough to attend college and spend their nights in a warm dorm room, she said.
“Doing this is absolutely good for my own health,” said Bello, who is now a sophomore and hopes to attend law school after she graduates from GWU.
“If I’m having a bad day, my mood immediately changes when I show up to volunteer,” she said. “I have a roof over my head and clothes on my back, and for too many people, those are luxuries. People who are homeless are often ostracized, but they’re simply people with dreams like you and me. It brings a joy to my life to spend my spare time helping them.”
At Miriam’s Kitchen, Bello oversees about 30 other student volunteers from GWU and alternates between helping with art therapy projects, handing out clothing, prepping meals in the kitchen and greeting clients.
“The goal is to get them into housing and when that happens and they share that they’ll be moving, I tend to cry a little bit,” she said. “It’s such a monumental moment and it touches me deeply.”
“If they can see and feel that I genuinely care, that’s when walls are broken down and they learn to trust,” Bello said. “It’s such an honor to help them and to get to know them as the unique people they are. Every single day, they warm my heart.”
When cancer survivor visits hospital, 'it's all about the kids'
Peter Steckelman received an unexpected “gift” on his 41st birthday in 2006. On that day, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s B-cell lymphoma at the UCLA Medical Center and soon started a harsh treatment regimen that included chemotherapy and radiation.
“It was a rather jarring and eye-opening experience to say the least,” he says in an understated way. Four years later, Steckelman — now an attorney and business executive at the Tennis Channel — was clear of the cancer.
Since his diagnosis, Steckelman has donated to various cancer charities. But once he was considered cured in 2010, he “thought there’s got to be a way I can do something more.” He remembered that UCLA has “a terrific children’s hospital” and decided to reach out.
It was all pretty simple, he says, describing his initial phone call: “I’m looking to volunteer. I’m a success story here from the oncology practice and I’d like to be able to share some fun and help support sick kids.”
After a background check, he was accepted as a volunteer in the Chase Child Life Program at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles.
For nine years, Steckelman has donned his volunteer uniform — khaki pants, sneakers and a white shirt with a blue hospital jacket — to spend Sunday mornings with the kids at UCLA.
I spoke with him on a recent Monday and I could still hear the excitement in his voice as he explained that trained volunteers like himself “go into the kids’ rooms, spend time with them and engage with them — playing, watching TV or a movie, doing crafts, coloring, whatever the kid wants to do.”
Steckelman chose to work with pediatric patients because, he said, “why not help the kids so they can have a better, happy, productive and full life?”
One of his young patients, a 5-year-old boy with leukemia, “was very sick” when they first met. “He was bald, no eyelashes, no eyebrows — kind of like I looked during chemotherapy,” he said.
For two years he visited the boy. In that time, the young patient had been in and out of the hospital at least three times. During the third hospitalization, the parents talked to him. “We recognize you as one of the volunteers,” they said to him, “and you don’t seem thrown by anything. . . . But why are you here? What’s your motivating factor?”
He told them, “I want to help people who are at this place and I hope they’re going to have the same outcome that I had. I went through chemotherapy and radiation, and here I am.”
“I hope to be an example of a positive outcome,” he tells me before acknowledging that’s not always the case.
“For those four hours, it’s all about the kids,” he said, describing what he gets out of volunteering. “I can take away my executive hat. I can take off my accountability hat and be of service to somebody else. That’s very satisfying.”
He continued: “The value for me is that I’m able to pay it forward and give someone my psychic energy.”
Steckelman paused for a moment: “But, it’s hard. There are times when the kids are a little older, especially [those with hematologic or blood cancers] or some that are in the ICU. . . . That brings me back to moments of my own struggles. I don’t like it, but I go back to the part where it’s not about me” — it’s about the kids.
“I force myself past it and I just do it,” he said.
In 2020, Peter Steckelman starts his 10th year as a volunteer. He has no plans to stop his Sunday visits.
The sexual assault traumatized her. Advocating for victims now heals her.
One night during her freshman year of college, Rachael drank too much and blacked out. She woke up naked, having been sexually assaulted. She didn’t know who her attacker was, meaning he could be anyone. It felt to Rachael that he was everyone, everywhere on campus. She stayed in bed for days, getting up only to compulsively shower.
