Tuesday, March 27, 2012
the sunny side of the street...
Love, kindness and altruism are the most amazing success story in evolution's giant bag of amazing tricks.
Not only are we programmed by our DNA to look after ourselves, we are programmed to look after each other. That's not to say we always do - of course we don't.
But evolution has also built a fail-safe into our systems. It's called guilt! If we don't look after each other - at least those we are 'meant' to look after, our parents, our children - we feel guilt, one of the most unpleasant emotions known to humankind. Once you have experienced guilt a few times, you will find it is an excellent behaviour modifier - most of us learn to behave in a way that keeps us safe from the ravages of guilt.
Guilt is so corrosive to an individual's life, that in order to escape it, the sufferer will pound their consciousness with mind-altering substances just to dull the experience of it.
Those who don't look after those they are meant to look after and also feel no guilt about it, are almost universally seen as defective. They are labelled sociopaths and shunned. This is another fail-safe - one that operates at the community level; it's called outrage. Community outrage has an amazing ability to moderate behaviour.
Not only is it seen as the norm of human behaviour to look after those you are supposed to look after, those who go further than this are seen as somehow 'super-human'. Nurses, firemen, paramedics even teachers are revered sight unseen because they take the human norm of caring one step further up the ladder and look after those they have no moral imperative to look after.
Sure, you can look out there and see all the aberrant behaviour - parents killing and molesting their kids, young people mugging the elderly, people stealing from their neighbours - but the fact that you are outraged or even just depressed about it only reinforces my point. The time to worry is when this behaviour is tolerated as normal and not commented upon at all.
The wonder is not that enough of this aberrant behaviour takes place to cause us outrage, it is that love and kindness under the normal circumstances of human society is so much the norm that we don't even notice that it is being practised far far more often than behaviour that purposely harms others.
Every day, perfectly average people get up and look after their children and parents far above the standard of care required for mere survival. Everyday, people wait and let others into queues ahead of them. They call and ask friends if they are okay. They create surprises for those they love just to make the day more enjoyable. They cook for friends. They put away money they could use now just so their children won't have to struggle after they die. They give prodigious amounts to charity and most agree that, not only should we help our immediate neighbours, but that rich countries should help people in distress in poor countries that we have never met and who will very likely never be able to return the favour.
Holy snapping milk of human kindness, Batman!
Yes, there are many many failures of care - but there are many many more daily successes. You could almost say we are on the right track!
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