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Posts Tagged ‘Amy Chua’

Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William BlakeSongs of Experience Additional Poem

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the first: the second will come out on Thursday and the last on Friday.

Terror and the Human Form

The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection.  The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling. (See link on this blog for more details.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.

I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo.  I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.

I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.

Skating on Thin Ice

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.

They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:

 

. . . .  not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . .  With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

The Horns of a Dilemma

I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):

Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.

How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.

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Corvusation

Integrity

At the end of the previous post I reflected on the following quotation:

CXXXIX: . . . Beware . . . lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds. Strive that ye may be enabled to manifest to the peoples of the earth the signs of God, and to mirror forth His commandments. Let your acts be a guide unto all mankind, for the professions of most men, be they high or low, differ from their conduct. It is through your deeds that ye can distinguish yourselves from others.[1]

ACT ManualIt is important that we remain true to our deepest self. While we can correct the way that we use words, and if that is done for the right motive it will change us for the better, it is just as, if not more important to align our inner being with spiritual lines of force.

It is easy to see how certain words in that quotation lend force to what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) prescribes. ‘Strive’ embodies the idea of commitment. ‘Commandments’ suggest the idea of values, so important in ACT. And the emphasis on ‘acts’ makes the connections obvious.

In this way we may not be subject to Bahá’u’lláh’s stricture concerning those whose words outnumber their deeds, that is if, and only if, our words, our deeds and our inner being – note that word ‘mirror’ again – are all of a piece and in tune with the spirit of the Faith.

This creates inner and outer unity such as Bahá’u’lláh described in the Hidden Words:

O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.[2]

And in His Tablets He laments the lack of this unity:

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union.[3]

And, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá further explains, there is only one truly effective way out of this impasse:

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.[4]

My very battered copy of this classic.

My very battered copy of this classic.

Eric Fromm, a psychoanalyst, explains how this makes sense even in more materialistic terms[5]:

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.’

When we dismantle the barriers within us, often mediated by language, we can also become better able to dismantle those between us.

Of course we must refrain from lying, criticism and backbiting. Of course we must strive to practise true consultation. But we must not observe these verbal obligations divorced from basic processes of spiritualisation such as those the Universal House of Justice draws our attention to as Bahá’ís (though these are written for Bahá’ís you could apply them to any benign spiritual path):

  1. The recital each day of one of the Obligatory Prayers with pure-hearted devotion.
  2. The regular reading of the Sacred Scriptures, specifically at least each morning and evening, with reverence, attention and thought.
  3. Prayerful meditation on the Teachings, so that we may understand them more deeply, fulfil them more faithfully, and convey them more accurately to others.
  4. Striving every day to bring our behaviour more into accordance with the high standards that are set forth in the Teachings.
  5. Teaching the Cause of God.
  6. Selfless service in the work of the Cause and in the carrying on of our trade or profession.[6]

to which have now been added the sacred right and responsibility of Huqúqu’lláh, enabling us to enhance our use of material resources, and the daily recitation of Alláh-u-Abhá 95 times[7], a form of meditative discipline. It is important to note that it is not just what we do but how we do it that is of paramount importance: when we pray, it should ideally be with ‘pure-hearted devotion,’ when we reading Scripture it needs to be with ‘reverence, attention and thought,’ and meditation on the Teachings has to be ‘prayerful.’ Not an easy ask.

If we are sincerely treading this path to the best of our ability, then perhaps our words can exercise the influence described by Bahá’u’lláh when he writes:

No man of wisdom can demonstrate his knowledge save by means of words. This showeth the significance of the Word as is affirmed in all the Scriptures, whether of former times or more recently. For it is through its potency and animating spirit that the people of the world have attained so eminent a position. Moreover words and utterances should be both impressive and penetrating. However, no word will be infused with these two qualities unless it be uttered wholly for the sake of God and with due regard unto the exigencies of the occasion and the people.

The Great Being saith: Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom as prescribed in the Holy Scriptures and Tablets.[8]

This spells out that the power of such words derives from the Word of God and that its efficacy depends upon the purity of our inner lives. We also have to be sensitive to what psychologists have called the pragmatics of communication, i.e. the need to tune what we say to the receptivity of the listener.

Within that framework we also need to be aware that not all words are equally benign:

Every word is endowed with a spirit, therefore the speaker or expounder should carefully deliver his words at the appropriate time and place, for the impression which each word maketh is clearly evident and perceptible. The Great Being saith: One word may be likened unto fire, another unto light, and the influence which both exert is manifest in the world. Therefore an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk, that the children of men may be nurtured and edified thereby and may attain the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding and nobility. . . . . It behoveth a prudent man of wisdom to speak with utmost leniency and forbearance so that the sweetness of his words may induce everyone to attain that which befitteth man’s station.[9]

It is therefore impossible, according to my understanding, to separate words from enacted values. If we do, words then become barriers to insight and wisdom.

