Yesterday I wrote: “We have to find a way to remember that we are all part of the same broken, flailing, frightened tribe and root that compassion unshakably deep.” That sentence came from the same place as everything I write, that half-mysterious, half-familiar, unmonitored place where thoughts and ideas and emotions toss about until they take shape as words. Re-reading it, though, I’m struck both by its seeming power and its apparently total impossibility. How am I supposed to remember that I am the same as someone every fiber of my being perceives as Other?
This is, of course, the question underlying every attempt to heal the fractures that divide our society. We seem simultaneously doomed to experiencing social interaction in terms of hierarchical Us/Them thinking and to fueling that thinking with visceral patterns of protectiveness and fear on one hand and uncritical attachment on the other. We recognize this in ourselves, and blame it—correctly, I think—for the millennia of aggression that characterize human history. Our DNA remembers a time when limitations on food and shelter required us to seize what we could for ourselves and our tribe, whether it consisted of relatives, fellow-villagers or countrymen, and deny it to those too weak to wrest it from us. From that cellular-level knowledge of scarcity grew the hunger for power itself, the ability not only to secure but to protect abundance for ourselves and our kinfolk, erasing the experience of scarcity and banishing the fear of its recurrence. The knowledge of scarcity in our deepest animal brains is as universal and as primevally potent as its child, the fear of death.
We know, though, that this particular fear never disappears completely. Power begets greed, the unquenchable appetite to stockpile more than we can ever use in a futile effort to silence the nagging inner voice that warns that our needs may go unmet. As greed and power spread their wings over a society, injustice blooms in their shadow as the least-aggressive are forced to sacrifice to the appetites of the most-aggressive. Recent research tells us that we recognize and respond negatively to unfairness before we are able to speak. Injustice is painful to us at the core of our humanity, before we can wield the tools of language and rational thought to protect ourselves. How interesting that these are precisely the tools that we use to create and sustain the injustices from which we benefit!
We all prefer to see ourselves as the victims of injustice, rather than the perpetrators. Who can blame us? To see ourselves as power-hungry and greedy means not only to accept that we exploit people weaker than ourselves but also to accept that we are incapable of accepting the fundamental truth that death—the ultimate triumph of unmet needs—awaits us all regardless of the size of our share of the spoils. Those of us who live atop the pyramid of privilege created by thousands of years of progressive concentration of power and wealth are so entrenched in the rationalizations we’ve created in order to feel virtuous that we can’t imagine another way. Those of us who have been systematically crushed by the weight of that same pyramid know nothing except the daily experience of oppression at the hands of each of their society’s pillar institutions. We all live in the same world, where extensive data is readily available describing the dimensions and structure of the pyramid—yet we permit the minority who occupy its pinnacle to deny its existence and the remainder of us to be silenced at every attempt to acknowledge, let alone dismantle it.
What does this have to do with compassion? Before we were organized enough to live in groups of a size to trigger scarcity politics, we knew compassion and collective affection strong enough to allow families to form and grow. We learned how to limit and direct the aggression of the strong to protect the fragility of the weak so that children could grow to adulthood and elders could stretch their time on earth as long as their families could protect them. Compassion is the crux of these bonds, and may be the oldest, most intrinsic instinct we have. Infants respond to it and practice it naturally, in blunt contrast to the repulsion they exhibit in the face of injustice. We feel it as adults, when we bear our own children, when we care for our aging parents, when we fall in love, when we connect with our closest friends. Compassion is the glue that makes an Us out of a passel of Me’s.
When we remember that those our guts perceive as enemies experience that same compassionate bond with their cohort that we do with ours, that they love their children and their parents with the same fierce, near-blind loyalty that we lavish on ours, we will have made a first step. When we acknowledge that our lenses of self-awareness are clouded by the same mitochondrial fear of going without, that we are all trapped in a world dominated by thousands of years of systematic crushing of the weak by the strong and are reacting to it from the same core of frustrated desire to feel safe and free from fear, we will be another step closer to mutual understanding. When those of us whose white skin, biological and gender makeup and skill with the unspoken codes of dominance accustom us to leading and speaking see enough of ourselves in those who lack those qualifications to step aside and embrace the roles of listening and supporting, we will be changing the world.
Much of the scarcity in our world is artificial now, the result of consolidating abundance in the hands of those who are best at getting it, but who need it least. The risk of going without any material advantage in a human lifetime is effectively zero for those folks. For those who lack abundance, however, the truths of scarcity are desperately, inexorably real. The chasm between these two groups is perhaps the most painfully difficult to approach, and yet the most essential if we are to move beyond the hostilities that characterize our politics right now. Unless we acknowledge that we are all the same, that our core fears and hopes are identical with those of every person that walks the earth, we have no way to cut through the knots that restrain us in postures of hatred and poisonous blame.
Those of us that move freely in the dominant culture are participants in that culture and own the responsibility of the harm it does. That doesn’t make us evil or vicious, but it does make us accountable for our role in making things better for those who need it most. Those who live in the shadow of our dominance and who pay the price for our abundance are not our enemies, and are not evil in recognizing the injustice in which we all are players. Their anger at injustice is the same anger that we would feel in their position, and the errors they commit in the heat of that anger are no different than the ones we would commit in their place. Their desire to inconvenience and destabilize the culture that enslaves them is identical to the one we would feel and act upon if our children’s futures were blighted by the alternative. Do we have to like it? No. But we must acknowledge that our discomfort is the natural result of life on the backs of people who don’t appreciate being exploited, and that the only authentic way to resolve that discomfort is to create a new model in which this fundamental injustice is removed.
Compassion for those who offend us starts from an appreciation of what is best about ourselves—our love for those we love—and an extension of that quality to those whose words and actions most appear to belie it. As we come to appreciate them in this regard as our equals, it becomes possible to find ways in which our differences reflect the natural consequences of our varied histories, especially the chronic traumas like poverty and oppression which are known to encourage actions and opinions far more absolutist, volatile and high-stakes than the calmer rhetoric of the comfortable. We are able to fend off our instant defensiveness long enough to recognize that we need to understand better, and to begin asking questions. With practice, we will be able to hear the answers. We will be able to put ourselves in the shoes of people whose lives we once were unable to imagine, and to seek their guidance about what changes we can make so that our culture serves them as well as it serves us. As we do this, as we feel our way towards a mutual recognition that we are all dancers in the same dance, we will feel the sense of scarcity deep within us shift, as it does when we look at our families. As we look at our abundance we will see places where it can be shared or sacrificed so that members of our now-larger family can be nourished as well. These opportunities are the bedrock of meaningful change, and the sooner we can open ourselves to that degree, the sooner that work can truly begin.
©Mary Braden 2016