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Posts Tagged ‘disgust’

I left the analysis of the source of evil actions with Haidt’s idea of the ‘hive switch,’ which took Zimbardo’s understanding a step further in terms of group influences.

Being part of a whole has dangers when it comes to the out-group, even when the groups have been randomly created by experimenters, such as was the case with Zimbardo, and also with others who introduced no power differential.

Labelling, Denigration, Dehumanising and Genocide

When in-groups and out-groups exist in the real world the price paid by the out-group can be even higher. For instance, certain kinds of language are particularly toxic. One example of this is 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 . . . .

This same process can be seen in a slightly difference form as John Fitzgerald Medina explains in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology. He unpacks how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, and about how the Nazis derived part of their inspiration from this. The Nazis, as well as highly esteemed figures in American history, justified their self-serving actions by invoking the notion that Africans and Native Americans were inherently inferior, an ideology of racism that persists in America and to some extent in Europe to this day, potential seeds of future denigration and genocide if we do not find effective means of transforming our collective consciousness. The diverse reactions, some of them very negative, towards the current influx of refugees suggests we might still have a long way to go before we are cleansed of racism and would never again be tempted towards ethnic cleansing of some kind at some point if we thought it served our purposes effectively enough.

Ricard in his book on altruism also deals in some detail with how certain social and psychological factors can distance us from the humanity of others and lead to extremes of cruelty and mass killings (cf especially Chapter 30 – Dehumanising the Other) even though there is a deep-seated natural revulsion against killing our own kind (Chapter 29). While it is hard to predict in any given situation what proportion of a population will actively participate in a pogrom, if we can convince ourselves the other is not human our reluctance to kill can be overcome with horrific consequences. This remains true to this day and we would be wise not to forget it. A recent BBC radio programme featured a scholar who had investigated in depth the thinking of groups such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda. He pointed out that the division, made in the minds of followers of these two terrorist organisations, between believers and unbelievers (kafirs) was absolute. They are two separate kinds of being, and therefore only the believer is fully human and deserving of compassion.

Mohsin Hamid makes a telling point on this issue in a recent Guardian article. His focus is on how the idea of the purity of the in-group is used to justify discrimination and even atrocities against the out-group. He started with a discussion of Pakistan, which translated means ‘The Land of the Pure,’ but rapidly expanded the scope of his analysis:

Pakistan is not unique. Rather, it is at the forefront of a global trend. All around the world, governments and would-be governments appear overwhelmed by complexity [Could he mean perceived chaos?] and are blindly unleashing the power of fission, championing quests for the pure. In India a politics of Hindu purity is wrenching open deep and bloody fissures in a diverse society. In Myanmar a politics of Buddhist purity is massacring and expelling the Rohingya. In the United States a politics of white purity is marching in white hoods and red baseball caps, demonising Muslims and Hispanic people, killing and brutalising black people, jeering at intellectuals, and spitting in the face of climate science.

The Toxic Effects of Inequality

However, there are other setting conditions for this kind of behavior, 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, as well as eliminating prejudice of any kind, no matter what it’s origin. 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.

The matter is, in truth, quite complex. Chua pursues a possibility, which links a minority’s economic dominance with a savage backlash from the deprived majority. 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. Even the conferring of power to the previously disadvantaged does not dispel its toxic consequences.

The inequality obviously needs to be eliminated, while somehow ensuring that it is not by eliminating a group of people! This seems to be far easier said than done.

Wilkinson and Pickett (I came very close then to typing Wilson Picket – not a name that will mean much to the under fifties), in their analysis of inequality in The Spirit Level, cover a huge amount of ground in a thorough and well-balanced treatment of the topic.

To compact their case into the density of a singularity, they produce evidence to substantiate their claim that inequality underlies many of the problems in society that we insist on picking off one by one: these include violence and a widespread distrust that corrodes community life.

This is in their view largely because, the greater the degree of inequality, the more stressful life becomes for everyone, rich and poor alike. Increased stress brings numerous other problems in its wake, not least in terms of health. The tensions in the pecking order that inequality brings are at the heart of the social stresses involved, and social stresses, they argue, are the most damaging forms of stress both for individual health and social cohesion.