Hauser bookThe Bigger Picture

Obviously the ground this sequence of posts covers constitutes a minute fraction of the terrain mapped out in the Bahá’í Writings. All of this has to be placed in that wider context.

For instance, certain kinds of language are particularly toxic. One example of this are the denigrating labels one group of people can use against another. Referring to others as ‘rats,’ ‘cockroaches’ or ‘a swarm’ are typical examples of this abuse. This denigrating terminology usually triggers the deep-seated disgust response in the group who uses it and places the people of whom the words are used in a non-human category: once this manoeuvre is performed the usual restraints of conscience that prevent one human being from degrading, raping, torturing or even murdering another human being are suspended and the newly classified non-human being can be maimed and slain with a clear conscience.

This point is succinctly made by Hauser in his book Moral Minds (page 199)[10]:

Disgust wins the award as the single most irresponsible emotion, a feeling that has led to extreme in-group/out-group divisions followed by inhumane treatment. Disgust’s trick is simple: Declare those you don’t like to be vermin or parasites, and it is easy to think of them as disgusting, deserving of exclusion, dismissal, and annihilation. All horrific cases of human abuse entail this kind of transformation . . . .

However, there are other setting conditions for this kind of behaviour which relate to other Teachings of the Faith in a way that illustrates the beautiful coherence and interdependence of the various aspects of the whole of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation. Take economic inequality. The Faith emphasises the importance of reducing such inequity. This would of course be important simply to alleviate the effects of the resulting extreme poverty on the disadvantaged such as greater health problems and a shorter life. However, inequality also has implications for the issue of denigrating language and persecution.

Chua bookChua pursues a complex argument which links a minority’s economic dominance with a savage backlash from the deprived majority[11]. Of course Chua is not claiming that extremes of wealth justify the extermination of the wealthy by the impoverished, nor is she arguing that such extremes are the only motive for genocide. She is, though, saying that extreme inequality is an important but previously discounted factor that has to be added into the mix. The inequality is what needs to be eliminated not the people!

So, indeed we do need vigorously to pursue our spiritual development, both as individuals and communities: this is done by turning away from words as veils and using values as our compass. This redeems words and makes them a force for good.

But that in itself is probably not enough. It important also not to lose sight of the wider picture.

We need to hold in mind a vision of the completely different kind of civilisation towards which we are all aspiring, one based on humanity’s essential unity, the supreme value that co-ordinates all our other values. We need to see how all its aspects, individual, community, institutional, systemic, local and global, are linked together. The state of the world as a whole will either inhibit or enhance the impact of our efforts just as much as our efforts will either help or harm the world. Our efforts are aimed at the ultimate transformation of the world, though as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:

. . . peace must first be established among individuals until it leadeth to peace among nations.[12]

It is imperative though that we continue to strive to bring both our speech, our actions and our inner beings into line with the spirit of the age as expressed by Bahá’u’lláh so that we may avoid contention and achieve the level of unity required for the problems of the world to be resolved [although His words may sometimes seem to be addressed mainly to Bahá’ís they are to be taken to heart by everyone]: in this way we will complete the process of shifting words from truth-concealing veils to world-transforming values.

The worldwide undertakings on which the Cause of God is embarked are far too significant, the need of the peoples of the world for the Message of Bahá’u’lláh far too urgent, the perils facing mankind far too grave, the progress of events far too swift, to permit His followers to squander their time and efforts in fruitless contention. Now, if ever, is the time for love among the friends, for unity of understanding and endeavour, for self-sacrifice and service by Bahá’ís in every part of the world[13]

[Oh, and by the way, in relation to the problem I described right at the beginning of this sequence, the question to ask one of the guards is: ‘If I asked the other guard which door leads to freedom, what door would he point to?’]

Footnotes:

[1] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh.
[2] (Bahá’u’lláhArabic Hidden Words No. 68)
[3] Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas, pages 163–64.
[4] Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76.
[5] Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – page 260.
[6] Messages from the Universal House of Justice: 1963-1968 (BPT: US): page 588.
[7] The former became obligatory as of Ridván 1992 (Universal House of Justice Ridván Message 1991) and the latter in December 1999 (Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the World: 28 December 1999).
[8] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh page 173.
[9] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh pages 172-173
[10] Published by Little, Brown 2006. These issues, and other related ones are also extensively and illuminatingly discussed by Phillip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect (Rider: 2007 – pages 308-311).
[11] Amy Chua World on Fire (Heinemann: 2003) pages 111-112.
[12] SWAB: page 246.
[13] Universal House of Justice 1994 – letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the USA concerning Rights and Freedoms, Paragraph 19. This is downloadable from http://bahai-library.com/published.uhj/irf.html.

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The Cudgel Fight (for source of image see link)

Goya’s ‘The Cudgel Fight’ (for source of image see link)

I was recently set thinking about some key issues of concern to me. I am still in the process of refining my thoughts as subsequent posts will hopefully testify but I felt that drafting an interim report, even though still slightly confused, would help move my thinking forwards.

