Humans are social creatures, and we learn from observation. We’re designed to imitate who, and even what, we’re surrounded by. The Baha’i Writings explain that humans grow according to the way that we are trained:
The babe, like unto a green and tender branch, will grow according to the way it is trained. If the training be right, it will grow right, and if crooked, the growth likewise, and unto the end of life it will conduct itself accordingly. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, p. 399.
We can’t separate ourselves from the influence of the environment we live in or the company we keep. Our surroundings mold our lives and shape who we are. There’s a saying that we will become like those we hang around the most, but I don’t think many of us realize the significance of that statement. I certainly didn’t, until I learned about feral children.
Feral children are children raised by animals who grew up without human care and contact. For example, in May of 1972, a four-year-old boy named Shamdeo was discovered playing with wolf cubs in a forest near Sultanpur, India. Those who found him were surprised to learn that he shared many characteristics with the wolves he grew up with: he had sharpened teeth, a craving for blood, long hooked fingernails, a habit of eating earth, and callouses on his palms, elbows and knees. Although movies like Tarzan and The Jungle Book romanticize this phenomenon, most feral children struggle to integrate back into society. They often can’t learn basic human communication skills and die at an early age. Shamdeo, taken in by Mother Theresa, lived in her Home for the Destitute and Dying in Lucknow, India until his death in 1985.
I share this story because these children are a testament to the fact that we can only be what we can see around us, even when it comes to basic human development. Shamdeo desired what wolves desired. He could only behave like the company he had.
If humans can behave like the animals they co-exist with, how much easier is it for us to act like the people we spend the most time with? Because of this, the Baha’i writings advise us to choose our friends wisely, to treasure the companionship of the righteous – those who are moral and virtuous – because they help purify our minds:
The company of the wicked ones increaseth sorrow, and the association with the pious ones removeth rust from the heart. The one who desires to associate with God, let him associate with His friends; the one who wishes to hear the Words of God, let him hear the words of His chosen ones.
Also He says:
Do not associate with the wicked, because the company of the wicked changeth the light of life into the fire of remorse. If thou asketh for the bounties of the Holy Spirit, associate with the pure ones, because they have quaffed the eternal chalice from the hands of the Cupbearer of eternity. – Baha’u’llah, cited by Abdu’l-Baha in Baha’i World Faith, p. 434.
Many of the prophets and messengers of God, like Christ and Baha’u’llah, especially advised against associating with the morally corrupt, as they will only bring sorrow and remorse into our lives.
The Bahai teachings speak about emotional and spiritual characteristics as contagious:
Education must be considered as most important; for as diseases in the world of bodies are extremely contagious, so, in the same way, qualities of spirit and heart are extremely contagious. – Ibid., p. 319.
Our friendships and families can even influence lifestyle and eating choices. According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine:
A person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese in a given interval. Among pairs of adult siblings, if one sibling became obese, the chance that the other would become obese increased by 40%. If one spouse became obese, the likelihood that the other spouse would become obese increased by 37%.
People tend to conform to and mimic the attitudes and behaviors of our friends in order to be liked and accepted. Close friends often adopt the same interests, dress in the same style, and even speak in the same vernacular. The social psychological concept of “mirroring” explains that we mimic the word choices, gestures, and facial expressions of the people we most often communicate with. The same neurons in our brain that would fire if we were experiencing an emotion, also fire if we’re watching someone else experience that same emotion.
That explains why moods are contagious. We’re hardwired to reciprocate the feelings of others and empathize with each other’s experiences. That’s why if we have a more positive social circle, we tend to be more positive; and if we have a more negative social circle, we tend to be more negative.
So, let’s choose our friends carefully and wisely. We can’t avoid being influenced by the people we surround ourselves with, but we do have control over what kind of influence that will be.