Holed up in her dorm room, Rachael (whose last name has been omitted to protect her privacy) stumbled on a highlighting pen with the number for RAINN, a sexual assault telephone hotline. She connected with an advocate on campus, who was confident, open and kind with her. Though they met only a few times, the advocate set Rachael on a path to healing. She’s not alone: Although every case is different, trauma survivors who are supported by others are less likely to report long-lasting post-traumatic stress disorder.
Years later, Rachael heard an ad on the radio requesting volunteers for another assault hotline. She was energized by the idea that she could help others who had suffered as she did. She trained for 50 hours and worked several shifts a week, most often from midnight to 9 a.m.
Rachael helped dozens of people, and advocating for them further changed her.
She was now majoring in classroom education, but her hotline work made her mind wander. Were the children she would be teaching safe at home? Did they need help that a teacher could not provide? She realized her service had morphed into a life mission. She now works as a full-time advocate for victims of abuse.
Thousands of survivors such as Rachael devote themselves to advocacy and peer counseling, changing their lives to serve others. Their stories highlight a surprising feature of trauma: Although it makes the world seem crueler, its victims often become kinder — a phenomenon psychologists call “altruism born of suffering.”
Kindness and compassion bloom amid all sorts of adversity. In the weeks and months after being assaulted, about 80 percent of survivors experience deeper levels of empathy than they did before. Veterans help one another contend with combat-related PTSD. Ex-narcotics addicts who have been clean for 10 years help others through their first 10 days. Members of war-torn communities are more likely to vote, participate in social movements and cooperate with one another than members of other communities.
The positive effects of suffering last years.
In one study, psychologists Daniel Lim and Dave DeSteno measured the number of difficult life events individuals had experienced — things such as severe illness or car accidents. These people came to the lab, where they encountered another participant who was struggling with a frustrating task. Participants stepped in to help this person, and those who had suffered most also helped most often.
In doing so, many emerge stronger and more fulfilled than they were before. “Post-traumatic growth” describes a deepening of meaning, relationships and purpose following intense suffering. Though such growth might sound paradoxical, it is almost as common as PTSD and becomes a bigger part of survivors’ lives over time.
Although scientists have yet to deeply explore this connection, it stands to reason that kindness, whether given or received, can be a linchpin for post-traumatic growth. When peer counselors such as Rachael tell their stories, new survivors see a person they could become: someone who has overcome abuse.
When Rachael helps someone reeling from recent abuse, she sees all over again how strong she really is. And if the pain she endured can help to prevent or soften the pain of others, it was not for nothing.
“There’s such a joy when you know you’re supporting someone else through something difficult,” she says. “Watching my clients grow from being in fear to feeling strength is amazing; it’s contagious.”
Rachael still bears the pain of her assault.
“I’m keenly aware of the violence that happens between people. I’ll always be tuned to a dark part of the world,” she says. But by turning to service, she has transformed her experience into something else, and taken power over her story.
Wrestling coach teaches smart moves on the mat — and in life
“Quick feet, quick feet, quick feet,” Lio Quezada shouts in the wrestling room at a high school in Alexandria, Va. Eighteen wrestlers, ages 8 to 14, pump their legs; their feet pound the blue matted floor with muted thuds.
“Good, that’s good,” Quezada yells during the drill.
The trim, muscular Quezada — a 21-year-old volunteer assistant coach with the Virginia Ramblers wrestling club and a former wrestler at George Mason University — leads practice and critiques his students’ techniques, but his lessons cover more than half nelsons and single-leg takedowns.
“Okay — good deed of the day,” he announces during a break. “What’s one good thing you did today? Give me something juicy.”
“I helped my friend with a worksheet,” a gangly boy says.
“I thanked the lunch lady,” another says.
“Awesome. One clap,” Quezada tells them, and they clap in unison — CLAP.
Quezada believes that wrestling can teach values such as discipline and hard work, and as he runs sprints with his young students, he is the sweaty, successful proof. Before embracing the sport at age 12, Quezada’s future looked dim. He was already drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. He hung out with a rough crowd and grew up without a father. Then, when his older brother was expelled for being high at school, Quezada experienced an epiphany.
“I realized my life was going to slowly end up like his,” he says. “I saw what this did to my mother and I knew I couldn’t go down that same path.”