Are we locked in a fight to the death?

Amy Chua’s book, World on Fire, remains evidence for me about one of the sources of violence within society.

There were two threads to her argument: one was capitalism, and the West’s over-eagerness to export it, as well as democracy, and the problems which arise from forcing the pace of its implementation. 
Capitalism alone, some suggest, can make possible the rising standards of living that will in themselves reduce violence. Unfortunately, almost all statements which include ‘always,’ ‘never,’ ‘only’ and the like are automatically suspect. Amy Chua’s book strongly suggests that fast tracking a sawn-off version of capitalism in any country, especially when this is combined with a fledgling democracy which allows a previously oppressed minority to gain power, is a blueprint for disaster. The Phillipines, the country of her birth, spurred her to research this phenomenon more widely. She pins down the core of her concern early in her book (page 14):

It is striking to note that at no point in history did any Western nation ever implement laissez-faire capitalism and overnight universal suffrage at the same time – the precise formula of free-market democracy currently being pressed on developing countries around the world.

Beyond the Culture of Contest

In the West capitalism and democracy in their present forms both evolved slowly over long periods of time. They cannot be parachuted from outside into an unprepared culture.

I have been influenced greatly by Michael Karlberg’s book – Beyond the Culture of Contest – which raises serious questions about a society like ours that is founded historically on:

  1. competition in politics, when the urgent and critical need now is to achieve consensus across all divisions of opinion in certain areas;
  2. adversarialism in the court room, where truth is less important than winning; and
  3. hyper-competition in the market place, where the need for profit and the desire to consume find their perfectly destructive match.

He does not argue that these can be replaced overnight, even though the need to do so is becoming increasingly urgent.

Which brings me onto the third point.

While I am sympathetic to those who argue that these problems are neither new nor necessarily worse,  and even to those rational optimists who believe that the statistics prove that most of us have never been safer or healthier, I am attracted by the credibility of Jeremy Rifkin’s case, to give just one example, in his book, The Empathic Civilisation – where he argues that our strong empathic tendency has enabled us to build ever larger civilisations and the current version is globally interconnected. He writes (page 44):

The tragic flaw of history is that our increased empathic concern and sensitivity grows in direct proportion to the wreaking of greater entropic damage to the world we all cohabit and rely on for our existence and perpetuation.

In short, in history our separate civilisations have all too often got too big to sustain themselves and thereafter collapsed. In the past, that has been tragic but not catastrophic, in that there have always been other parts of the world totally unaffected by the crash. Not so now, possibly, when we have a virtually single civilisation planet-wide. If one part goes down we probably all do. I will be returning to his thesis in more detail in a later sequence of posts.

In that respect, as well perhaps as in others, our situation is therefore not exactly the same as it has always been, and our degree of interconnectedness potentiates the impact of destructive processes in a way that lifts them to a higher level, a difference of degree only perhaps, or possibly renders them of a different quality, i.e. different in kind.

ATOE bookKen Wilber’s book, A Theory of Everything, which I will be reviewing in the next sequence of posts, points to another key factor i.e. the access those with narrow and hostile views now have to destructive high level technology. This is a fear that Jeremy Rifkin also shares in his panoramic survey The Empathic Civilisation to which I shall also be returning (page 487):

Weapons of mass destruction, once the preserve of elites, are becoming more democratised with each passing day. A growing number of security experts believe that it is no longer even possible to keep weapons of mass destruction locked up and out of the hands of rogue governments, terrorist groups, or just deranged individuals.

Nor are these the only perspectives on our tendency to violence and how to remedy it. Being oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. Following on from the possibly flawed but none the less illuminating Milgram studies of obedience, Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘).

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle, and he emphasises the power of labelling and disgust to remove inhibitions against genocide. I don’t think his argument here has been undermined by evidence that his own moral life in an unrelated aspect was not entirely exemplary. He explains (page 199):

Disgust wins the award as the single most irresponsible emotion, a feeling that has led to extreme in-group-out-group divisions followed by inhumane treatment. Disgust’s trick is simple: declare those you don’t like to be vermin or parasites, and it is easy to think of them as disgusting, deserving of exclusion, dismissal, and annihilation. All horrific cases of human abuse entail this kind of transformation, from Auschwitz to Abu Ghraib.

I don’t think any of us, expert or otherwise, can claim to have a clear, complete and valid picture yet. In my view, though a layman in terms of my mastery of the complex evidence involved, it seems that we can either learn to sink our differences to a degree that will transform our culture, or else stick with our current patterns and sink without trace under our differences.

Robert WrightIs Capitalism really the answer?

There is clearly quite a lot depending upon which model of the way the world works the majority of humanity accepts – one model which accepts the inevitability of competition, the other which holds out hope for the probability of co-operation.

