I love Christmas Carols, the beautiful choral voices and allegories sum up the essence of what I’ve always understood Christmas to be about and that essence captures the best of human nature. Faith, hope and charity: faith in the good we can do, charity towards one another and hope for the future. I’ve not believed in a God for many years now but I believe that the essence of all religions is something worth listening to. As I sit here listening to Once in Royal David’s city, I’m aware of my growing dismay and deep depression at the events unfolding around me in the world. A large part of that dismay is the effect that I see the global events having on people’s hearts and minds. Fear and mistrust abounds. We become increasingly firm in the conviction that killing others is the only way forward. Good people on all sides of all debates become increasingly polarised and begin to assume intellectual or moral superiority. It feels as if we move further than ever from what every person wants: a world where we can get on with our lives safe and content, free from fear or need. At the heart of the problem lies imbalance between emotion and reason. To address problems of a global scale and move closer to a better world, we need better integration between both these key players in our decision-making process.
As I sit down to write this, a news report states that Donald Trump has once again surged ahead in the polls, despite his raft of controversial statements this week. I hear Piers Morgan’s voice pointing out that you can ridicule and ban Trump all you want but, for whatever reason, he is resonating with the views of the American public right now. In between edits of this post, I read a story on Katie Hopkins, justifying her views. I can only assume she’s still filling column space because people want to hear what she has to say.
I sit and think…why? Why would so many normal, reasonable, kind people fall in line behind people who seem hell bent on spreading hate and division? The irony that it is to oppose others spreading hate and division is not lost on me. But it is dangerous to write them all off as idiots – I see people do it and have been guilty of it myself – but I don’t believe it. And I think it’s important that it stops. Whenever we attack another’s views, or worse, attack them for lacking intelligence or being bigoted, they instantly close off and the dialogue stops. And why shouldn’t it? Would you continue to speak to someone who threw personal insults at you because of your strongly held beliefs? Critically though, when you start attacking, your mind has already closed too, reason disengages and emotions takes full control. Repeatedly over the last year or so I’ve seen many who would identify as liberal become increasingly outraged in the name of so-called moral decency and derogatory towards people whose opinions differ from theirs. I am as guilty of doing this as anyone, but I’ve always been uneasy with it. It is easy to argue it is in response to the right becoming more vociferous but I know once the moral outrage drops for a minute and I can see objectively again, the contradiction between behaviour and ideology is obvious. The polarisation on both sides is incredibly damaging to any problem-solving dialogue. Remaining unpolarised and in the dialogue does not mean you’re tolerating things which go against your beliefs. It means precisely the opposite. That you’re willing to do what needs to be done to engage with the difficult process of solving problems.
I recently watched an interesting talk by Jonathan Haidt, sent to me by a friend. In it he outlines polarisation from the perspective of moral psychology. In particular he outlines the relationship between reason and emotion. Plato envisaged our emotions and desires as a team of wild horses corralled by the charioteer of reason. This view, whilst outdated, pervades western culture still, with reason being valued more highly than emotions. Hume, on the other hand stated later that “reason is – and ought only to be – a slave to our passions”. In a metaphor that seems particularly astute, Haidt suggests that ‘reason’ is merely a press advisor that goes out in search of supporting evidence for our emotive intuition. On coming across something we don’t wish to believe (i.e. something which doesn’t fit our own value system) we ask “must I believe it?” and reason goes out to find a contradicting piece of evidence, thus allowing us to discard the offending view as false. Conversely, when we encounter something which fits our belief system well, we ask “can I believe it?”. Reason again goes out, this time to find a supporting piece of evidence, thus confirming the validity of the original piece of information and – indirectly – our belief system. In short, wherever there is ambiguity, engaged passions and access to information, reason unchecked acts only to confirm our previously held beliefs. I think it important people hear this, for there is a lot of intellectual superiority about right now. We are naturally intuitive and emotional, reason does not override this. In the words of Haidt “morals bind us and blind us”, they serve us well but only when coupled with humility. When you engage in either intellectual or moral superiority a good problem-solving opportunity is lost and polarisation sets in on both sides. Get used to what it feels like and get rid of it (and this advice is to myself also!). We need to become more self-aware and acknowledge our flawed decision-making processes. We need to accept that the world is painted in shades of grey and engage with that, as hard as it is, not create a black and white world for ourselves and expect others to fall in with our world view; they won’t and no amount of reason will make them.
