Previous installments in this “Better Human Story” series can be found here.
We are now in a position to see the main elements of the human saga in a more integrated way. The pieces here will be familiar, but it is time now to put those pieces together to highlight this central core of the Human Story.
It’s a story that unfolds like a tragedy. As in a tragedy, it is the very strengths of the hero – in this case, human intelligence and creativity – that prove the means of his undoing. And as with tragic drama, the nature of the order in which the hero operates imparts to the basic outlines of how the hero’s drama will unfold an element of inevitability.
This inevitability can be stated in this way: Any creature, anywhere, that steps across the threshold — out of the niche in which it has evolved biologically and into the capacity to invent its own way of life — will be caught up in a long, drawn-out, and painful battle between two coherent forces: one of wholeness, growing out of the structure of life; and one of brokenness, growing out of the disorder into which it has inadvertently stumbled.
(These are forces whose effects and way of operating makes it reasonable for them to be called “good and evil”).
The Three Dynamics that (Have Done Most to) Shape the Human World
In this series, I have tried to show the inescapable dynamics that drive the drama of the creature who takes the bold and unprecedented – but ultimately also tragic – step into creating that new form of life called civilized society.
This tragedy, rather than coming in three acts, is enacted through the inevitable sequence of three inescapable dynamics driving the drama. Let me sketch these three quickly, and then go into them more fully.
1) First, here on earth – and (the assumption is) wherever life may emerge – life has been shaped by a process of biological evolution. Which is to say, that the various creatures that emerge over time are the products of natural selection, a process that favors life over death or, to put it another way, favors what can survive to transmit its pattern into the future over what cannot.
It is in this first stage – the Genesis, where the (human) creature is crafted for life — that the foundation for the force of wholeness, and thus the force of good, is laid. (Series entries # 2 and # 3.)
2) The second stage is set in motion when humankind – or whatever other species, wherever else in the cosmos — steps across that crucial threshold, extricating itself from the biologically evolved order (that has constrained all previous forms of life) to begin an experiment never before performed in the history of life on earth: a creature restructuring its way of life with its own invention, i.e. developing civilized society.
It is with this emergence of civilization that a second evolutionary process is inevitably – and inadvertently – generated. This evolutionary process is driven for the selection for the ways of power out of inter-societal competition. And the operation of the second process gets superimposed upon the first, with which it is in some fundamental ways in conflict.
This new development introduces a new kind of disorder into the systems of life on earth.
(How this disorder arises and imparts an impetus of brokenness into the human world are described in series entries #4 and #5.)
Where there had been a kind of unity in life’s unfolding through one evolutionary process, now division arises within the realm of the living world, as the two evolutionary processes operating by different rules to foster different outcomes contend with each other to shape the human world.
3) Third, and finally, out of that impetus of disorder (resulting from that selection for the ways of power that inevitably drove (a major part of) the evolution of this new form of life –civilized society), a coherent “force of brokenness” — or force of “evil” – develops within the creature’s world.
Out of the dense network of interactions –among civilized societies, between societies and their human members – this force makes itself visible, through time, in the way that it transmits shape-shifting “patterns of brokenness” through the systems of civilization.
By tracing cause and effect in cultural systems through long periods, one can discern an “It” that moves through the system, manifesting in one way now and impacting the world to take another form next. In the midst of the substance of the world of concrete human affairs, one can see something like a wave moving through over time.
(Here is more about the “wave” as a metaphor for something real, though abstract, moving through the “water” of the specific and concrete.)
And so the force of wholeness – which has so long carried life forward – must now inevitably contend with an opposing dynamic for the ability to shape the destiny of that creature’s world.
It is out of these three dynamics that has arisen the human tragedy. The creature with the capacity to innovate is compelled to be inescapably enmeshed in an ongoing and inescapable battle to see whether wholeness or brokenness — the constructive or the destructive, the life-serving or the life-degrading, good or evil — will shape the human world.
Now let’s look a bit more deeply into each, in turn.
1) ‘Life Over Death’ as the Root of the Good
By continually crafting organisms for life, the evolutionary process favors those creatures that do what their survival requires. At a certain point in the increasing complexity of organisms, doing what survival requires means being motivated to do what their survival requires.
A motivational system, in turn, requires a creature to have an experiential palette—a range of experiential quality that runs from positive to negative that motivates the creature either toward or away from survival-related activities and situations. Those things that have ancestrally been associated with survival are experienced as rewarding, while those ancestrally associated with the failure to survive and transmit one’s life form feel unpleasant and aversive.
Thus, even a purely mechanical evolutionary process arising in an apparently indifferent universe (with variety arising from mutations subjected to the process of natural selection), leads to a vital connection between the valuing of life (inherent in the process) and the creature’s having experiences that feel rewarding.
(That was one theme in entry # 3, “The Sacred Space of Lovers.” It is because that space has been so important both to the propagation of the next generation of our kind, and to the development of the kind of families best for nurturing our long-dependent young, that we humans are so constructed by nature as to find this “space of lovers” a source of such deep fulfillment.)
The other essential piece to this picture was developed in entry # 2, “How ‘the Good’ Emerges Out of Evolution.” That essential idea might be stated thus:
The only sensible basis for talking about “value” is an experiential basis. In the absence of any creatures or beings to whom things matter – for whom some things are experienced as better than other things — it makes no sense to talk about value. What can anything matter if it matters to no one?