Evolutionary theory, when it has taken a psychological turn recently, accepts that humanity has a dual potential in that respect and, according to Michael McCullough, we can move beyond revenge towards forgiveness and cooperation, just as Robert Wright can legitimately argue that, throughout human history, we have proved ourselves capable of widening our sense of identity beyond the family or tribe to include ever more disparate and distant groups of people.

Economic theory is not my specialism. I do have a view though about its overall validity. For me, the problem with economics, as with any other social science such as psychology, my own discipline, is that it only goes as far as to provide a lens of our own, albeit systematic creation through which to observe and understand ourselves – a very tricky process whose conclusions have to be approached with extreme caution.

For example, what a convinced capitalist says reads well within its own assumptions, as does what I write to me of course. What he describes may apply if we accept the same premises and assumptions especially concerning human nature and the consequent social dynamics. For instance, one might argue that nothing does more to reduce violence and many other social ills than the rising standards of living that capitalism alone makes possible.

While I accept that capitalism has brought many benefits, as has liberal democracy, it seems to me that such optimism is missing a crucial point. It is not ‘rising standards of living’ that are necessarily the main issue but the rising inequality which unrestricted capitalism seems inevitably to produce, with all the socially destructive consequences this brings in its wake. Hardly a rationally desirable outcome, it seems to me, and certainly not a morally desirable one. I have already posted a review of The Spirit Level so I won’t rehearse those points again here.

Also, as John Fitgerald Medina pointed out in his book, Faith, Physics and Psychology (page 238):

 Economic theory does not allow economists to make distinctions between renewable resources and non-renewable resources.

In a 2012 BBC4 documentary – Surviving Progress – David Suzuki indicated that this defect is at the core of economics, which he describes not as a ‘science’ but as ‘a set of values.’ He contemptuously refers to its dismissive description of natural resources as ‘externalities’ as ‘a form of brain damage.’ The sense of urgency in this recent programme suggests that any remedy to the current model of economics, so kind to short-term profits, has some way to go before it gains widespread and effective acceptance. It is not clear whether we have that much time before disaster strikes.

There is a need to dig a bit deeper though, and I plan to do so in the follow up post next week.

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Dodge Hill, Stockport

I felt it would be appropriate to follow up the two posts on the power of tears with some of my earlier posts that fill in more of my childhood influences that might have a bearing on the topic. Today’s post was first published in 2010: the poem I’m republishing on Thursday describes a typical encounter at the house of the aunt described below. Saturday’s post will go into more detail about my uncle’s background amongst other things.

I had to make a trip up north to my home town of Stockport the week before last. Before going I had sorted out the locations of some early memories to revisit and was more than a little shaken to discover that even when a location had been spared from the developers and was exactly as it must have been when last I visited, it was radically different from what I remembered.

For instance, I used to visit my aunt in Love Lane (ironic she lived there, given that her life was tragically loveless) in Heaton Norris near the Recreation Ground (not that there was much recreation in her life either – she had had to abandon Art School when her parents fell ill and never went back: the walls of her house were laden with heavily framed ‘still lifes‘ whose varnish grew ever darker with the years). I remember the cobbled hill I used to climb with my dad as a wide straight interminable wasteland that left my dad breathless at the top and me feeling it would never end.

What did I see? Dodge Hill is narrow and windy (as in twisting not breezy!) and seemed relatively short to my adult eye — unevenly cobbled, it is true, but not the broad and almost endless highway I remember. The memory is so clear, so vivid and so often revisited that I would find it hard to replace it with reality even if I wanted to. As for my aunt’s house, though, only half of Love Lane remained, and predictably it was not the half she used to live in.

Revisiting my uncle’s house in Avon Street was a similar experience. The eye of my childhood must have had a Dickensian tendency. I remember the house as dark and tiny with a dirty claustrophobic yard at the back. Admittedly the house I saw was small but not oppressively so though it’s true the yard was only a few feet square.

I think in each case, though, emotion had coloured the portrait in my mind’s eye with the sepia of loneliness, the predominating tint in both their lives.

My auntie Ettie, my father’s sister, as the only unmarried daughter, had broken off her engagement and given up Art College to take care of her parents when they both fell sick. Theirs was a long decline into the grave and she never married. My dread of the encounter with the ache of that house in her Loveless Lane had clearly stained with its dark and forbidding colours the climb up what is quite a pleasant hill.

My uncle Frank, my mother’s brother, developed a tumour on his brain, I was told, some time after his return from fighting in the First World War. His wife left him, taking their children with her, and he moved back into his parents’ house in Avon Street. They died before I was born and he was alone there when I used to visit him.

The surgeons had removed the tumour and replaced the bone in his temple, through which they had gained entry to his brain, with a plastic flap that was slowly wearing thin. Apparently, once it wore out his life would end, or at least that’s what I believed. Shaving in the mirror every morning, he would have seen his remaining days measured out in the hollowing of the plastic which protected his brain and which I could hardly take my eyes off when I sat and talked with him. His house seemed to shrink around us just as the flap I watched seemed to be shrinking towards his brain.

