By David E. Roy
Like many, I have been aware for years of the large number of issues that make up the range of causes that concern deeply most progressives and, at least in some cases, a much broader range of humanity.
We have major issues as the result of human violence on small and large scales, worldwide environmental destructiveness, poverty that brings in its wake hunger, health crises without treatment, unsafe living conditions (guns, bad air and water), formal slavery and other forms of enslavement and human trafficking, the many forms of discrimination (racial, gender, cultural, religion, education), income inequality and much, much more.
(What a cheery guy! Does he really think anyone is going to read past this point? Hey, give it a rest; give it a try. We have to be clear about the nature of the problems we face so we can create solutions that match the actual issues.)
Compassion Has a Long History
Throughout human history, there is an ongoing record of people who come to the fore to advocate and care for others who are facing difficult circumstances. This seems to have intensified around 800 BCE, arising in four unconnected cultures independently (Jaspers). I suspect that today there are more of these institutions than at any previous point in the last several millennia.
I realize that is a safe bet because the human population has exploded in numbers as the exponential effect has become evident. (More people mean more projects.) In 1950, the United States had roughly 151,326,000 people; today, it is estimated at 317,000,000, well more than double. World population in the same period went from 2,556,000,000 to 7,100,000,000, an increase of 2.8 times. The vast population increase adds its stress to the picture.
In response to the enormous population growth, these sometimes-heroic efforts to meet the widespread and all-too-often basic needs of much of humanity have expanded enormously. Sometimes it is one person acting and other times it the action of a network of major nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations and foundations.
More Than 7,000 “Aiming to Do Good” Efforts in the West
In fact, in key problem areas, there can be hundreds, even thousands of organizations at work. Charity Navigator currently evaluates more than 7,000 nonprofits broken down into eight major areas. The number ranges from 362 for the environment to 1,759 for human services.
Pulling back to look at the larger picture gives rise to the question, why are there so many areas where human beings are suffering, all too often at the hands of other human beings? Why are we continuing to do such damage to our planet, the only place that can possibly host all of humanity (even if the classic sci-fi dreams of human interstellar migration come true)?
What, Pray Tell, Is Lacking?
What is lacking in the human mind, the human soul, that might contribute to the countless problems that these caring individuals and institutions are seeking to resolve and heal?
While I’ve considered this painful mystery for a long time, this past year, I have had some insights about what humanity contributes to the overall picture. The stimulus for this arose from the reading, thinking and discussions I have been pursuing in preparation for a major conference over three days in early June 2015—Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization. The overall conference likely will include eight sections, and each section will include perhaps six tracks, each track being a small conference.
While I will share more specifics about the purpose and process of this conference at another time, it is the focus of my section and my track that has brought me to some new speculations about what underlies the multitude of human-caused pain and suffering.
The topic for the overall section of which I am a part is, “Alienation from Nature: How It Arose and What We Can Do to Overcome This.” The more specific question being addressed in my track is, “What effect has civilization had on the human psyche?”
This led me to a range of new readings in anthropology, paleontology, neuroscience and the integration of neuroscience and early childhood development.
What Were We Like 50,000 Years Ago?
My starting point was, “What were we, homo sapiens sapiens, like in our earliest phases of life?” (This, by the way is our actual biological classification name at the subspecies level.) However, until or unless a viewer is developed that can at least see and hear the ancient past, and a few millennia analyzed, we can only have vague hunches at best.[i]
It also has been fairly natural to study existing traditional societies (a term used in place of primitive societies today). Today, however, there are almost none of these societies that have not had extensive contact with the “civilized” world. Even when conditions were more pristine and there had been no outside contact, the early explorers nonetheless were encountering societies that had sometimes centuries or millennia of their own development and evolution, leaving the earliest formations without record of any sort.
This makes it impossible to have any realistic hope of knowing with certainty what our species was like when possibly no more than 200 left northwest Africa about 50,000 years ago to gradually make their way to virtually the entire planet.
What Is the Impact of Civilization?
Although sharp clarity and certainty are not possible, there remain important clues as to the possibilities of what impact “civilization” has had on our psyche and how this might contribute to our tendencies to bring unnecessary pain and suffering to ourselves and others.
In doing this, I am positioning myself at the convergence of several disciplines. Even though the historical picture is likely to be subject to further major changes, when some of these findings are laid out along with the latest research and ideas in a psychology that is supported by rich research in neuroscience, there is important mutual support for the following possibilities. If these fields are on the right track, there are things we will all need to do to guide people toward positive human-to-human and human-to-world relationships.
Allo-Parenting and Quick Response: A Tribal Model
One good place to start is with Jared Diamond’s newest book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies. Diamond (at UCLA) looks at many of the areas of the life of a human society from small to large, ancient to contemporary.
