A basic need
Our natural ability to affiliate and live together with others is a primary condition to survive. The human child is so vulnerable that from birth until adulthood it needs the most intensive care of all mammal species. And also thereafter connectedness with others remains of vital importance. In our brains there are areas that respond with great sensitivity to the receiving and giving of care. These areas, like others, develop and grow in proportion as they are stimulated.
Empathy, compassion and generosity are not luxury articles; they are basic needs that enable us to live. They are important not only for the survival of ourselves and our nearest and dearest but for the earth and its inhabitants as a whole. In the evolution these attributes were firstly directed toward those who were important for immediate survival, the family and social group; but when societies grew more complex, they extended and were more and more directed to other groups and also other species. Eventually, with awareness of our ultimate interconnectedness and interdependence, they can include all living beings.
While we evolved as social beings our capacity to be self-conscious became increasingly important for our survival. It is indeed important to form ourselves an image how others see us in order to behave in such a way that we are accepted by those we depend on for nurture and care. When we imagine that others have an unfavourable opinion of us, we feel threatened. If we imagine this too often our inner alarm system becomes over-activated and this can lead to fight reactions: aggression toward others but more often toward ourselves. We start to fight against the parts of us we think are unacceptable. It can also lead to unnecessary flight reactions: we withdraw from others whom we experience as threatening, or we flee from parts of ourselves that we experience as threatening, for instance by avoiding painful emotions. To prevent disapproval by others we often develop an ‘inner bully’ who criticizes us harshly. It feels safer to disapprove of ourselves before others do it. This is often very destructive to our well-being, however, and not helpful at all. It is not our fault that our brains have evolved in such a way that we are very sensitive to all forms of threat and are designed to escape from immediate danger. It is part of an old survival mechanism, that is still very useful when the threat comes from outside. It is far less useful when the threat comes from inside.
Just as it is important that children are calmed by a caring parent when they are upset, it is important that we learn to calm ourselves, especially when the threat comes from within or is only imagined. Often we perceive emotions or thoughts as threats, whilst these are actually normal transient phenomena, inevitably arising under certain circumstances. Rather than an inner bully, we need an inner helper. Instead of harsh self-criticism we need self-compassion. Similarly, others need more often compassion than criticism when things go wrong. That does not mean we have to condone harmful behaviour. We can rightly disapprove of this. But we can be compassionate with the person behind this behaviour, who did not choose the many conditions that shaped their lives. It is vital that we learn to develop compassion toward ourselves and others. When we neglect this capacity, we can behave immoderately cruel and destructive, like no other animal species. When we cultivate this capacity, we can – again, like no other species – allow selfless love and boundless compassion to flourish.
Love and death are the great gifts in life.
Mostly, they are passed on unopened.