The passage behind Uncle Frank's

The passage behind what was Uncle Frank’s house: his garden wall is on the right

If I needed a graphic reminder of how emotion can shape memory and, as in both these cases, perception itself, there could hardly be a better one than this. What we experience is a fusion of sense and feeling. What is particularly intriguing in the case of these two memories is that the feelings that coloured my perceptions originated at least in part (and I believe in considerable part) from the hearts of the other people I was visiting. I have had other experiences as an adult of how someone else’s state of feeling replicates itself in me. Loneliness, for some reason, has always communicated itself particularly strongly to me. Interestingly it can cause people to behave in ways that drive others further away thus making the problem worse, so much so that the following report stated:

. . . a large-scale study . . . found lonely people tend to transmit their sad feelings to those around them, which eventually led to them being isolated from society. “We detected an extraordinary pattern of contagion that leads people to be moved to the edge of the social network when they become lonely,” said University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, a leading U.S. expert on loneliness.

Cacioppo’s findings were published in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Whether the foundations for such transmission of emotion in general lie in the mirror neurons currently being studied by neurologists, or in the electromagnetic influences
that have been shown to cause one person’s heart to affect another’s, or from some other causes such as the behavioural ones Cacioppo adduces, I don’t feel competent to decide given the present stage of research: it seems probable that it is a combination of all these factors. All I know is it happens to many of us and it happens often. It is one of the roots of the empathy that it is so necessary for humanity to develop to its fullest extent if we are to eliminate cruelty and prejudice.

Empathy, of course, is not straightforward in its effects. The torturer, devoid of compassion, uses empathy to sense how best to inflict pain and create fear. James Fallon in his book The Psychopath Inside makes a helpful distinction in this respect (page 148):

. . . people with psychopathy, narcissism, and certain affective types of schizophrenia will have cognitive empathy but lack emotional empathy.

My own empathy in the situations I described was somewhat less toxic. It led me, rather as the research suggested would be the case, to feel like avoiding both these sad and lonely people rather than going to see them. Only my father’s insistence and company in the case of my aunt, and my mother’s requests in the case of my uncle, kept me turning up more or less every week to my aunt’s and rather less often to my uncle’s.

I later came to feel that extreme need can, and often does, elicit two intensely contradictory feelings: a powerful urge to help as we feel an echo of the other person’s suffering in our own hearts almost as though it were our own, and a strong desire to run away and hide because the feeling hurts so much and its cause seems far beyond our ability to deal with. We see this ambivalence played out time after time, in small ways when someone crosses the road to avoid a recently widowed wife and on a larger scale when too many of us switch channels to avoid experiencing the most recent images of multiple deaths from earthquake, flood or fire.

How much these experiences influenced my choice of profession as clinical psychologist is hard to define, but I suspect it did so strongly. Sometimes at least, it seems, I chose not to flee.

So, my experience of the demolition that had taken place in Memory Lane has led me unexpectedly to an important but rather uncomfortable place – a far less demanding version of the place to which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had directed Lua Getsinger.

Lua Getsinger

Howard Colby Ives describes what happened to her in his moving account of his encounters with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Portals to Freedom (pages 84-85):

As I write there is brought to memory a story told by Lua Getsinger . . . . . In the very early days of the knowledge of the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh in America Mrs. Getsinger was in Akka having made the pilgrimage to the prison city to see the Master. She was with Him one day when he said to her, that He was too busy today to call upon a friend of His who was very ill and poor and He wished her to go in His  place. “Take him food and care for him as I have been doing,” he concluded. He told her where this man was to be found and she went gladly, proud that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá  should trust her with this mission.

She returned quickly. “Master,” she exclaimed, “surely you cannot realize to what a terrible place you sent me. I almost fainted from the awful stench, the filthy rooms, the degrading condition of that man and his house. I fled lest I contract some terrible disease.”

Sadly and sternly ‘Abdu’l-Bahá regarded her. “Dost thou desire to serve God,” He said, “serve thy fellow man for in him dost thou see the image and likeness of God.” He told her to go back to this man’s house. If it is filthy she should clean it; if this brother of yours is dirty, bathe  him; if he is hungry, feed him. Do not return until this is done. Many times had He done this for him and cannot  she serve him once?

This story also highlights the work of another factor, this time one that can completely thwart the development of empathy and compassion if we are not careful. This factor is disgust, something that Hauser deals with in his book Moral Minds (see Quotes).

