Sunday, February 25, 2007


25 February 2007

Why does the world become a messy, confusing and dangerous place?

Why can’t we all just get along?

What makes people capable of acting with patent disregard for the dignity, autonomy and sanctity of life of their neighbours?

Conversely, what makes it possible for humans to act in a generous, empathetic and self-sacrificing manner?

As I am sure you are well aware, there are no simple answers to these fundamental questions.

However, let me put forward a few simple ideas to spark your own activity with respect to addressing and resolving questions of this kind.

The fundamental constraint of life is that we are limited and mortal. If we exert effort to accomplish some things, we must forgo effort to accomplish other things. Though our efforts may then prove more or less productive, we are unlikely to accomplish aims towards which we do not direct our actions.

The ultimate result of all of our effort, at the personal level, is that we will die and others will carry on after we are gone. What will remain will be our impact on others.

Due to our biological – and some would say spiritual – nature, humans are capable of bonding. That is, we act in ways which affect our fellow humans, and they respond to those actions. The progress of these interactions over time creates strong or weak psychological connections with others.

We act socially, and we are interested in the social consequences of our actions, which are highly salient to us. We are constructed this way.

Governing all of our behaviours are the emotional systems of our human brains. Emotions range from intense to minimal, and from pleasant/desirable/euphoric to aversive/unmanageable/overwhelming.

Our personal/private and social/interpersonal effectiveness broadly governs our lives, and shapes the quality of our emotional experiences.

Both positive and negative emotions can lead to prosocial or antisocial behaviours.

Our social experiences will powerfully influence our emotional state, and the social consequences of our actions will shape the direction of evolution of our personal emotional experience. But ultimately, we will engage in more or less of a particular type of behaviour based on its personal emotional consequences for us.

Now this matter is somewhat complicated as well, because we do not seek emotional states which are pleasurable so much as emotional states which are meaningful.

For example, if I have been raised by a violent father, and if I have daily witnessed him exercising violence to bring other family members into submission, and if I observe him responding with pleasure to his capacity to exercise power and control over the members of my family, then my own increasing exercise of such powerful behaviours will also begin to generate emotions which are meaningful to me, some of them pleasant and some of them not, but all of them desirable.

(By the way, the above is an example. I was raised by a man who was incredibly tolerant, peaceful and nonviolent.)

Similarly, if I have been raised by a mother who is highly attentive to my own emotional states, who treats me and my emotions as important, and who demonstrates caring and empathetic behaviour towards others, then I am more likely to find meaning in relatedness and mutual aid.

(In this latter case, I am describing my own experience. My mother was a person with a seemingly infinite reserve of empathy and emotional availability.)

Therefore, when we observe behaviours in ourselves or in others, the question we must ask is, “What are the emotions associated with that behavioural pattern, what is their meaning, how was the meaning acquired, and how can the meaning be changed?”

In short, engagement in the process of asking and answering this simple series of questions is how we can get along.

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