Psychologists have often argued that good decision-making arises from integration of emotion and reason. Science provides some support for this idea, as pointed out by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in his book Descarte’s Error, when describing the pathological decision-making in patients who suffered diminished emotional processing. At the very least, greater emotional intelligence would make for a more humane world. It seems to me that everywhere I look, the need for more emotional intelligence is underlined in today’s society.
Whenever I speak to people about my own experiences, I am reminded of how much we all have in common. This similarity extends way past those who share my culture, my ethnicity, my upbringing, as I was reminded again most recently on my CELTA course. It’s what’s called the human condition. It fascinates me, and I was struggling to understand it long before I became a neuroscientist. My condition as a child and young adult was fractured and broken. I separated my intellect and my emotions as this was the only way I knew how to deal with my intensely emotional personality. I used my head to rationalise my decisions and deny my emotions. It would work for so long until the emotions became too intense and would burst out and drive me to actions that I felt were inconsistent with who I was, inconsistent with my values. I would lash out, retaliate and cause harm. We’re told that we are our actions so I reasoned I must be a bad person. After all, the evidence was there for all to see. I would withdraw for a while, recoup and repeat the cycle again, over and over. It was the only way I knew. It was a deeply imperfect solution for so many reasons I won’t go into here but it kept me going, albeit on hold, until such a time as someone could show me a better way. Eventually, it was explained to me that emotions are the mind’s waste processing system and it instantly made sense to me. By holding everything in and denying my emotions I was inhibiting a natural process and sooner or later my mind, as strong as it was could no longer contain the tide of emotion it was holding back. I could no longer contain it all and my sense of self would get lost amid the turbulent outpouring. I’ve described this to many people since understanding it for myself and I am often met with amazement that I could so accurately describe their own experience, closely followed by relief that someone else understands. The desire to be understood, and accepted, is a large part of the human condition.
And yet very few people I meet accept themselves and their emotions. It’s not surprising given the emphasis society places on reason over emotion. Growing up, self-awareness seems all but overlooked in favour of studying and passing exams. Perhaps it’s ever been so but it seems a particularly pertinent problem right now. How can we accept others for who they are when we are unhappy with ourselves? How will we ever show compassion towards people when we deny ourselves basic care? In the grip of undealt with emotions, like angry teenagers, or in denial like numb robots, we often seem more ready to accept retaliation and death than allow ourselves grief and sadness. How many of us cried or were otherwise deeply affected at the news that we would bomb Syria I wonder? Is it not strange that we can support the passing of a death sentence with no emotional consequences, with only platitudes that there ‘is no other way’?
“When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?” – Eleanor Roosevelt
The result of denying and avoiding our emotions is a loss of compassion and humanity. When you are cut-off from your emotions you cannot be kind. When you are in the grip of raging emotions you cannot be kind. In the extreme, cut-off from both emotion and the human consequences, you can take lives, or sanction and support that taking. The collective loss of our emotional intelligence I see around me scares me more than any terrorist ever could.
I have been told to face reality, that there are certain practicalities that mean my values have to bend. To not recognise this is to live in an ivory tower. It is an accusation I’ve levelled at myself more than once, but I’ve made peace with it. I know now that I recognise reality more than these people may know. I live a life that’s more real than many would like, it hurts a lot of the time. But I’ve also spent a lot of time becoming strong enough to carry that hurt and not deny it or distract myself from it. Andrew Boyd puts it in a way that resonates very strongly with me:
“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors” – Andrew Boyd
I’m not a fool, nor am I in the habit of blinding myself to reality. I just don’t accept the consequences that some see as inevitable. I have faith that there is another way, that as long as you are in control of your actions there is a choice. I believe in the beauty contained within people, and I believe that much of the ugliness perpetrated by mankind arises from individuals being misused, misunderstood and disconnected from others. Above all, I have faith in the connections we form and that each and every one of us can make a difference.