While disgust is useful in protecting us from all sorts of contamination and infection, it also paves the way for such social evils as the leper‘s bell and the Hutus labelling of Tutsi’s as cockroaches during the genocide in Rwanda (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for a brilliant analysis of the full context). This denigrating terminology usually triggers the deep-seated disgust response in the group who uses it and places the people of whom the words are used in a non-human category: once this manoeuvre is performed the usual restraints of conscience that prevent one human being from degrading, raping, torturing or even murdering another human being are suspended and the newly classified non-human being can be maimed and slain with a clear conscience.

We all need to learn as much as we can to enable us to choose help and support rather than flight or rejection more often.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

My trip up the much altered cobbled road of my sepia-tinted memory, on subsequent reflection strongly suggests I might still have a long way to go before I get anywhere near the top of the hill in question, though sometimes I feel even more breathless than my father was. Love Lane in its fullest sense may still be eluding me almost as much now as it seemed to do in my childhood. Hills are like that, revealing apparent summit after apparent summit as you strive to climb to the very top. Not a reason to stop climbing though.

I think I’d better stop writing now (is it a form of flight?) and keep climbing.

Or should that be keep writing, as a way of confronting the issues, and keep climbing?

If I ever come to a firm conclusion on that one I’ll be sure to let you know.

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Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra

For someone like me, who is trying to grasp as fully as possible all the implications of the distinction made by the Bahá’í World Centre between the West as it sees itself (‘developed’) and the West as it really is (merely industrialised), a recent Guardian article by  provided much food for thought. The Bahá’í document reads (page 5):

To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialized. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance — in the final analysis, the very patterns of life — prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided.

Mishra has much to say that probes these issues and their origins quite deeply. In some ways it took me back to Amy Chua‘s excellent book, World on Fire and also links with John Ehrenfeld’s insightful co-authored bookFlourishingHis analysis covers somewhat different areas than theirs though, especially in terms of the complex history of these problems.  Below is the first section and a bit: for the detailed exposition of his thought as a whole see link.

The Western Model is Broken

“So far, the 21st century has been a rotten one for the western model,” according to a new book, The Fourth Revolution, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. This seems an extraordinary admission from two editors of the Economist, the flag-bearer of English liberalism, which has long insisted that the non-west could only achieve prosperity and stability through western prescriptions. It almost obscures the fact that the 20th century was blighted by the same pathologies that today make the western model seem unworkable, and render its fervent advocates a bit lost. The most violent century in human history, it was hardly the best advertisement for the “bland fanatics of western civilisation”, as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called them at the height of the cold war, “who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence”.

Niebuhr was critiquing a fundamentalist creed that has coloured our view of the world for more than a century: that western institutions of the nation-state and liberal democracy will be gradually generalised around the world, and that the aspiring middle classes created by industrial capitalism will bring about accountable, representative and stable governments – that every society, in short, is destined to evolve just as the west did. Critics of this teleological view, which defines “progress” exclusively as development along western lines, have long perceived its absolutist nature. Secular liberalism, the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen cautioned as early as 1862, “is the final religion, though its church is not of the other world but of this”. But it has had many presumptive popes and encyclicals: from the 19th-century dream of a westernised world long championed by the Economist, in which capital, goods, jobs and people freely circulate, to Henry Luce’s proclamation of an “American century” of free trade, and “modernisation theory” – the attempt by American cold warriors to seduce the postcolonial world away from communist-style revolution and into the gradualist alternative of consumer capitalism and democracy.

The collapse of communist regimes in 1989 further emboldened Niebuhr’s bland fanatics. The old Marxist teleology was retrofitted rather than discarded in Francis Fukuyama’s influential end-of-history thesis, and cruder theories about the inevitable march to worldwide prosperity and stability were vended by such Panglosses of globalisation as Thomas Friedman. Arguing that people privileged enough to consume McDonald’s burgers don’t go to war with each other, the New York Times columnist was not alone in mixing old-fangled Eurocentrism with American can-doism, a doctrine that grew from America’s uninterrupted good fortune and unchallenged power in the century before September 2001.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 briefly disrupted celebrations of a world globalised by capital and consumption. But the shock to naive minds only further entrenched in them the intellectual habits of the cold war – thinking through binary oppositions of “free” and “unfree” worlds – and redoubled an old delusion: liberal democracy, conceived by modernisation theorists as the inevitable preference of the beneficiaries of capitalism, could now be implanted by force in recalcitrant societies. Invocations of a new “long struggle” against “Islamofascism” aroused many superannuated cold warriors who missed the ideological certainties of battling communism. Intellectual narcissism survived, and was often deepened by, the realisation that economic power had begun to shift from the west. The Chinese, who had “got capitalism”, were, after all, now “downloading western apps”, according to Niall Ferguson. As late as 2008, Fareed Zakaria declared in his much-cited book, The Post-American World, that “the rise of the rest is a consequence of American ideas and actions” and that “the world is going America’s way”, with countries “becoming more open, market-friendly and democratic”.