One brief discussion about the treatment of infants and toddlers struck a strong chord for me. Anthropological studies of two different traditional societies showed that whenever an infant cries, someone from the tribe is touching the baby within a few seconds.
In Western civilization, parents have been instructed for generations to do just the opposite. Yet the amount of crying, measure by frequency of episodes and by duration shows that infants raised in the ways of traditional societies cry far less often and for much shorter periods of time.
In Diamond’s account, and in another book I read (Robert Wolff), it was clear that in at least some of these tribes, the child is understood to be the child of each member of the tribe, not just the biological mother and father. (This is called allo-parenting.)
Contemporary Psychotherapy Zeroing in on the Same Period
In the field of psychotherapy, one of the major changes in the past 30-plus years has been to better understand the needs of the infant and toddler for “attachment” (Bowlby, Ainsworth) and what makes for healthy attachment that can support a mature, compassionate adult.
Without getting into detail, it is safe to say that most of the advanced societies have done a poor job of this, at least for most people. Attachment research has shown clearly that the parents who responded quickly to their child’s distress and had the wisdom to allow the child to play without interference when the child was content promoted healthy attachment with their children.
Also at UCLA, Allan Schore has made major strides in integrating psychological research and theory together with the latest from neuroscience. He has stated clearly that the most difficult emotional disorders are rooted in the earliest stages of childhood.
There is plenty of information and evidence that suggests strongly that we in the “civilized” nations do an exceedingly poor job of bring out the best in our youngest members of the human tribe.
At the heart of what is missing is the normal and healthy development of the foundation for human compassion and kindness. This is compassion that starts at this early age with something called attunement.
Instead of supporting and validating this important interpersonal process, often it is subject to a critique, subtle or not. It extends to the environment where many view our world’s natural resources as their right to “own” and manage, to use as means to an end.
Unfortunately, the I-It relationship is how many human beings see each other as well. This leads to our rejecting, even attacking, those who are radically different. In the United States, the radically different are not just those in or from other countries, but increasingly our own homeless and other poor.[ii]
Although this may seem like a big leap, as I have not provided but little pieces of information, my conclusion is that what seems to be lacking among so many human beings, is a sense of compassion and care for others. This includes those who are radically different and those whom we fear (whether or not there is good reason to fear).
Attunement—A Major Key
Although the capability for developing a capacity for compassion that is deep and broad may always exist, there appear to be certain periods in the young child’s life in which the foundation for sustained compassion later in life is laid down.
The hallmark of this early age is the repeated experience by the child of attunement with the parent. The experience of attunement is, in most basic ways, the precursor for compassion. Attunement can be understood as being harmonized with or in tune with another person. This is a felt experience, not necessarily an experience guided by thought or imagination. It comes close to the definition by Whitehead of the initial phase of becoming (the physical feeling that replicates the energy received) or to his fundamental mode of perception, which he called causal efficacy.
Interpersonally, for the young child, it is the parent who is attuned to the child, and it is a highly positive experience, rewarding and validating. The child is thoroughly experienced by the parent and found to be “good.” This becomes the strong core of the child’s initial and positive sense of self. Furthermore, the child becomes the adult parent and can in turn offer the same experience to the next generation. Equally as important, this development is necessary for the foundation for what becomes compassion and selflessness in the adult phase of human life. These are traits that, if widely developed, will improve the human community’s treatment of itself as well as the natural world.
The more we can live toward this goal of supporting attunement and the development of compassion for self and other people as well as the earth itself, the better off all of us will be, including our (only) home planet!
There is another major barrier we have to get over that also is a large source of our human-inflicted pain. I will lay this out down in detail the road, but in sum it arises from the universal, pervasive human drive to be seen as special, praiseworthy, important, yet achieving this by putting others down, and not just politely.
Until then, be well, be gracious, be loving, and be kind—starting with yourself.
Ordained in the United Church of Christ, David Roy is a pastoral counselor and a California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who directs the Center for Creative Transformation. He has a Ph.D. in theology and personality from the Claremont (California) School of Theology. Send comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 5475 N. Fresno St., Suite 109, Fresno, CA 93711.
[i]Historically, anthropology’s conclusions have swung from limb to limb and tree to tree as new findings have come to light. The lab coat group, who specialize in analyzing and dating DNA, seems to have had some stabilizing effect on the study of hominids and the evolution of various species that seemed to lead to our own species. However, the latest trend is the realization that we are not the endpoint of evolution and that there were other similar species existing side by side. The future is still fairly wide open.
[ii]As a side note, the extensiveness and intensity of negative views of the homeless and the other poor expressed by such a large number of Americans makes it nearly impossible to claim that the United States is a Christian nation, through and through. This stance is in direct opposition to Jesus’ words and deeds as recorded in the Christian Bible.