“Being tender and open is beautiful. As a woman, I feel constantly shhh’ed. Too sensitive. Too mushy. Too wishy washy. Blah blah. Don’t let someone steal your tenderness. Don’t allow the coldness and fear of others to tarnish your perfectly vulnerable beating heart. Nothing is more powerful than allowing yourself to be truly affected by things. Whether it’s a song, a stranger, a mountain, a rain drop. A teakettle, an article, a sentence, a footstep. Feel it all – look around you. All of this is for you. Take it and have gratitude. Give it and feel love” – Zooey Deschanel
Cynicism and ‘being the change you want to see’
This faith in the good that people can effect is beautifully illustrated by a story I heard recently about a friend’s wife who had taken a scam cold call. Instead of shouting and slamming the phone down. She talked to him, she pointed out how harming it was to con people out of money they might desperately need and how another path in life might serve the world better as well as improving the life of the cold-caller. He rang off with a resolve to change his job. What she did was speak to him like a human being, she connected and related to him, reminded him of his worth and of the impact he had on the world and on others in every action he took. She could have just as easily shrugged and said, what’s the point? Changing one person, won’t solve the problem so why bother. But she didn’t. And a life might well be changed now as a result.
I think in this age of global community we have lost our sense of individual importance. We are constantly in competition with one another for individuality, for jobs, for a living. If you have an idea you can guarantee that someone else has had it first. So what’s the point? We are aware of the global-scale of world problems as never before in all their overwhelming, seemingly insoluble glory. And amid all of this, the media sensationalises the threat of others to our livelihood in a constant 24/7 stream. We are totally incapable of knowing all there is to know, and, more importantly, we are constantly made aware of this inadequacy. Is it any surprise that we may lose motivation every so often to affect change and live as we would like to, as we think we should?
This consequential undervaluation of ourselves means we underestimate our importance to the world. We each have impact on the world. Some may think that it is arrogant to assume that we have an impact, or that those who act with importance are the problem with the world. But I’m not talking about selfishness or arrogance, nor thinking you’re more important than others. I’m talking about a realistic and humble grasp on the effect that each of us has on everyone we meet every day. What you say and do matters. I like to play a game, especially when I’m losing faith. I smile at strangers in the street – full eye contact and a smile. Sooner or later someone will look you in the eyes and, seeing you, they smile back. There is a moment of connection in which both of you feel significant. And the smile will propagate to others, kindness disposes us to be more kind. We all matter. And the way we treat each other matters. Once you realise this you realise not only your impact but also your responsibility. I believe it negates the need for morals and absolute right and wrong. The way we use our impact becomes a self-regulating moral code. Because it feels good to have a positive impact and bad to have a negative one, our behaviour naturally tends towards one that’s beneficial for society. In short, once I realised my place in the world and my importance I developed real social responsibility. Treating people as if they are valuable human beings is a win-win situation, but it’s more difficult than it sounds. It requires compassion and understanding.
I was challenged recently by a colleague, who believed in absolute right and wrong. He told me they must exist, because even I became angry when I heard of the killing of innocents by ISIS. He reasoned that that anger was proof of an internal, absolute moral code. At the time I wasn’t able to give him a clear answer to explain how I feel about this. But after thinking about it, it seems obvious to me. My anger comes from feeling threatened. It is a natural survival response with a physiological basis. It no more indicates the existence of an absolute moral code (to me at least) than the rise in my blood pressure when faced with a potential mugger. Anger and codes of living are not unique to humans, they can be observed in many social animals. Our ability to integrate our emotions and reason and inhibit the effect of that anger on our actions though, is a beautiful aspect of the human condition. But like any skill, it must be exercised regularly or be lost.
Above I’ve laid out my philosophy, I do so to open a dialogue, to give people something to think about. I don’t write it with the intention that you should agree with me or with any knowledge that I’m right. If I sound like I’m preaching this is a flaw in my writing, not my intention. I’d just like to ‘put it out there’ in the interests that it might help someone somewhere think a problem through. Maybe it won’t, perhaps I’ve said nothing that hasn’t been said, and discarded before. But maybe it will. So it is worth doing.