A world in flames

One event after another in recent months has cruelly exposed such facile narratives. China, though market-friendly, looks further from democracy than before. The experiment with free-market capitalism in Russia has entrenched a kleptocratic regime with a messianic belief in Russian supremacism. Authoritarian leaders, anti-democratic backlashes and rightwing extremism define the politics of even such ostensibly democratic countries as India, Israel, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Turkey.

The atrocities of this summer in particular have plunged political and media elites in the west into stunned bewilderment and some truly desperate cliches. The extraordinary hegemonic power of their ideas had helped them escape radical examination when the world could still be presented as going America’s way. But their preferred image of the west – the idealised one in which they sought to remake the rest of the world – has been consistently challenged by many critics, left or right, in the west as well as the east.

An empty billboard site in São Paolo, Brazil. Billboard advertising has been banned there since 2007. Photograph: Tony de Marco

An empty billboard site in São Paolo, Brazil. Billboard advertising has been banned there since 2007. Photograph: Tony de Marco

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Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William Blake: Songs of Experience Additional Poem

In the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 and as a response, however inadequate, to the enormity of the recent beheadings of three innocent hostages by IS, I feel it is worth republishing a sequence of posts I first published several years ago. The situation in the world is at least as fraught as it was then, if not more so, making the sequence still as relevant now. Moreover, I feel that the ideas I tried to pull together continue to deserve careful attention if we are to learn how to respond effectively to those influences within and around us that might pull us into the quicksand of extremism. This is the first of three posts on consecutive days.

Terror and the Human Form

The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection.  The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling. (See link on this blog for more details.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.

I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo.  I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.

I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.

Skating on Thin Ice

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.

They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:

. . . .  not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . .  With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

The Horns of a Dilemma

I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):

Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.

How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.

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Dodge Hill, Stockport

I had to make a trip up north to my home town of Stockport the week before last. Before going I had sorted out the locations of some early memories to revisit and was more than a little shaken to discover that even when a location had been spared from the developers and was exactly as it must have been when last I visited, it was radically different from what I remembered.

For instance, I used to visit my aunt in Love Lane (ironic she lived there, given that her life was tragically loveless) in Heaton Norris near the Recreation Ground (not that there was much recreation in her life either, she had had to abandon Art School when her parents fell ill and never went back: the walls of her house were laden with heavily framed ‘still lifes‘ whose varnish grew ever darker with the years). I remember the cobbled hill I used to climb with my dad as a wide straight interminable wasteland that left my dad breathless at the top and me feeling it would never end.

What did I see? Dodge Hill is narrow and windy (as in twisting not breezy!) and seemed relatively short to my adult eye — unevenly cobbled, it is true, but not the broad and almost endless highway I remember. The memory is so clear, so vivid and so often revisited that I would find it hard to replace it with reality even if I wanted to. As for my aunt’s house, though, only half of Love Lane remained, and predictably it was not the half she used to live in.

Revisiting my uncle’s house in Avon Street was a similar experience. The eye of my childhood must have had a Dickensian tendency. I remember the house as dark and tiny with a dirty claustrophobic yard at the back. Admittedly the house I saw was small but not oppressively so though it’s true the yard was only a few feet square.

I think in each case, though, emotion had coloured the portrait in my mind’s eye with the sepia of loneliness, the predominating tint in both their lives.

My aunt, my father’s sister, as the only unmarried daughter, had broken off her engagement and given up Art College to take care of her parents when they both fell sick. Theirs was a long decline into the grave and she never married. My dread of the encounter with the ache of that house in her Loveless Lane had clearly stained with its dark and forbidding colours the climb up what is quite a pleasant hill.

My uncle, my mother’s brother, developed a tumour on his brain, I was told, some time after his return from fighting in the First World War. His wife left him, taking their children with her, and he moved back into his parents’ house in Avon Street. They died before I was born and he was alone there when I used to visit him.

The surgeons had removed the tumour and replaced the bone in his temple, through which they had gained entry to his brain, with a plastic flap that was slowly wearing thin. Apparently, once it wore out his life would end, or at least that’s what I believed. Shaving in the mirror every morning, he would have seen his remaining days measured out in the hollowing of the plastic which protected his brain and which I could hardly take my eyes off when I sat and talked with him. His house seemed to shrink around us just as the flap I watched seemed to be shrinking towards his brain.

If I needed a graphic reminder of how emotion can shape memory and, as in both these cases, perception itself, there could hardly be a better one than this. What we experience is a fusion of sense and feeling. What is particularly intriguing in the case of these two memories is that the feelings that coloured my perceptions originated at least in part (and I believe in considerable part) from the hearts of the other people I was visiting. I have had other experiences as an adult of how someone else’s state of feeling replicates itself in me. Loneliness, for some reason, has always communicated itself particularly strongly to me. Interestingly it can cause people to behave in ways that drive others further away thus making the problem worse, so much so that the following report stated:

. . . a large-scale study . . . found lonely people tend to transmit their sad feelings to those around them, which eventually led to them being isolated from society. “We detected an extraordinary pattern of contagion that leads people to be moved to the edge of the social network when they become lonely,” said University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, a leading U.S. expert on loneliness.