(God can be part of this picture, if we believe there to be a God to whom it matters whether things are this way or that way, who is more “pleased” with some things than with others. In that case, that “mattering” can be weighed in the picture. But with or without God, all assessments of what is good or not-good must be based on the experience of sentient beings.)
No other basis makes sense.
Human fulfillment is the human good. And human fulfillment is built upon the life-serving motivational/experiential structure crafted in us by a process that chooses life over death.
Thus it is that, in this first stage of the human story, we arise with an inherent structure oriented toward life, and thus toward what we experience as fulfilling, as thus to the good.
A Re-Telling of the Fall: A New “Genesis”
In a sense, the tragedy that unfolds for the civilization-making creature amounts to a re-telling of the story told in the Bible’s book of Genesis.
To a degree, that first stage – the crafting of our nature, by the evolutionary process, for life – creates a kind of Eden.
Not that what biological evolution creates is paradise, of course. All living things have always had to contend with the first two sources of brokenness described in the previous chapter: the persistence of untamed forces from the non-living world (asteroids, etc.); and the conflicts of interest (predation, parasitism, etc.) that the purely opportunistic processes of biological evolution inevitably build into life’s systems.
The resultant system is hardly perfect from the vantage point of any one part of the system that inevitably develops to contain manifold conflicts among the many components of the whole system. But even if life’s condition has always been imperfect in such ways, the correlation between what serves LIFE and what must necessarily be the nature and the basis of THE GOOD is fundamental.
We have a kind of Eden – not perfection, but a kind of wholeness – because LIFE, as we saw in the previous installment, depends on structures characterized by WHOLENESS. And thus, being crafted for life, we humans are inclined by nature to find fulfillment in the experience of wholeness: in all its forms, such as love, peace, justice, beauty, honesty, integrity, etc.
In the niche in which we evolved biologically, where our fulfillment tended to derive from those things that, during the countless generations of our ancestral origins, tended to confer and preserve our kind of life– that correspondence between the requirements of survival and the natural inclinations of the creature in itself represented a kind of Wholeness.
That is our Eden: a system, created by biological evolution, in which every creature is probabilistically rewarded for living according to its inborn nature.
But then comes the Fall. It is a fall precipitated by the departure from the wholeness of that biologically evolved order.
And, as in Genesis, the issue of “good and evil” has a central place in the tragedy of the Fall.
In place of the disobedience to God’s command, this Fall derives from the creature’s leaving the way of life for which the requirements are inscribed in its nature and moving into a new situation inevitably beset by disorder, including the disorder of the creature being caught between conflicting sets of demands.
And so that “knowledge of good and evil” – which was the fruit of the tree that God commanded Adam and Eve that “thou shalt not eat” – comes to humankind as the inevitable fruit of the disorder our too-smart-for-our-own-good species inadvertently unleashed.
In other words, instead of the Fall being the result of our involvement with “the knowledge of good and evil,” this Fall became the cause of our being compelled most painfully to gain such knowledge.
Except that humankind has traumatically experienced “good and evil” far more than it has clearly understood it.
2) The Tragic Hero Inadvertently Unleashes a Major Impetus of Brokenness
The 4th and 5th installments in this series demonstrated two things:
- That a creature starting to invent its own way of life (civilization) represented a fundamental discontinuity in the history of life on earth;
- That there inevitably arose from that breakthrough a new social evolutionary force – the selection for the ever-escalating ways of power –that drove the shape of the new form of society in directions that the creature did not choose but could not prevent.
The inescapable logic that mandates this “reign of the ways of power” is laid out in the brief piece, “Step-By-Step Proof: A Creature’s Escape from Its Biologically-Evolved Niche Subjects It to the Reign of Power.” But here are the key points:
- Whereas it is the nature of biological evolution that it creates communities of organisms whose interactions are regulated to maintain the synergy and viability of the system as a whole, the newly emergent life-form – the civilized society – inevitably emerges totally unregulated. That is to say, the interactions among civilized societies are regulated neither by the biologically evolved order, from which such societies have escaped, nor by any human-created order, which cannot be instituted so long as the overarching system of civilized societies remains fragmented (as it inevitably will be for many millennia).
- The inevitable result of this new form of anarchy is a new form of disorder, i.e. an unceasing struggle for power among the actors/societies or, as Hobbes described anarchy, a “war of all against all.”
In this anarchic system, any one actor can impose upon all the actors the necessity for the kind of power required to survive in that kind of unending competition. The fragmented nature of the system makes it inescapable that the only outcomes possible for a threatened society (destruction, conquest, retreat, or emulation) all spread the ways of power further through the inter-societal system.
- Although the breakthrough into civilization appears to grant the civilization-creating animal a broad range of freedom to choose its way of life, that freedom is illusory. What appears to be freedom turns out to be a new form of bondage because those societies that prevail in the unchosen struggle for power are not random.
The escape from the niche in which humans evolved makes possible a vast spectrum of conceivable ways of organizing society – politically, economically, psychologically, technologically, etc. But conceivability does not equate to survivability. The cultural choices along all those dimensions affect a society’s power, and thus its survivability in the war of all against all.
Thus the unchosen anarchic nature of the overarching system dictates that, out of all the apparently conceivable forms that a civilized society might take, it is inevitably only those forms that are best at power-maximization that ultimately will survive and spread their ways.
- As the power-maximizing innovations of civilized society can escalate without limit, the selection for the ways of power has no stopping point. The shaping of civilization to meet the demands of power therefore will escalate indefinitely.
