THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE
When challenged by threatening circumstances, evolution has programmed into us the tendency to want to protect ourselves and our loved ones at any cost. When under threat we become much more vigilant and self-focused, more readily interpreting situations, even neutral ones, as threatening. Negative emotions such as fear and anxiety make us focus in on ourselves, narrowing our thought and action repertoire. We favour what we already know and trust and become more averse to things that are different or new. These defence mechanisms used to be extremely helpful for keeping us safe. But they are also what makes us far more likely to reduce our thinking to ‘us’ vs ‘them’.
The tendency to want to protect ourselves is natural. But when so many of us begin to feel threatened all at once, we have a duty to work much harder to not fall into the trappings of the evolutionary hang-ups of our minds. The tendency to want to start blaming the ‘other’ for any misfortune, noticing all of the ways that we ourselves have been hard-done by while ignoring the hardships of others, and tending to see everything in terms of us vs them, could cause far more problems for our already strained communities than the consequences of the Coronavirus alone.
We have become the dominant species on our planet for one reason alone: our overwhelmingly social nature and our ability to work together to achieve something beyond our own small existence.
Our world has been turned upside down within the space of a few weeks. While the challenges we currently face to stop the spread of this virus are huge, what may lie ahead could be a far greater test of our resilience. Our ability to suppress our primal evolutionary tendencies to focus on ourselves in favour of the greater good will no doubt be put to the test in the aftermath of this pandemic. Working hard not to assess everything from the vantage point of how it impacts us alone and instead focusing on caring for and helping one another while working towards a global common good will become qualities more in demand than ever before.
If the biggest crises of the last decades have taught us anything, it’s that in our modern world there is no more us vs. them. From climate change to the Coronavirus, it has become undeniable that we are completely interconnected and that the greatest challenges that face humanity will only be solved if we continue to work together and care for one another.
Like in war times, we are currently faced with a common enemy. While the challenges are vast, we are united in our common cause. As we move forward, eventually moving out of the acute phase of trying to stop the spread of the virus, to dealing with the consequences of the economic turmoil that is likely to result, I would urge all of us to keep this same view front of mind: all that is worthwhile about humanity rests on our ability to work together and care for one another. More than ever before, we will need to fight our urge to favour what we consider ‘us’ and place any human beings or communities into the category of ‘them’.
Our greatest strength lies in our remarkable hyper-social nature. We have more in common as human beings than is often apparent due to the obscuring effects of our diverse cultures, unique histories and individual differences. But all that truly defines our humanity is universal to us all.
Over the coming weeks, or for as long as it makes sense, I will spend my time trying to share some thoughts that are deliberately focused only on the good. I have an utter fascination with the human condition. Understanding who we are and what makes us human, both the good and the bad, is my life’s calling. While I am not in denial about the dark sides of humanity, I also see a blinding amount of light. I have no expertise that might contribute to the discussion on how we solve some of the most pressing and vast challenges that likely lie ahead. But in the spirit of keeping front of mind all that is so remarkable about our common humanity, I want to share some of the things I have learnt about the better angels of our nature*.
If you are stuck at home I hope to be able to infuse a small moment of wonder into your day. I want to share a few of the beautiful, gentle, fascinating insights into the beauty of being human. That which unites us, our common heritage, and what we need to focus on as we attempt to move past the immediate and long-term ramifications of this crisis. No matter how the coming months unfold, we need to blow our definition of ‘us’ wide upon, to include all of humanity, no matter the cost.
*reference to Steven Pinker’s Monumental work The Better Angels of our Nature which is, in turn, a reference to Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address.
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