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Survival Code or Compassion Code—Which Do You Follow?

Choose your code!

Just for fun, let’s pretend we’re emperor penguins.

We’re hanging out on the Antarctic ice, looking cute, but freezing our feathers off. So what do we do? Well, humans would instinctively crowd together, so we decide to try that.

And pretty soon, we’re at the center of a massive penguin huddle, feeling much warmer.

But after a bit our neighbors wiggle away, with new penguins taking their places. This cycle repeats until our original buddies end up on the outer ring of the huddle and penguins from the perimeter get some time in the middle.1

We can’t believe it—they’re taking turns getting warm!

But this isn’t just pretend; emperor penguins do actually rotate between the coldest and warmest spots in a huddle.2

If you’re like my 8-year-old, you’re saying “I already knew that.” Okay, okay, but do you know why they agree to rotate instead of a handful hogging the warmth?

Self-sacrificing act of love? Protecting self by promoting a robust group? Avoiding overheating in the toasty middle? Warming their eggs? Or perhaps something else?

While scientists point to overheating3, it wasn’t the only theory I found. Regardless of the reason, the act of rotating places seems to be something instinctive. Like it’s coded into their beings.

Which leads me to humans. In a way, we’re encoded too.

According to Karen Armstrong in her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, our “old brain” focuses on those primitive needs that keep us and our genes alive. But there are newer parts of our brain that instead look for significance and foster empathy and compassion.

She sums it up beautifully with this quote:

“We have a natural capacity for compassion as well as for cruelty.”

-Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

So if we think of “cruelty” in a broader, less negative sense, as anything aligned with survival instincts, we see there’s a choice to make. We can take action motivated by our own survival or that driven by our compassionate instinct.

And unlike with our penguin friends, our motivation matters.

So which code are we living by, survival or compassion?

One last thing about emperor penguins—a single penguin’s small shift within a huddle can cause all of the others to follow suit.4 And this is where we and those adorable birds are quite alike—our actions also affect the circles of people that surround us, influencing their attitudes and actions positively or negatively.

So with the focus on love this Valentine’s week, it’s time to reflect on one simple question:

Would we feel proud to have our actions repeated, rippling through our families, friends, and communities?

We all have our “huddles,” why not spread love through yours?

What’s your takeaway from this week’s blog? Leave a comment below!


2National Geographic, Animals/Reference. Emperor Penguin. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/e/emperor-penguin/

4Poppick, L. (2013, Dec). Huddle Up: the Surprising Physics of Penguin Movements. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/41998-emperor-penguin-huddle-physics.html

3Hogenboom, M. (2015, Nov). In the frigid Antarctic winter, emperor penguins get too hot. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20151107-how-penguins-avoid-overheating

1Lee, J.J. (2011, Jun). Emperor Penguins Rotate Through Giant Huddle for Warmth. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2011/06/penguins-shuffle-warm/

Armstrong, Karen. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. 

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