blunt essays with sharp points

In each of us, two natures are at war

by Scrvpvlvs
Feb 24, 2013 9:56 PM–Reflection given at Westside Unitarian Universalist Church, February 24, 2012.

Long time listener, first time caller.

I have often told myself that I should keep company with people who make me better than I am. That feeling led me to take my first job in Texas, led me to make a life with Anita, and led me to become a member of this church. I am grateful for you, and I feel a bit intimidated. As I prepared my talk I was both excited and fearful: excited by the chance to give something of value, fearful that anything I had to say would be inadequate.

I have heard that there were three Unitarian Universalists returning by air from a conference when a hijacker demanded that the plane be flown to Cuba. When the pilot refused, the hijacker threatened to shoot some passengers. Purely by chance, he picked out the row of Unitarian Universalists. The nearest one asked for a last wish: to sing her favorite Unitarian Universalist hymn. The hijacker agreed, then asked if the other two had any last wishes. The second UU asked that after the song he be allowed to stand and give the talk he had prepared to give at church that next Sunday. The hijacker agreed, then turned to the third UU, who asked, “please shoot me after the song.”

Some social scientists might say that I have just made several common face-saving and face-threatening gestures associated with favor seeking. According to politeness theory, there are two basic wants in a social situation: wanting to be appreciated, called your positive face, and wanting not to be imposed on, called your negative face, and that people either cooperate to satisfy these wants, called face saving, or oppose them, called face threatening. When I stand here in the pulpit and speak to you, while you sit and listen, that can be analyzed as a potential imposition on you, a face-threatening situation. So it is important that I make face-saving gestures such as expressing my gratitude for you, minimizing my importance, and acknowledging that you could choose to shoot me instead of listen to me.

You could say that face saving is a big part of the work we do here at Westside. Westside is part of a progressive movement towards love, truth, and harmony, and that work takes many forms, but what I think makes all of that possible is our basic doctrine of equality and mutual respect.

I knew a person who attended a Unitarian Universalist explorer class at a different church. This person was taught the basic beliefs of Unitarian Universalists, including the idea that each person comes to Unitarian Universalism with unique beliefs and perceptions, and that the UU faith values this diversity. In fact, the UU faith was contrasted with the creedism of mainstream Christianity, and some rather impolite disparaging comments were made about the inflexibility of the Catholics. This person, who in fact held many Roman Catholic beliefs, felt a little humiliated by the Catholic bashing, and ultimately decided not to join.

About twelve years ago, I was a member of a group of people who met regularly to share their experiences of growing up with an alcoholic parent. The meeting format was designed with face saving in mind. Chairs were organized in a circle to create a sense of equality. We each took a turn to speak for up to five minutes about our experiences. Other members were expected to listen quietly without making comments or giving advice, and to keep what they heard strictly confidential. This very simple social structure was so unintimidating, nonjudgmental, and generally respectful that we learned to speak honestly about extremely personal feelings and perceptions and shocking or humiliating actions and experiences that we had never been able to disclose before with anyone. This was therapeutic because it dissolved guilt feelings made it easier to speak honestly about the same things with trusted counselors, family members, and friends.

That group embodied for me what I now know as the affirmation we read at the beginning of every service:

Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve others in community, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with creation, thus do we covenant with one another.

Each person came to these meetings with unique beliefs and perceptions, but we gathered in peace and love, for the purpose of finding and sharing our truth, serving one another to the end that we would grow into harmony with creation.

When I started attending Westside, I realized that it operates the same way. Westside embodies our affirmation. And I feel that this is the greatest work that we do here at Westside. Like other world religions, our religion is, at its heart, therapeutic. It is a joy and a relief for us to come here where there is love, peace, freedom, and community. Westside lifts us up, gives us the hope of harmony, and makes all our other work: our religious exploration, our activism, our teaching, our service to the larger world, possible.

Now I would like to talk a little about the two faces of that larger world.

The opening legend of the 1920 silent movie Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde reads,

In each of us, two natures are at war--the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose---what we want most to be, we are.¹

If you are a parent, you certainly know that babies are naturally helpful. According to a 2009 article in The New York Times, biologists are coming to believe that this is a distinctively human trait. Long before parents start teaching children to be polite, they are innately helpful. “When infants 18 months old see an unrelated adult whose hands are full,” says the article, “and who needs assistance opening a door or picking up a dropped clothespin, they will immediately help.”²

My first proud memory is also my earliest memory. I was about two years old. My baby sister, who was cradled in a bassinet on the dining table, dropped a toy over the side. I just remember reaching the toy way up to the bassinet and seeing her tiny hand grab ahold of it.

But I also remember the summer when I was three or four years old and fascinated by daddy longlegs. Depending on what part of the country you are from, this name may mean something different to you, so I will describe mine: they are arachnids, slow and spiderlike with eight very long legs, no silk glands or venom, harmless and defenseless. That summer I delighted in pulling the legs off them. The next summer, when I saw my first daddy longlegs, I remembered what I did. I felt so remorseful about it that I nearly threw up. I still feel uncomfortable remembering it.