Humankind remains trapped in this reign of power so long as humankind has failed to institute overarching controls to stop what Thucydides described as the ways of the world, where “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
This inevitable driving of civilization’s development along the path of power is the social evolutionary force I’ve called “the parable of the tribes.”
The step into civilization is an impressive accomplishment, a step never before taken in the almost four billion-year history of life on earth. (Never before taken because no other species had the intelligence or the creativity to develop culture to the point where it could escape from the natural order and invent its own way of life.) But that step entails a tragic cost.
Like the tragic hero, the civilizing creature must suffer because of its heroic strengths.
Out of the wholeness of the original Eden, comes the creature’s Fall into a trap where it is torn between two evolutionary forces. One that shaped the creature’s nature by choosing life over death. And one that sifts among all the cultural possibilities and chooses power over weakness.
This second evolutionary process, stemming as it does from disorder (the anarchy of the civilizational system) imparts into the human system that impetus of brokenness that rebounds through all the levels of the human world—from the inter-societal system beset by war, to the civilized society shaped by the demands of power, to the individual human caught between the needs of its nature and the demands of such power-maximizing societies.
While the second of the two evolutionary forces — selecting for the ways of power– imparts brokenness into the human world, that brokenness is countered by the inborn human craving for wholeness. (That craving, as was said, is the result of the alignment between wholeness and life and the reward structure of creatures crafted by that biological evolutionary process that continually chooses life over death. That inborn motivation has led civilized humankind to continually strive to create wholeness where possible within the constrains of the demands of power in the anarchic — dangerously unregulated — world of civilized societies.
The Need for Something Like “the Parable of the Tribes” Should Have Been Obvious
If we didn’t have something like “the parable of the tribes” to explain why the world is as messed up as it is, we would have to find something that does the same job.
Just consider these two fairly incontrovertible points:
1) Given a choice about what kind of world they wanted to live in – choosing between living in a beautiful world versus and ugly one, a just world versus an unjust one, a world with much love versus one with much hate, a caring community versus a cruel one, a world at peace versus a world at war, etc. — what would people choose? Would not the overwhelming majority of people choose the more whole world in every case?
2) How good have human beings shown themselves to be, in general, at arranging things to achieve the outcomes they desire? Admittedly, success at this particular task (of creating a more whole world) would never be a slam-dunk for us humans (for reasons of “unintended consequences,” among others). But overall, would it not be fair to say that people have shown impressive resourcefulness in accomplishing great things to achieve their desired ends?
So, if almost everyone wants to live in a more whole world, and if people are rather good at creating things to get the outcomes they desire, how are we to explain the fact that the world is now, and has so long been, so broken, so filled with conflict and hate and injustice and ugliness, etc.?
Historically, the world’s brokenness has been blamed on human nature. In the religious context (of Christianity), we’ve had original sin. But even outside that context, one often hears people say, “That’s just human nature” – a statement almost always used to explain our limitations, our badness. It’s “just human nature” that we’re selfish and greedy and violent and whatever else our flawed nature will not let us rise above.
Let’s take a closer look at that idea that it is human nature to be selfish etc., and that such inherent flaws in our inherent motivational structure explain our taking the world in a direction away from wholeness.
If we say that it is human nature to be selfish, what then are we to make of the people who act unselfishly? Even if it were true that human beings have an inborn tendency to be selfish, do not these unselfish exemplars prove that this tendency can be overcome?
Even if we bought the negative view of human nature, we would need to look at the means by which the unselfish (or ungreedy, etc.) became that way. Most likely, we would find that being brought up in a certain way – loving family, supportive community, humane schooling, good role models, etc. — (versus the opposites of that way) helps explain a good deal of what differentiates those who grow up to be selfish from those who grow up to be unselfish.
Now, given that people want to live in a whole world, and that they’re good at creating ways of getting what they want – and given the evident potential of people to become good even if they are not inherently good — would you not expect that humankind would be quite able to construct the human world to create the kinds of people (unselfish, loving, just, etc.) who will help to make the world more whole?
That is, unless there were some strong countervailing force operating that thwarts that desire, and blocks that outcome.
The only way I can imagine rescuing the “blame humans” theory is to say something like this: while it is true that some people could grow up to be unselfish (or fair-minded, or compassionate, or whatever), not everyone has that potential.
For that rescue of the blame-human-nature idea to work, it seems, one would have to maintain something like this: among a population of many babies that are born, such a high percentage of them are intrinsically (by nature) irremediably inclined to brokenness as to render it impossible for the human world to become more whole.
But how plausible is that?
For one thing, in evolutionary terms, how would it come to be that there is so much brokenness irreparably built into the genetic structure of so many humans.
For another thing, what seems much easier to believe is that, at birth, the overwhelming majority of people have the potential to grow into adults whose net impact on the world around them would be in the direction of wholeness.
Maybe there’s an unselfish-gene that accounts for an Albert Schweitzer (and for all the many millions of other people who choose a role in the world that serves others). But even if it were true that not everyone has such an unselfish-gene:
- a) would it not be possible to raise even the rest of the population so that their selfishness is at least in check, and
- b) would it not be likely that people lacking the unselfish-gene would have other wholeness-serving potentialities that could be brought out in a well-designed world to make them net-contributors to wholeness in the world?
It is not necessary to postulate that human beings are by nature good (though I expect that is more true than it’s opposite). All that’s necessary is to believe that most human beings have the capacity, under the right circumstances, to grow into basically good people under the right circumstances.
