Simply Elevate And See The Big Difference
“It’s human nature after all!” Hearing this, we rarely stop to wonder “What does that really mean?” It is most often used in a negative sense about a spectrum of behaviour from the harmlessly quirky to the downright evil. But ‘human nature’ also embraces a wholesome capacity for love, compassion, service and interdependence.
What makes us, as a species, veer from time to time towards the ‘dark’ side of our nature? Ecologist and research psychologist John Calhoun tells of the Ik, a Ugandan mountain people forcibly relocated from their ancestral homeland to a desolate area. Cut off from their cultural roots, brought to near starvation, they slowly developed a numbing insensitivity to the suffering of others.
One day, Lo’ono, an old blind woman, fell into a deep ravine. Badly injured, her pleas for help were ignored; instead, many crowded around the edge, laughing and jeering, even throwing sticks and pebbles at her as she lay dying. What happened to these people, Calhoun warned, can happen to any of us. His research revealed this was not an inherently violent tribe. Prior to relocation, they lived in relative harmony, extending the usual hospitality to each other and to strangers. But with a steady diet of neglect, hunger, despair and little else, they ‘descended’ into acting from the lowest side of their nature.
This works for individuals as well as for groups. Societies and governments today use and abuse power to subjugate or humiliate people and countries perceived in any way as being lower or less powerful. Then, as the less powerful now become more powerful, we witness increasingly inhuman instances of retaliation born from this contagious, toxic contamination. And oddly, we continue to be surprised! There is an opposite and equally contagious ‘ascending’ tendency within us that some refer to as elevation – that uplifting, inspiring feeling on reading, hearing of or experiencing acts of human goodness, courage, sacrifice and compassion.
What is significant here is that elevation results in making one want to also help others and to become a better person. When we encounter people behaving in a petty, selfish or vicious way, we tend to feel that we do not live in a morally inspiring world. When we see too much of this, it’s easy to get to a stage when one says: “What’s the use”, and further to a stage when one feels: “If you can’t beat them, join them.” On the other hand, when we learn of someone, especially a stranger, performing an act of kindness or generosity for another, we do feel we live in a fair and just world, and want to make it fairer and even more just.
The effects of these feelings have potentially life-altering effects. A young woman i know was so surprised and moved at the prayerful and generous material support extended towards her brother going through a serious illness that she has vowed to work to reach out and help others in the same way. If frequent bad deeds, small or large, trigger social hostility, cynicism, even violence towards others, frequent good deeds have a kind of ‘undoing’ effect on all this, raising the level of love, compassion and harmony around us.
What we call society is simply a manifestation of the choices we make. How our life turns out depends on the choices that individuals and groups make on a daily basis.
The writer is a Mumbai-based consultant, personal growth coach and workshop leader. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org