Sunday, July 10, 2011

Defining Characteristic

Why we are what we are.

Endless learned literature, endless speculation, endless theories attempt to define the human condition. We are, rightly, fascinated by who we are, how we got here and where are we going.

We see ourselves as special in so many ways. To the religious we are God's chosen. To the secular we are the pinnacle of a vast web of genetic mutations which, without pre-ordained purpose, lead eventually to us.

Whichever is your view, we can agree that we are unique. Well, almost. Elephants have great memories and appear to grieve when another elephant dies. Dolphins famously once said, “Goodbye and thanks for all the fish.” (Douglas Adams – Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). Very human indeed. Chimps can plan an attack and work out that only co-operation between individuals will bring success. This is one, but not the most important one of being human.

I often illustrated the defining human characteristic to children by using lions as a prompt. We have all seen wildlife programmes and are intrigued by how lions will work together to bring down their prey. This is very human-like. They have a plan – though it does not involve much communication between pride members - mostly instinct. We seldom focus on the poor gazelles.

They graze, head down. They look up to see where danger lies. Nature has provided them with excellent vision at spotting moving lions. In the long grass and still (and down wind) the lions creep closer and closer.

Eventually the lions charge. All the gazelles run and run very fast. One lion trips a gazelle and it's down. A quick bite to the throat and it's dinner time for lions. Darwin's survival of the fittest in action.

What about the other gazelles? Do they stop to see what has happened? Do they remonstrate with each other at their compadre's ill-fortune? Does one gazelle cry, “Ouch, that's gotta hurt!”


They are unable to summon up that most defining of human qualities – empathy.

We are able to put ourselves in other's shoes and imagine what they feel like. We can vicariously live the life of a lion or a gazelle or another human being and learn. No other creature can do this.

This is our greatest strength. The gazelles are much faster. The lions are much stronger, but we overcome them by empathising with each other, feeling each other's pain, imagining each other's suffering and co-operating with each other to defeat the much stronger foe. We alone can do this.

It is when we lose this ability – either through illness, stress or pain that we are most vulnerable. We can no longer see the “bit picture”. We are unable to plan effectively to overcome our difficulties. We are at the mercy of what Freud called the Id – the set of uncoordinated instinctual trends that in times of stress can override our rational thought processes. The Id may save us when confronted with a hungry lion, but is no help in a modern society with it's pressures that nature hasn't prepared us for.

For that, we have to nurture and regain our sense of empathy.