If that proposition is accepted, and if we accept also that human beings – unhampered by some powerful headwinds – would be capable of creating those circumstances that would move the human world toward the greater wholeness the overwhelming majority of people would prefer, the actual broken state of the world would seem in need of some kind of explanation.
The observable fact that the course of humankind has diverged quite sharply from what would seem to be the predictable path should indicate the need to find the equivalent of a “black hole” to explain the destructive trajectory things have actually taken. (A black hole being something invisible but exerting huge force on everything around it.)
The parable of the tribes presents such a black hole. And if we didn’t have that idea, or something else that does what the parable of the tribes does, we would be stuck with a huge mystery.
Another mystery, as I see it, is that more people over the millennia have not seen the need for such an explanatory “black hole” – such an invisible but powerful force – and have not exerted more effort to identify it.
3) Patterns Moving Through the Human World
The selection of life over death – the first dynamic (of biological evolution) – constructed in us certain patterns of wholeness. These patterns – of love, and kindness, of cooperation within the social group, of “the sacred space of lovers” – can be passed along. (“Pay it forward” can be considered not just a moral injunction, but also a description of what happens in the human world.)
But then a second evolutionary process — unleashed by the rise of civilization — imparted an impetus of brokenness then is imparted into the human world: this process entailed the selection, among the cultural options, of whatever maximizes power and the elimination of those cultural options that expose a society to elimination by more powerful neighbors. The ways this fosters brokenness include these:
- The war of all against all inevitably makes the historical experience of trauma ubiquitous among the world’s peoples. Trauma is a form of brokenness.
- That struggle for power just as inevitably creates unjust outcomes of domination and exploitation (enslavement, social class divisions, unequal distributions of power, top-down rule, etc.). Injustice is a form of brokenness.
- The inescapable requirement for societies to organize for power-maximization leads inevitably to societies’ exploiting the capacity of the humans within them – a capacity required for any cultural animal – to be molded into the form that their societies impress upon them. As there is a substantial difference between what a power-maximizing society demands of its members and what humans’ inborn nature and needs would have them become, civilized peoples have inevitably been torn between the two (external and internal) sets of demands. The internalization by the young of the demands of (power-shaped) civilized societies inevitably — to one degree or another — sets people at war against themselves. Intra-psychic war is a form of brokenness.
This suggests the many ways in which the pattern of brokenness – originating in the inevitable disorder of the overarching system – gets transmitted through the human world.
Some of the shape-shifting ways that this pattern gets transmitted have been suggested in previous installments (such as #9 and #10).
- As one dramatic current example, we have traced the brokenness that is the presidency of Donald Trump back to the degraded state of the consciousness of that part of the electorate that could look at a lying bully who picks fight and relishes humiliating people and like what they saw.
- And that degradation of the consciousness of those citizens, in turn, can be traced back to the deliberate efforts of a system of right-wing propaganda – whose major figures have included Limbaugh, Gingrich, Rove, Fox News, and Republican politicians generally – to inflame people’s resentments, to persuade people of a false picture of the world, to focus on enmity, to turn off their critical thinking, etc. (See here and here.)
(Trump is Trump, but when it comes to Trump being elevated to the presidency by the American electoral process, Trump must be understood as but a flagrant manifestation of the shape-shifting pattern of brokenness that has been moving — with growing strength over the past generation — through the American power system.
Here’s another large historical perspective on how the pattern of brokenness changes forms, and moves from level to level, as the force of brokenness moves through the human world over time.
This perspective shows how that core dilemma of civilization – the unavoidable and traumatic struggle for power, and all its implications for the warping of society and the inflicting of injuries on their human members – primes people to feed back into the world the brokenness that the world has imposed on their experience.
(The following are the ideas that around which my 1988 book –Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War—was organized.)
The Wounds That Drive Us to War
As the parable of the tribes argues, there need not be anything inherently wrong or evil or crazy about human beings for their breakthrough into civilization to unleash a chronic and pervasive force of destruction.
But the experience of being in such a world – as the unavoidable struggle for power generates chronic strife and, out of that strife, injects tyranny and injustice and oppression into the human world — has been traumatic. And trauma is damaging to the human psyche.
It is the very essence of trauma that it entails experience that people cannot integrate within themselves in a whole way. So trauma can drive people into a broken state. And from that broken state, people transmit brokenness back into the surrounding world that traumatized them.
Consider three ways that the trauma inflicted by the (inevitably) disordered system of civilization can drive the traumatized to compound the world’s disorder.
- Such trauma can readily generate a craving for power, control, superiority: Winning, in its various forms.
We would accept being weak in a safe world. But it is unacceptable to be weak in a world where the mighty rule by force. Where weakness has been experienced as exposing on to intolerable pain and danger, some people will feel driven to impose their will upon the world. The inevitable rule of power drives some, who have been wounded by power, to worship power.
People can gain some feeling of safety by compelling others to play the role of the weak and victimized. People will seek occasions where they can impose their will to compensate for the epidemic experience of impotence.
Power being a zero-sum game, that means that the war of all against all will generate people whose needs to conquer and build their empires drives them into conflict with other people likewise driven by the same trauma-induced insistence on dominating.
A related effect of those historical forces that disregard human needs and treat people as of no account is the defensive self-inflation of grandiosity. When the world — through the cruelties of war and domination (including the demands of power-shaped systems on the young) — treats our deepest longings as insignificant, some will respond with the narcissistic insistence on asserting the opposite — i.e. the compensatory image of themselves as superior.