His seventh-grade gym teacher asked whether he was interested in wrestling. Quezada resisted, but he was a natural.
“I became obsessed with it,” he says. “It changed my circle of friends, it changed my drive and my demeanor.”
He became a two-time state champion and three-year captain at John Handley High School in Winchester, Va. As his wrestling skills and work ethic improved, so did his grades. He was accepted at Mason and joined the wrestling team as a walk-on in 2016, earning a starting spot over two wrestlers on scholarship.
But it wasn’t easy. For most of his college career, he was juggling classes, matches and practices while working 24 to 30 hours a week at Home Depot to cover expenses. He made the painful decision to give up wrestling his senior year, but he’ll graduate in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in education, and he expects to earn his masters in 2021, with plans to focus on special education.
The decision to volunteer stemmed from his relationship with his high school coach, David Scott, who worked with him, encouraged him and drove him to offseason tournaments across the East Coast.
“That wasn’t his job,” he says of the road trips. “He kept me accountable and I knew, regardless of what happened, he was always going to love me. If it wasn’t for other people volunteering in my life, I would have gone on a completely different path.”
Quezada wanted to provide that same guidance and support to young people.
In 2018, Ramblers Coach Pete Zafros, also a volunteer, was seeking assistance, and a friend recommended Quezada. The Ramblers are sponsored by four local companies: Versa Integrated Solutions, TM3 Solutions, Movement Chiropractic and Glory Days Grill. Through Up2Us Sports, an AmeriCorps program that helps young adults to serve as coaches and mentors in low-income communities, Quezada has received training and will earn student loan assistance after 900 hours of service.
Volunteering allows Quezada to stay connected with wrestling (he also serves as a volunteer coach at Fairfax High School) while developing his leadership skills. “He provides our guys with a role model,” Zafros says. “He’s calm and much more mature than a lot of people his age, and I think they feed off of that.”
Volunteering also helps Quezada “stay grounded,” as he puts it. For six weeks in 2019, he volunteered through Mason’s study abroad program and taught wrestling in the Philippines, working primarily in Davao City, where children endure threats such as prostitution, human trafficking, child labor and gang violence.
Although Quezada’s own childhood was difficult, his time in the Philippines was a reminder that others may face even tougher challenges. But he also learned in Davao City that his values, and his story, resonate with young people everywhere.
“If you keep your moral compass straight,” he says, “the world will likely bring you a lot of good.”
Quezada beams when talking about his work with a struggling wrestler at Fairfax High School, a landscaper’s son who earned a college scholarship. Or when a Rambler gave him a card that said, “I’m so thankful for you.”
“The reason I’m so happy is because I started living my life for others and not for myself,” he says. “You do a disservice to yourself and the world if you’re not sharing what you were taught. You never know who you might impact.”
He gives premature babies a touching gift: Some cuddling
For several hours every week, Craig Provost offers spiritual advice and counseling at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah, to hospice patients who are on their way out of the world. Then he walks down the hall to the newborn intensive care unit, suits up in a hospital gown, washes his hands and snuggles infants who have only recently entered it.
Seeing the beginning of life and the end in one afternoon is a humbling experience, said Provost, 67, who has volunteered as a baby cuddler and spiritual care adviser at the hospital for more than three years.
“It’s strongly comforting to be there for another soul when they are dying, and holding the babies is just pure goodness,” he said. “It fills me up. It’s emotionally rewarding and uplifting for me to spend time with both.”
Provost, a retired psychologist who spent most of his career in Little Rock before moving to Salt Lake City five years ago to be near his son and three of his grandchildren, also volunteers at his Catholic church, at a local soup kitchen and at several environmental organizations to stay connected in retirement and stave away the blues, especially during the dark of winter.
“A rolling stone gathers no moss — I’m an outgoing guy,” he said. “I enjoy social contact and I found that volunteering is one of the best ways to be around other people. It keeps me active, it’s good for my mental health, and it ensures that I get out of the house.”
That doesn’t surprise Provost.
“I’ve met a lot of amazing volunteers here who are incredibly giving of their time,” he said. “They’re wonderfully intuitive about what people might need, and it’s been a blessing to me to get to know them.”
In 2000, Provost had quadruple bypass surgery, followed one year later by pacemaker surgery. The experiences not only made him more aware of his own mortality, he said, but helped him to appreciate hospital volunteers.
