Unfortunate Twists in the Human Soul: Why Does our Species Seek to Inflict Such Incredible Pain on Our Own?

By David E. Roy

The old man knew a lot and a lot of what he knew was uncut crazy.

Like how every building had its own little soul sitting inside it.

The man spent a lot of time thinking about souls, particularly how every soul, big or tiny, human or otherwise, was wrapped warm around just a few simple wants.

People wanted to be important, he said.

Somehow, somewhere, they wanted to matter.

“Everything else for us is curtains in the window,” he said.

“So what about buildings?” the boy asked.

“Four walls and a room? That’s easy. Before anything, these souls want to be kept clean and in good repair.”

—Robert Reed, “Passelande,” Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/ December 2016 (used with permission from F&SF)

When I first read the opening sentence to Robert Reed’s story, I was in awe. This is one of the best opening sentences I’ve had the pleasure to encounter: “The old man knew a lot and a lot of what he knew was uncut crazy.” It just snapped in the best way.

Then, the wisdom that followed: “…how every soul…was wrapped warm around a few simple wants. People wanted to be important….Somehow, somewhere, they wanted to matter.”

This want is at the heart of so much that causes us— modern humans (homo sapiens sapiens)—such devastation and heartache. The problems start when we don’t feel important, don’t feel we matter, or when we feel our importance somehow is being threatened and is in danger of not mattering.

Shift from Hunter-Gatherers to Farmers and Livestock Caretakers

The fact that our sense of importance can be challenged, often easily, reveals the twist in the human soul that is referenced in the title to this essay. This twist might have resulted from choices our forebears made perhaps 10,000–12,000 years ago. Prior to this period, we lived in relatively small groups and maintained our existence immersed in the natural world as hunter-gatherers. This lifestyle can be traced back hundreds of thousands of years for our species and millions of years if a broader range of hominids are included.

Then, fairly rapidly, we became farmers and maintained livestock, largely stationary. On a universal scale, or even a planetary scale, 12,000 years is a fraction of an eye blink. This indicates that until 12,000 years ago we were living in our evolved niche and that today, though our lifestyles are radically different, the genes that shape our development still aim for what worked for us then.

I realize this notion may be unfamiliar, even appear to be fanciful, but it is based on solid scholarship and research. These new ideas about our original lifestyle versus today’s have been brought forth under the leadership of Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Notre Dame University. She and a strong team of colleagues have broken crucial new ground in understanding our deeper, evolved nature.

Intense Child Care and Cooperation

One of the radical differences from today is the fact that infants and toddlers in the small band hunter-gatherer groups (SBHG) were literally in touch much of the time and when they were stressed, they were quickly attended to by an adult (they were children of the whole). Allan Schore, Ph.D., at UCLA has spent his career organizing and interpreting research that shows how critical the first 3–4 years are for the development of a child’s competence at self-regulation, that is, being able to restore good functioning after a serious stressor. The conditions he cites that are destructive for this development are essentially the opposite of early childhood practices in the SBHG groups.

Another important feature of the SBHG groups is that they were (and are) non-hierarchical. Each person had the same rights to the group’s resources. No one was more important than anyone else. Cooperation was the primary value and impulses to dominate or appear superior in some fashion were subordinated to cooperation among equals.

With the advent of agriculture, all of that had to change. Instead of permitting physical closeness most of the time, agriculture requires being spread out, separate in many ways. There could not be a whole group watching out for and attending to the infants and toddlers. Instead, care had to rest on far fewer people; there had to be gaps that did not exist before. Communities grew many times the size of even the largest of the SBHG groups; and this had to underlie the emergence of hierarchies. Some became more important than others, or at least believed they were.

Loss of an Internalized Sense of Importance

This radical lifestyle transformation outlined above points to and supports the idea that our personal sense of importance— of mattering to others with whom we are close—has been seriously undermined and is why we can be so easily threatened. We no longer leave childhood with a settled, strong sense of being cared for in a deeply sensitive, highly fitting manner.

Child care—parent-child interaction—affects both mind and body: Schore points to much research that makes it clear an infant’s experience, including the lack of it, has a direct impact on the development of the growth and wiring of an infant’s brain.

Restoring Importance by Making Others Unimportant

The numerous social problems emerge when, in today’s world, we act to attempt to protect or restore our sense of importance. The initial act nearly always is to strive to make others less important, inferior in some fashion. And there are so many ways this can be done. One way we are seeing a lot of at present is overtly demeaning comments, descriptions and labels. Disgust is a clear message: “You are utterly unfit to even be in my company!”

Aim of Racism and Sexism Follows the Same Principle

But this can go far beyond that. If we look at racism and sexism—two major topics in the news—it is possible to see that both, at their core, are ways to make one group feel important by making another group inferior.

And if this inferiority is made institutional, such as through slavery, the caste system (including implicit), laws and social customs (e.g., for women), then those occupying the “important” position are even less vulnerable to being forced to change. This principle encompasses virtually all possible prejudices.

Sense of Importance Is Fragile

A key point to grasp is that any sense of importance based on others being less important is fragile at best. This is because the power to determine this ultimately belongs to those defined as less than. Any change in their status for the better will destabilize the balance in ways that threaten those in the superior position.

This also shows that the actual, implicit sense of intrinsic and extrinsic value (sense of importance) does not exist; it has to be repeatedly infused and it never lasts. The person, instead, is hollow, something known instinctively if not consciously. The most frequent mask in this situation is claiming to be the best, the most, the smartest, the strongest.

More Development Needed

All the above is simply an initial sketch of these ideas; all the above deserves more thorough discussion and documentation. In addition, to be explored in the next essay is what happens when we are put down, how we feel and what can and does happen as a result.

These ideas, when more fully developed, could add some perspective that is missing from the national conversation so far. To that end, please share your reactions to this article (e-mail soulfulpsy@mac.com). What works, what makes sense? What needs more work to make sense? What seems irrelevant? Thank you!

*****

David E. Roy earned his Ph.D. in philosophy, theology, and psychotherapy from the Claremont (California) School of Theology (the academic successor to the University of Southern California’s Department of Religion). He practiced outpatient psychotherapy for 45 years, retiring and closing his office a year ago. He is now writing in his field and secretly starting to write science fiction.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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