A world where many feel compelled to be in the superior position is not a world where peace can readily be achieved.
History shows how, in these ways, the engines of war can be fueled by people’s need to fight in order to deny feelings of weakness and worthlessness inflicted by the struggle for power and its social evolutionary consequences.
2. A second dimension of traumatic injury is the instilling of a desperate need for certainty.
As the traumas inflicted by the force of brokenness lead people to deny their true experience of vulnerability, so also do they drive people to deny their intolerable uncertainty and confusion.
In a safe world, uncertainties might be embraced as mystery. But the more those who peer out into the darkness have experienced the landscape as strewn with traps and land mines, the greater will be their need to feel certain that their maps are reliable. The sense of mystery that, in a more benign world, we might have apprehended with wonder and awe now creeps toward us with terror mounted upon its back.
The experiments of social psychologists show that the greater the stress, the less tolerance for ambiguity. Over thousands of years of civilization, the larger human experiment has demonstrated the same relationship. By condemning civilized peoples to inescapable insecurity, civilization has therefore greatly intensified the temptation to cling to false certainties.
The more one senses that a false step may mean disaster, the more impelled one feels to know with certainty that one is walking on the true path.
Dogma is the child of anxiety.
Differences of beliefs constitute a threat to those whose fears produce a need for certainty. People who see things differently raise the specter that one’s own views may not be as completely valid and sufficient as one requires. And so those people, and their beliefs, are experienced as a threat. In a world where diversity of cultures and belief systems has naturally arisen out of history, the intolerance of difference is incompatible with a world at peace.
Thus do the traumatized (broken) fuel the war system by insisting that their truth is God’s truth, and anyone who disagrees should be fought as enemies of God.
3. And the third way that the reign of power has inflicted injuries on humankind that, in turn, have fueled the strife in the world concerns the impulse to project onto some enemy those parts of oneself that their society condemns.
Societies shaped by the demands of power will require of people that (to a greater or lesser extent) they become something other than what they, by nature, would wish to become. Thus is the history of civilization marked by the imposition on the developing human young of “moralities” of greater or lesser severity– moralities that condemn, or at least seek to overcome, people’s inborn nature.
The more harshly our culture teaches us to regard our natural desires as evil, the less capable will we be, as growing human beings, to reconcile the warring parts within us. And the greater the need to turn away from that painful inner reality. The more irreconcilable the inner conflicts between inborn human needs and internalized moral demands, the more painful it will be for the members of that society to acknowledge those parts of themselves that society forbids.
To deliver ourselves from the pain of that internal war, to experience ourselves as more whole and harmonious within, we will be tempted to deny our “evil” parts and to identify with the power that has imposed its will upon us in the guise of “moral” authority. But since the sense of evil does not simply disappear, there will also be a need to locate that evil somewhere outside the boundaries of one’s self.
Through that projection of evil – indirectly the product of the war of all against all that has shaped civilized societies – the war within the psyche fuels an intensification of the strife out in the world.
I asserted earlier that the overwhelming majority of people would choose a more whole world over a more broken one, i.e. one at peace rather than one at war, etc. But as we have just seen – in this examination of three kinds of intra-psychic brokenness – there are broken people who — being at war with frightening dimensions of their own experience — cannot be at peace and are driven in the direction of conflict.
(One need only look at the current occupant of the Oval Office. It would be an interesting history to trace back all those patterns of brokenness in the human world that went into the forming of the malignant narcissist, who continually foments strife and division – now President of the United States: Trump’s abusive father, for starters, and then all the factors that made the father as he was, involving family, cultures, nations, interweaving through centuries.)
Thus, through the shaping of civilized societies by the selection for the ways of power, brokenness in the overarching inter-societal system begets brokenness in the human psyche which, in turn, begets brokenness in the interactions among peoples.
Trauma and the Lie
Traumatic experience — which occurs when people have experiences they do not have the resources to handle — remains an unintegrated experience. That lack of integration implies a kind of brokenness in the person’s psychological structure. And one form of that brokenness, as we have just been seeing, is the denial of the realities of our experience.
We have just discussed three such traumatic realities: the realities of our experience of ourselves as weak and uncertain in a dangerous world, and — according to the judgments we have tainted with “evil,” according to the judgments we have internalized. If those experiences are intense (painful and frightening) enough, people can deny them. But what is driven underground does not disappear.
Thus it has often been to defend those beliefs they inwardly (unconsciously) know to be false that people have been driven to make war, ready to kill and to die.
The denial of the realities of such painful experience thus lays down the template for the rule of the lie. Once we lose the integrity of dealing with reality, the embrace of all kinds of falsehood becomes possible. (With respect to how this connects with the treatment of blacks by whites in the South, and the treatment of Jews by Germans during the Nazi era, see pp. 110-111 of WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST.) It is for good reason that the lie has a most central place in the traditional Christian understanding of Evil: Satan, the Evil One, is known as the Deceiver.
The lie is brokenness in the form of a misalignment with reality. It is one of the fruits of trauma, which – being more than we can integrate — breaks us. And trauma is the inevitable fruit of the social evolutionary process in which our species has been caught up.