They look at a number of possible objections to their thesis and find good reasons, in their view, for dismissing them. For example, they find evidence to suggest that the direction of causation is from inequality to the problem, not from some other variable such as an English speaking culture. Portugal, a very different culture, is at the negative end of the problem spectrum along with the U.S. and the U.K. and shares inequality as the most plausible potential explanation. Scandinavian society along with Japan, also very different, is at the positive end of the problem spectrum and shares high levels of equality along with Norway, Sweden and the rest as the most plausible potential explanation.

Our Attitude to Death

There is another perspective to add into the mix here to give a more complete picture of my thinking so far. An extreme inability to come to terms with death – and its children, trauma, pain and suffering – creates what Solomon et al call ‘cracks in [our] shields’ (The Worm at the Core – page 185 passim). This in turn, as they unpack, brings all kinds of destruction in its wake.

They do seem to rubbish religion at times, which doesn’t appeal to me, but – and it’s an important ‘but’ – they accurately capture an essential problem. They may see faith as a false fix, as in a way everything is in their eyes, but they pin down exactly one thing that needs fixing, almost above all else perhaps, and demonstrate that how we choose to fix it can lead to dire or delightful consequences.

We have ‘clumsy modes of dealing with terror,’ they quote Yalom as stating (page 190). Unless we establish a firm enough foundation of meaning and a strong enough platform of self to stand upon, death, or rather our fear of death, will always unground us, pathologise our minds – narcissism, anxiety, depression, psychosis, OCD, anorexia (and maybe psychopathy; I’ll have to ponder more on that) are according to them at least partially rooted in a failure of meaning and selfhood in the face of death.

Solomon et al insist on saying ‘self-esteem’ albeit in a healthy rather than an unhealthy sense: I wish they didn’t.

I prefer selfhood. For now I’ll shorthand it by quoting a dictionary definition: ‘a complete sense of self.’ A complete sense of self, for me, has to go far beyond anything that makes me more important than anyone or anything else, as Robert Wright powerfully explains, and has to recognise how whatever I am is connected in some way to the universe as a whole and to all forms of life within it. When I damage you or them, I damage me.

They bring various kinds of evidence into the mix, usually studies showing, for example, that exposure to death stimuli results in higher levels of intolerance for those who are ‘different’ in some way, or in greater use of alcohol or tobacco.

In their summary of ‘psychological disorders as terror mismanagement’ (page 190) the kind of evidence Solomon et al adduce includes a significant link at times between death-anxiety and psychosis (page 191):

One study of 205 hospitalised schizophrenic man found that 80 patients were overtly preoccupied with death, and that death fears coincided with the onset of the schizophrenic symptoms or with times when the symptoms were magnified.

They argue that ‘[s]ubject to bouts of overwhelming terror, schizophrenics construct imaginary worlds – which are as real to them as this book is to you – to counteract the dread.’

In spite of my dislike of diagnostic language and of their tendency to overstate their case, I have to admit they are making an important point.

They argue that all of us tend to create destructive solutions to the existential problem of death. This comes in two main forms: meaning systems/world views and self-esteem.

Let’s take world views as an example of their case (page 131):

It is deeply disturbing to have one’s fundamental beliefs called into question. Take our meanings and purposes away, characterise them as juvenile, useless, or evil, and all we have left are the vulnerable physical creatures that we are. Because cultural conceptions of reality keep a lid on mortal dread, acknowledging the legitimacy of beliefs contrary to our own unleashes the very terror those beliefs serve to quell. So we must parry the threat by derogating and dehumanising those with alternative views of life

The same kind of process applies if our self-esteem, as they term it, is threatened.

Because their book is focused on proving the nature of the problem they don’t say much about the solutions. They make a strong case that death denial is ultimately destructive leading to problems ranging from mindless consumerism through mental health problems to outright fanaticism. They spend less time contending that a constructive acceptance of death and its integration into a viable pattern of life bears the fruits of a common sense of humanity and a desire for positive purpose. Destructive terror-reducing purposes can be avoided. They share my liking for the existential therapy model, but don’t go far enough beyond that for me.

I think that just about covers the main influences on my thinking, apart from Bahá’í sources, which I will come back to later. Now to return to a consideration of Peterson’s perspective in the next post.

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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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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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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.

Read Full Post »