Cacioppo’s findings were published in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The Heart's Electromagnetic Field

Whether the foundations for such transmission of emotion in general lie in the mirror neurons currently being studied by neurologists, or in the electromagnetic influences
that have been shown to cause one person’s heart to affect another’s, or from some other causes such as the behavioural ones Cacioppo adduces, I don’t feel competent to decide given the present stage of research: it seems probable that it is a combination of all these factors. All I know is it happens to many of us and it happens often. It is one of the roots of the empathy that it is so necessary for humanity to develop to its fullest extent if we are to eliminate cruelty and prejudice.

Empathy, of course, is not straightforward in its effects. The torturer, devoid of compassion, uses empathy to sense how best to inflict pain and create fear.

My own empathy in the situations I described was somewhat less toxic. It led me, rather as the research suggested would be the case, to feel like avoiding both these sad and lonely people rather than going to see them. Only my father’s insistence and company in the case of my aunt, and my mother’s requests in the case of my uncle, kept me turning up more or less every week to my aunt’s and rather less often to my uncle’s.

I later came to feel that extreme need can, and often does, elicit two intensely contradictory feelings: a powerful urge to help as we feel an echo of the other person’s suffering in our own hearts almost as though it were our own, and a strong desire to run away and hide because the feeling hurts so much and its cause seems far beyond our ability to deal with. We see this ambivalence played out time after time, in small ways when someone crosses the road to avoid a recently widowed wife and on a larger scale when too many of us switch channels to avoid experiencing the most recent images of multiple deaths from earthquake, flood or fire.

How much these experiences influenced my choice of profession as clinical psychologist is hard to define, but I suspect it did so strongly. Sometimes at least, it seems, I chose not to flee.

So, my experience of the demolition that had taken place in Memory Lane has led me unexpectedly to an important but rather uncomfortable place – a far less demanding version of the place to which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had directed Lua Getsinger.

Lua Getsinger

Howard Colby Ives describes what happened to her in his moving account of his encounters with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Portals to Freedom (pages 84-85):

As I write there is brought to memory a story told by Lua Getsinger . . . . . In the very early days of the knowledge of the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh in America Mrs. Getsinger was in Akka having made the pilgrimage to the prison city to see the Master. She was with Him one day when he said to her, that He was too busy today to call upon a friend of His who was very ill and poor and He wished her to go in His  place. “Take him food and care for him as I have been doing,” he concluded. He told her where this man was to be found and she went gladly, proud that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá  should trust her with this mission.

She returned quickly. “Master,” she exclaimed, “surely you cannot realize to what a terrible place you sent me. I almost fainted from the awful stench, the filthy rooms, the degrading condition of that man and his house. I fled lest I contract some terrible disease.”

Sadly and sternly ‘Abdu’l-Bahá regarded her. “Dost thou desire to serve God,” He said, “serve thy fellow man for in him dost thou see the image and likeness of God.” He told her to go back to this man’s house. If it is filthy she should clean it; if this brother of yours is dirty, bathe  him; if he is hungry, feed him. Do not return until this is done. Many times had He done this for him and cannot  she serve him once?

This story also highlights the work of another factor, this time one that can completely thwart the development of empathy and compassion if we are not careful. This factor is disgust, something that Hauser deals with in his book Moral Minds (see Quotes).

While disgust is useful in protecting us from all sorts of contamination and infection, it also paves the way for such social evils as the leper‘s bell and the Hutus labelling of Tutsi’s as cockroaches during the genocide in Rwanda (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for a brilliant analysis of the full context). This denigrating terminology usually triggers the deep-seated disgust response in the group who uses it and places the people of whom the words are used in a non-human category: once this manoeuvre is performed the usual restraints of conscience that prevent one human being from degrading, raping, torturing or even murdering another human being are suspended and the newly classified non-human being can be maimed and slain with a clear conscience.

No wonder this episode from Lua’s life was chosen as part of the children’s class materials in Book Three of the sequence of courses Bahá’ís are currently using (see lesson 5). We all need to learn as much as we can to enable us to choose help and support rather than flight or rejection more often.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

My trip up the much altered cobbled road of my sepia-tinted memory, on subsequent reflection strongly suggests I might still have a long way to go before I get anywhere near the top of the hill in question, though sometimes I feel even more breathless than my father was. Love Lane in its fullest sense may still be eluding me almost as much now as it seemed to do in my childhood. Hills are like that, revealing apparent summit after apparent summit as you strive to climb to the very top. Not a reason to stop climbing though.

I think I’d better stop writing now (is it a form of flight?) and keep climbing.

Or should that be keep writing, as a way of confronting the issues, and keep climbing?

If I ever come to a firm conclusion on that one I’ll be sure to let you know.

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