The tragic hero of this drama – the human creature – stumbled innocently into this traumatic process, made inevitable by the disorder that human creativity inadvertently introduced into the systems of life on earth. But once broken by the inescapable trauma of the impossible situation into which this creature had ventured, our hero became capable of the monstrous brokenness that has marked so much of the history of civilization.
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Are there people you know who would answer “yes” to the question with which this piece began? If so, please send them the link to this piece.
NOTE: The comments that follow, below, are from people I’ve asked to serve as my “co-creators” on this project, i.e. to help me make this series as good and effective as possible.
They are people who have known me and my work. And my request of them is that –when the spirit moves them to contribute – they add what they believe will help this series fulfill its purpose and give the readers something of value. I’ve invited them to tell the readers what they think will serve the readers well, and to pose questions or challenges they believe might elicit from me what I should be saying to the readers next.
I am grateful for their attempting to help me find the right path.
Andy, I believe, as you do, that the overwhelming majority of people can grow into adults ” .. whose net impact on the world around them would be in the direction of wholeness.” I think that a steadfast belief in our basic innocence and orientation to the good is where we can all find hope for a renewal toward wholeness. Of course, consistent commitment and action to enable our fundamental goodness to flourish is imperative. Thanks so much for this enlightening series. I know your mission to help guide us toward effective, compassionate action will continue.
At the end of the play, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” there come the lines from this girl who was captured by the Nazis, and will die in a concentration camp, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
These days, with the brokenness of so many of our fellow citizens so blatantly on display, I find it more of a struggle than earlier in my life to believe that. But if she can believe it “in spite of everything” that this young girl had been exposed to when she wrote that in her diary, then perhaps we, too, can hold onto that fundamental reality: that the brokenness in the world is not “human nature writ large,” but the product of forces that were not derived from that nature, were not chosen by humankind, but were the inevitable result of the breakthrough into a disorder that could not have been anticipated beforehand, nor controlled thereafter.
In the face of the story, one might say: Forgive us, we know not what we do.
Overall, this is a brilliant piece. It provides a very helpful integrated perspective and I love the black hole metaphor which allows for further understanding to be built on this foundation.
What I mean is that there are two notions that ‘those who will not see’ would benefit from and that this essay reveals. The first is the sense of the advantage of a more integrated perspective and the second is the force of brokenness and evil that this integrated perspective does a better job of explaining than previous commonly accepted perspectives have up to this point.
I like the metaphor of the black hole – something we know only by the effects, not being able to examine it directly. We cannot examine directly the brokenness of a human either, but we can measure its force and effect on those around it.
Also, our understanding of black holes is a very recent human discovery– as is the more integrated perspective that you are championing and bringing solid voice to.
It is presumed that humans will gain further understanding about black holes and it should also be presumed that people will get more perspective on the human condition, the working of brokenness, and the healing from brokenness as we move forward as a species.
Thank you, Forest.
Andy, I have been a long-time supporter of your work. I thank you for putting your gifts in the service of Good.
I’ve been mulling how the story you are telling can be a BETTER human story. Proposing that the intelligence and creativity of humans has led to brokenness from the ways of power does not seem to be an appealing, better story, at first glance.
But if we need to see things clearly in order to find successful solutions, then your parable of the tribes seems to be an original, and, ultimately, hopeful version of the human story. Hopeful, as you say, that evil is not an inborn part of our natures. Whereas Hobbes thought the world needed an authoritarian hand to resist the “war of all against all,”
I suppose in the world you describe we have a choice to choose global cooperation against the default of power. Humanity has made moves in that direction– United Nations, for example- although we are clearly not there yet. And, of course, we have backslid as we make America great again, instead of collaborating for the good of the whole.
Maybe it would help us not to see people as bad, just broken in places. And I suppose all the cultural exchange programs and interfaith discussions help us to see the wholeness that people try for everywhere, Sounds sweet, but true.
I know you are offering your perspective as a better story that secular individuals can adopt. But I, personally, gained from growing up church. My church and individuals who attended were not perfect, but at least people came together there, trying for wholeness. Stories of redemption by faith from brokenness are many. Of course, lack of trust in basic human wholeness may also exist in certain churchgoing communities. Children in religious education can be admonished, even beaten, and strictly controlled so as not to let the “devil” out.
I do think it is important to seek out and to heal our own broken parts. I know you know this. I appreciate people who are offering study groups in race relations, for example. When one has offended, it helps with healing to apologize. Likewise, even though one personally did not create the brokenness of racial oppression, one may still be benefitting from the results.
I hope I can learn more and how I am still perpetuating brokenness and do what is helpful to heal in this regard.
Thanks again, Andy.
About “growing up church.” I can see how that could be an important boost in one’s striving for – and looking for – wholeness. (And how it can also be the opposite, depending on what the church chooses to communicate, and how it operates as a community.) The religious traditions contain so much that points toward “the good.” And if the church also functions as a supportive, caring community – operating in a spirit of goodwill – that is important, too.
I’ve at times envied people who have had such communities of belief and mutual support. But it has not been my own path.
Instead, I’ve fulfilled my need for supportive community by assembling it myself, as with the people like you in this Co-Creator group.
This is a fantastic summary, Andy.
It is stunning in its depth, thoroughness, and breadth.
It is written with simple clarity, but I had to read it in about five segments because each part is so intense and requires a space to absorb.
It is simple but it has unexpected turns. For example, the move away from nature usually has as a proposed solution to return to nature. Certainly, that has been part of the counter-culture’s response in the past half-century. But that is not where you go at all. You go toward overarching rule to counter anarchy. So that takes time to absorb.