“The chaplains at the hospital visited me and I was so grateful for that,” he said. “When I went home, I became more appreciative of every day we have. I saw the good in life, just by walking through my neighborhood. So now, it’s nice to give back.”
At Intermountain Medical Center, Provost spends several hours almost every week talking to patients in hospice care, often sitting with people who have no family nearby.
“Nobody should have to die alone,” he said. “I’ve been there when some of them have died — it’s very emotional for me. Sometimes, just being there for someone is the greatest gift you can give.”
As one of the hospital’s official “baby cuddlers,” Provost said he checks in at the NICU by proclaiming, “Hi, I’m Craig, and I’m here today to cuddle!” He and other volunteers offer respite to parents who need a break or have other children at home to tend to.
“Human touch is so important to these babies — it helps them to thrive and grow strong and healthy,” Provost said.
After a nurse carefully bundles an infant, he’ll sit in a lounge chair and hold the newborn close as he sings comforting lullabies and offers soft words of praise.
“I’ll often just pray for them to grow up with good health and be kind, loving and wise people,” he said. “Sometimes, they’ll have a little hand sticking out and I’ll put my finger out so they can hold on.”
While studies show that NICU preemies benefit from human contact, Provost said he always takes something away, too.
“I was a psychologist, so I still enjoy helping other people and getting that special human connection,” he said. “Cuddling a baby brightens my day. There’s not much that’s more joyful than that.”
His paper's series was news that inspired editor to help students
Rain or shine on Wednesday mornings, David Plazas, a newspaper editor in Nashville, starts the day by letting his two Chihuahuas out and then giving them breakfast before making coffee for his husband, Darren, and himself.
Then, instead of heading to the Tennessean, Plazas drives from his home, which he describes as in “a gentrified neighborhood,” to Buena Vista Elementary School, “less than half a mile away but worlds away.” Buena Vista, he says, is primarily African American and low income.
And it’s at that school that Plazas reads books to a kindergartner, a weekly hour that has “transformed” him.
At 8:15 a.m., he is buzzed into the school, given his name tag and “reading necklace” (which identifies him as a volunteer) and heads down the long hall to the kindergarten room where he meets his 5-year-old charge.
“He just runs out and usually gives me a hug, and then we walk to the library,” he says.
There, Plazas asks the young man to pick out a book to be read together. Actually, Plazas does all the reading, as he did recently with “Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always,” which he describes as “a silly book about a squid and an octopus that are friends and go on these adventures.”
“He’s not reading yet but he knows how to spell his name, he knows how to sound out words,” says Plazas, adding that they’ve also started to color together. Coloring “really opens up his imagination, his creativity, and the character he has in his head.” By 9 a.m., the boy is back in his classroom, with Plazas arriving at the paper by 9:30 a.m.
An ongoing series at the paper looking at the Nashville school system prompted Plazas’s involvement, and he wrote about his volunteer effort in a column called, “What can we do if we don’t have kids in the school system?”
While Plazas and his husband don’t have children, he “realized that if I was going to make this ask of the community, that I should also be willing to step up.” He found a local foundation called PENCIL, which links reading volunteers to schools.
“I was a little bit nervous at first,” he admits, “because I sometimes feel I don’t really relate to kids very well.”
After a week or two, that apprehension lifted as Plazas says he found “it really has been tremendously enjoyable to see this boy look forward to it, much like I’m looking forward to spending time together, to be creative and to do something that’s intellectually stimulating.”
But Plazas is also on a mission since he knows only 30 percent of Nashville kids are reading at grade level by the third grade.
“Is there an impact I can make?” he asks, hoping that his weekly efforts during the school year may prevent the boy from becoming another reading statistic.
More personally, he says, “It’s a high for sure. . . . You feel good, you feel re-energized. I leave with a big smile on my face and I feel that I can start the day in a way that I’m really focused. It’s a reminder that regardless of all the bullying and trolling I might see on social media, or regardless of the challenges for the day, I feel good, having spent time with that child.”
Or perhaps Plazas is pleased to see that his efforts have affected others. Not long ago he “got a very nice text from a colleague who said that ‘after seeing [your Facebook] posts I’ve just joined a program to read to kids as well.’ ”
As the English cleric, Charles Caleb Colton, wrote “Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery.”