Sidonie Matsner Gruenberg was a writer and authority in child study and parent education. Of Jewish heritage, she embraced the secular humanism of Felix Adler and made parent education her life’s work. She valued the latest scientific discoveries and had a gift for translating them into meaningful information for parents, beginning with her 1912 book Your Child Today and Tomorrow. She wrote many other books and advised the White House on family issues, and was active in her field into her nineties.³

In her 1916 book Sons and Daughters Sidonie wrote that

a child with a certain amount of initiative and curiosity will investigate the structure and insides of everything that he can possibly take apart. While he is still young and inexperienced, he makes no discrimination between dissecting a toy dog and a live insect. … There is a suspicion of cruelty only when the child is old enough to have a clear idea what suffering means, and to realize that other beings can suffer as he can, and from the same causes as those that make him suffer. Moreover [she continues], we must distinguish between the brutality that is a rather negative callousness or indifference to suffering, and the positive cruelty that derives satisfaction from the suffering of others. There are very few children who manifest cruelty in the latter sense.

Notice what she does not say. She does not say that we lose the capacity to be callous to suffering as we grow older, or lack the capacity to be cruel. She says that we gain the capacity to know when other beings suffer. And as innately helpful as we are, we then want to help. This combination can be deadly. Dudley Kidd, an anthropologist who studied the social lives of native South Africans more than a hundred years ago, is notable for the attention he paid to the unique lives of children. He observed:

But there is deliberate cruelty in the way [children] torture some insects and animals which they think hurt men and women. They often choose a harmless lizard, under a mistaken idea that it stings human beings; they slowly torture it to death, talking to it all the time, and telling it that it deserves to suffer because it is an enemy of man. … Instances are not wanting where children under eight or nine years of age have rushed to the defense of the mother, or some other close friend, with the exclamation, “I’d like to kill you!”

These are examples of what we call contempt, which is the devaluation of something or someone, the sense that a person is no longer deserving of our help, that their suffering matters less, or not at all. Some of you have no doubt read Blink, the 2005 book by Malcolm Gladwell. In the book, Gladwell discusses some research results by Dr. John Gottman, a professor of psychology whose special area of interest is relationships and marital stability. Dr. Gottman developed something he calls the Mathematics of Divorce. 10 He became an expert in reading facial expressions, and found that one hour of videotape of a married couple contained enough information to let him predict with 95% certainty whether the couple would still be married fifteen years later, no matter what they thought. The most important piece of information for Dr. Gottman’s predictions turned out to be bits of body language which reflect contempt: nearly imperceptible facial twitches, eye rolls, vocal tones which signal that one person considers the other person to be inferior, that (at least for a moment) they have devalued that person.

What we can do to other people we have devalued is truly frightening. The book History of Windham County, Connecticut relates a story of a public hanging of a man who had murdered his wife, attended by a crowd of six to ten thousand in 1831. This was not an unusual spectacle.

In expectation of the … influx, landlords and liquor sellers provided vast supplies of all kinds of liquor, and hired a special guard to keep watch of the criminal the night before execution, lest he should commit suicide or in any way escape [which naturally would eat into liquor sales]. Long before the break of day, … the various roads were thronged with wagons and foot travelers, single men and families, coming from all parts of Windham county and adjacent states. A gallows was set up in a hollow … where the vast multitude of spectators crowding its sloping sides enjoyed a distinct view of the whole proceedings. “There were never half so many drunk at any one time and place in [the] county”; … the throng was so vast that long before night not a mouthful could be procured in the village either to eat or drink except water …

Love is the doctrine of this church, and we do not believe in devaluing others. We believe that every creature is precious and deserving of love and respect. We are a gentle people who wish to dwell together in peace. But in the larger world we serve there are people with more aggressive personality traits.

Bob Altemeyer is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba. About six years ago, he released a book titled “The Authoritarians”, in which he describes something called an “authoritarian personality”. The problem of the book is to understand the rise of tyrants in a democracy. Such a person needs the support of large numbers of ordinary people. How did someone like Adolf Hitler gain the enormous popular support he needed to take over political power in Germany? Bob Altemeyer’s answer is that there is a large minority in every population of people, perhaps one out of every three or four, who share three personality traits:

  • “a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society”
  • “high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities, and”
  • “a high level of conventionalism”.

These are people who readily disagree with statements such as “there is no one right way to live life, everyone has to create their own way” and agree with statements such as “what our country really needs is a strong determined leader who will crush evil, and take us back to our true path”. According to Altemeyer, in experiments, the best predictor of who will have these traits is a person’s fear of a dangerous world. These are people who love their children, work hard, support their communities, but also feel threatened not just in dangerous situations, but all the time, day after day. And so it is no wonder that they want an aggressive savior, and that terrible things can happen when they get one.

I have long wondered at the difference between peaceful and aggressive people, and one clue I have found is in the work of a Russian geneticist called Dimitry Belyaev. He carried out a massive breeding experiment with foxes in which each generation was bred by selecting the tamest individuals from the previous generation. And something surprising occurred. The new breed of foxes which developed purely by selection for tameness gained many physical characteristics common to dogs: floppy ears and curly tails, for instance, but also smaller adrenal glands and higher levels of serotonin, which made these animals less fearful and aggressive. It is very possible that we Unitarians are largely a community of the floppy eared, curly tailed variety of humans, genetically predisposed to be peaceful, loving people because we are less fearful. And it is equally possible that people with the authoritarian personality are genetically predisposed to be more aggressive because they are more fearful.

If this is true, then when we are interacting with people in the larger world, face saving gestures are very important because for many people it is natural to feel threatened. Unitarians want to change the world, and change can be very threatening. I could wish that when people think of Unitarians, they think of us as mostly as the polite, loving, and above all safe people, with floppy ears and curly tails, that we are.

As we rise in body or spirit …

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