Your combining a tragic view along with a rewrite of Genesis without the sin would be enough, but you go much further.
As a Psychologist specializing in trauma for the past two decades, I can attest that your depiction of the impact of trauma — and the importance of power issues often generating that trauma — is deeply accurate. And your generalization of that to the social level is also evident to me in my practice.
Again, the best response I can give here is my thanks for your appreciative comment, Ed.
[Note: Karen is responding here not only to the piece, but also to a statement I made in an email to the co-creator group that “this entry feels in some way like a completion. I am considering this the concluding piece in what might be a Volume One.”]
Andy, I agree that this could serve well as a concluding piece. My own readership waned with my recent travel, but picking up with #11, it reads as a summary and conclusive piece.
I particularly resonate with the tragic hero comparison, and continue to think on the postulate of the pair of human intelligence and creativity, the very strengths that feed continuous improvement in the human species, may in fact be the force behind judgment errors that inevitably leads to humanity’s own destruction.
As always, well written, thought provoking, and truly a best offering of yourself. Your ideas, wisdom, experience and unique thought are reflected well here. Thank you for giving so fully of yourself so that others can have a window into your mind and be the better for it.
Just one point of clarification I’d like to make, Karen: it concerns the idea that “human intelligence and creativity… may in fact be the force behind judgment errors that inevitably leads to humanity’s own destruction.” The intelligence and creativity, I am saying, were the human gifts that made possible the breakout from the niche in which we evolved biologically, and the breakthrough into the new life-form, civilized societies. But the force that has been so destructive is something that emerges not out of those human capabilities, but out of the inevitably unregulated nature of that new life-system, civilization.
I am especially struck by the notion that trauma can lead to a desperate need for certainty. I feel that this presentation helps me to understand people who have trouble tolerating difference–in religion, race, sexual orientation, etc. I am interested to learn that studies show that the greater the stress, the less a person can deal with ambiguities. It makes more sense to me now why some embrace the mystery of life, while others want to feel they know, with certainty, what it all means. I appreciate having this greater understanding now of many of my fellow citizens whose attitudes I’ve found puzzling.
Yes, trauma heightens ongoing fear, and fear is a powerful – and often destructive – motivating force. Which brings to my mind something that you just reported to me today, April, about how a study demonstrated that after seeing a scary movie, people the face of a person from a different ethnic group as angrier than people who did not just see such a frightening film.
Which, in turn, reminds me of how the leaders coughed up by the force of brokenness work so consistently to stoke people’s fears. I just sent off to the newspapers my latest op/ed, which both tells and shows (using graphs) how Trump has told frightening lies—about a non-existent wave of illegal aliens, when the net flow had actually lately been back into Mexico; and about a non-existent wave of violent crime (“American carnage”), when the rate of violent crime in the U.S. has been sharply downward over the past quarter century, with but a minor uptick in 2015.
Fear may be important for survival in some situations. But it makes people in our complex political systems much more susceptible to deception and manipulation.
Even if there were selfish genes, maybe they would become problematic only (or mostly) in the presence of the economic and political hierarchies of civilization. Maybe more egalitarian groups would keep any such naturally selfish tendencies among them in check. If we plucked some destructively selfish person from a modern hypercapitalist patriarchy and dropped him into a foraging band in the wilderness, he might learn very quickly to treat others with respect… or be driven from the group into vulnerable isolation. Maybe it’s not so mysterious why humans haven’t felt the need until now to formulate the parable of the tribes. After all, it must take a high level of intellectual rigor and courage and emotional sensitivity, in combination, to even conceive of the problem, let alone the solution. The mystery instead may be that more people haven’t appreciated the solution now being presented to them, admittedly for a problem they’ve not yet even grasped. Indeed, my experience is that recognition of the problem itself is inexplicably resisted by many people. I believe that the essays in this series, gathered into a book, would make an important companion to the books ‘The Parable of the Tribes’ and ‘Out of Weakness’.
That people did not “formulate the parable of the tribes” is in itself not surprising. After all, that idea – as it came to me – relies entirely on the elegant stroke of genius of Charles Darwin: i.e., the insight that the concrete entities could be shaped by the over-arching system in which they were embedded. Had I not had that notion in my mind already – that systematic change can occur through natural selection sifting through naturally occurring variation I am sure it would never have occurred to me that civilized societies might have been shaped by a largely analogous process.
That being said, it does seem to me that a mystery should have been visible, even if its solution was not: i.e. the mystery, pointed to in this piece, of why the world is so broken despite the widespread desire of people for a more whole world as well as the evident ability of humankind to arrange so many other things in their world to achieve the results they desire.
Regarding the idea of these essays being gathered into a book, I appreciate what you say. Thank you. I also like that idea, and may look into the possibility of its realization.
Over the years, your theory and its applications have become part of my thinking. Yet there seem to be other factors contributing to brokenness that are external to the power maximization dynamic you elucidate. They do not contradict your powerful explanations, I just think they may be outside of it. However, they share with your vision the demonstrable idea that with the development of civilization, some of the protections of a viable, flexible, and adaptable process of evolution were lost. These are also neutral with regard to motive, yet damaging (and therefore contribute to brokenness) in their outcomes.
We were not evolved to adapt to the complexity that has been introduced by civilization. For instance, gentle infusion of the values of the hunter-gatherer community could take place through modeling, shared ritual, direct teaching, and lore in the context of a society in which all members are known to each other – villages of about 500 or less. While this is indeed a society, it is not “advanced.” Evolution served small systems.
