Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
August 2009 - Volume 09, No. 8
It’s Easier to Divide than Unite
When an injury takes place in a relationship, it can take a lot of time, energy, and diligence to repair it. As a marriage counselor, I’ve seen this many times over the years. And very often with hard work and some good fortune, I’ve seen it succeed.
I work with humans - rather strange beings when compared to the rest of the ‘natural’ world out there. When I consider Nature in general, there seem to be well-established rules of balance. The animal and plant world have a sensitivity that assumes an order of things, and each species has an intrinsic knowledge of these matters - from which we humans can learn much. I’ll sometimes note that the only animals on the earth that are neurotic, are those who live with humans.
Human nature, however, is quite otherwise. It seems our ‘nature’ is to mess things up rather than to keep things in balance. The rest of the natural world doesn’t need a legal system, or therapists or even preachers. They apparently don’t think about their nature, and definitely don’t have a philosopher class among them. They do what’s in their nature to do, and it seems to work. When humans do what’s in our nature to do, we usually have a massive disaster.
We are the only ones who think about our nature - one result of which is that we need to delegate authority to those who’s task it is to keep us in line, having the job of telling us what to do.
I have long considered that as humans, our basic nature is to divide things, to make things more and more separate from each other. Without a lot of hard work and enlightened self-discipline, the legislative branches of our government easily becomes contentious and incapable of working together. The only issues that don’t readily degenerate into partisanship involve a strong external enemy to unite against (cf the 1996 movie “Independence Day”), or an imminent threat of national financial collapse (involving, of course, lots of mutual self-interest). Issues of public welfare, about which one would hope we could agree and cooperate, so easily represent our human ability to divide rather than unite.
“Independence Day” was a great feel-good movie, because the entire planet became united against an extra-terrestrial enemy of fierce evil. And we all won! However, our recent and current “enemies” don’t afford us much if any victory. In part this is because we so easily project onto them so much of our own desire to divide, that it’s our own ‘nature’ that prevents any “uniting victory.”
Let’s face it, human beings love to divide and fight. Those of you more familiar with my thinking, know I’ll often reflect on the Genesis account of ‘the Fall.’ Even here, it was the temptation to division (“the knowledge of good and evil”) that brought about the separation (“Fall”) of Adam and Eve from their “original blessing” resulting in a life of division from the balance of nature, from communion with God, and even from each other - in sum, a life of trial and suffering.
Then there’s the theological crowd who insist on teaching children about “original sin” with the result of imposing a division from everything from the very beginning.
I recall my earlier acquaintance with Transactional Analysis and its “stroke economy” - a “stroke” being simply a unit of human interchange. For example, it can take ten positive strokes to balance out a single negative one - a reality many husbands quickly learn from a careless remark to their wife.
In the development of the human brain, the last part to develop (by about age 25) is the pre-frontal cortex, the part that gives us the ‘larger picture’ whereby we can overcome both the primitive instincts of our mammalian brain, and the binary (dividing) logic of our emotional brain. (This is definitely an oversimplification, but I hope it’s useful nonetheless.)
It’s a long and tough task to develop into the type of mature human being who can pull off keeping things united rather than divided. And I’m not fully sure what it means, but my own experience tells me that this human development generally (or perhaps always?) is rooted in the knowledge of suffering. That takes me full circle back to the Genesis account where it is the “knowledge of good and evil” (itself inherently dividing the world), which becomes the knowledge of suffering - by which the human journey moves forward (never backwards) to an eventual new blessing. In the Bible, it’s called the Kingdom. I think each culture has a similar vision, which comes from work or struggle or consciousness - the language may differ, but the essence seems common.
That’s the hope which continues to feed the enthusiasm of my work. And it’s also the hope that, as things these days collapse around us, that something new can emerge. That newness will represent a new uniting of things - people with each other, and people with the natural world. I also know that the stronger this movement, the greater also will be the forces set to divide it. So much hangs in the balance these days that it will take all we’ve got. We have a lot to learn about becoming more conscious and capable of uniting rather than just dividing.
The psychologist Carl Jung has defined ‘maturity’ as the increasing capacity to hold opposites together. This also is a part of human nature - the developed ability to hold together disparate or opposing ideas, concepts and feelings. And in a time of trouble and change, such as we are experiencing, this accomplishment is no luxury, it’s more a necessity.
Yes, it is much easier to divide than unite - that’s human nature. But a mature or higher human nature also forges in us the ability to unite rather than divide those opposites. At this point we humans transcend our baser nature - and if the natural world could know pride, it would be proud of us.
Maybe it takes being plunged into the depths of crisis and suffering - but I’m certain it’s also the process of people maturing into the type of folks it was our original purpose to become. Of that I am certain. So,
Note: Even though it’s well into September, this is technically my “August” issue of Paying Attention. Maybe next time I should write about Procrastination.
Please give me your feedback below, so I and other readers can benefit from your own thoughts and critique. Thank you.
Response to Alice
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