A problem arises in that our thinking processes as evolved were adequate for the planning of days, of seasons, and probably of years. However, humans do have a “tendency” for instant gratification, and for shorter term planning. Frontal lobes, wondrous as they are, did not develop to anticipate generations ahead because there was not a need. The early humans needed to be able to plan for crops, for children’s development, and their growth into adult life, but they never had a need to project what life would be like for children born two generations hence. The consequences of their actions, as far as they knew, were there to see. Burning fossil fuels for cooking fires and for warmth did not have consequences for the environment that they could even discern. Now, we need to wrestle with the impact we are having now on generations forward, but we were evolved to note consequences in a much shorter duration of time.
Likewise, an epidemic of obesity was not a problem for our progenitors to worry about. Our innate taste for sweets served them well as they foraged for fruit, and perhaps the occasional nectar from other plants. Other addictions were not rampant, as the intoxicants were not plentiful. Even after they discovered and developed fermenting processes, the products were not as easily available. (Evil comes about in the power dynamic later with mass production and and with the cynical promotion of drinking, smoking nicotine, and taking opioids through advertising, even when their pernicious effects were well known by the producers/advertisers).
I do not think people were absent of intra-psychic anxiety. They must have had worries beyond that imposed by predators, famin, and getting lost. Jealousies due to perceived or real favoritism, for instance, must have existed. See Joseph and his brothers in the Bible, or Cain and Abel. Differences in abilities must have been noted and contributed to or detracted from self esteem and confidence. Grief and loss would be common occurrences. All these would disrupt one’s wholeness and effectiveness.
Civilization has produced some other difficulties, brokenness, that may be outside of the framework of power maximization. Attachment relationships within families are hugely altered as extended families live far distant from one another, and where financial pressures have parents outside of the home to make a living. Nannies, preschool and school, electronic interactions alter or disrupt the harmony of homeostasis of the primary attachment relationship, where the baby/child uses the parent as a secure basis from which to explore the world. With less feeling of attachment security, the individual becomes more vulnerable to become attached to ideologies, groups, or behaviors that are replacements for identity and confidence. This is another mechanism disrupted, but in my thinking it is not part of the dynamics of power.
A great many good points you have made, Gail. They add up to the point that there’s more to be said about the human condition than is contained in my parable of the tribes. Which is a point with which I certainly do agree. In the book ###, I felt I had the space to add a variety of qualifications – some of them much like a few of your points – but in this series, it seemed more appropriate not to add too much complexity. But I appreciate your pointing toward some of those complexities.
For starters, you are pretty surely right that “intra-psychic anxiety” was a part of the lot of humankind before civilization imposed its own dilemmas on our kind. One can think of that this way:
Mammals were underfoot in the age of the dinosaurs, in a most precarious existence. So we are the descendants of creatures that had every reason to be as nervous as rabbits. And as danger has been a reality throughout our subsequent evolution as well, there is every reason to believe you’re right about a certain level of anxiety being built into our natural make-up, as an adaptation to keep us vigilant.
Which exemplifies the ways that, as I said in the piece, our Eden was hardly perfect.
Also valid is your point that even without the parable of the tribes, a creature’s moving out of the niche in which it evolved into inventing its own way of life would be full of great challenges. How to create an order, rather than – as is the case for all the other species – simply live within one.
Human wisdom is limited, and so there is no reason to assume that they will make the best choice, even if that choice is made free, and not dictated by forces beyond their control.
In addition to this matter of the limitations to human judgment, and the possible wrong turns out of folly or other personal defects, there will be all kinds of other systemic forces operating that get in the way of things unfolding optimally.
(For example I note, with interest, how you have brought your long-standing interest in “attachment” and “separation” – John Bowlby et al. – into the discussion. A variety of ways our society has evolved have led to the partial displacement of the mother, that you note, by preschools and nannies, with who knows what impact on the way the child’s heart and soul develop, having less of that ancestral experience of stably occupying that space from which “the baby/child uses the parent as a secure basis from which to explore the world.”)
So, even without the inevitable “reign of the ways of power,” brokenness would have entered the world with civilization due to various other obstacles that get in the way of decisions being made in wise ways to create Wholeness in the human world.
Despite all that, I do believe that a great deal of the essential nature of the evolution of civilization has the process described by the parable of the tribes as its source. The combination of the trauma coming out of the inevitable kinds of experience that the parable of the tribes exposes people to, and the shaping of societies so that they will make demands of people that compel them to be broken because those some of those demands are hostile to human needs and nature, have meant that this process has been a major determinant of the moral and spiritual heart of the human story.
It is the story of creatures caught in this trap of the reign of power, but also yearning for wholeness. Acting often in broken ways, but also yearning for wholeness and trying to build it into their lives and into the distressed world they live in.
- # 1– A Better Human Story
- # 2– How “the Good” Emerges Out of Evolution
- # 3– The Sacred Space of Lovers
- #4– Humankind’s Perilous Step into Terra Incognita: The Rise of Civilization
- #5– The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution
- #6– The Pay-Off for Taking on this “Integrative Vision”: Part I
- #7– The Pay-Off for Taking on this “Integrative Vision”: Part II
- #8– Prepare for the Best
- #9- Understanding Evil
- #10- The Transmission of Patterns: Basic to Life, and to the Human World