Monday, September 13, 2010

The Age of Empathy by Frans De Waal

Such an interesting subject! I thoroughly enjoyed reading Frans de Waal's Age of Empathy because I am just so curious about what makes people tick. I wondered how de Waal would lay out his observations and arguments and if he would mention any connection to spirituality.

Seeking to better understand human behavior through nature and the behavior of other social animals has historically, from a formal religious perspective, been taboo. Look what kind of trouble Darwin got himself into with the audacity to suggest something other than creationism. Yet nature is right there under our noses fairly screaming, Look here! Notice me! The flower needs the bee just as much as the bee needs the flower. Our ancestors knew this. They lived in small communities relying on each other and respecting the ebb and flow of the natural world to survive. There has always been such an obvious connection among all living beings that it is hard to believe that we ever allowed ourselves to become so detached. But -to our modern world detriment- detached, distracted, and superior we've become. So much so that perhaps only now we are recognizing -again- how much wisdom can be gleaned from nature

"We had been blinded by our own proud achievement, only to be corrected by the apes, who reminded us of the basics. It made me think again of Immanuel Kant, because isn't this the problem with modern philosophy? Obsessed by what we consider new and important about ourselves - abstract thought, conscience, morality - we overlook the fundamentals. I am not trying to belittle what is uniquely human, but if we ever want to understand how we got there, we will need to start thinking from the bottom up." pg 15

"We can't return to this preindustrial way of life. We live in societies of mind boggling scale and complexity that demand quite a different organization than humans ever enjoyed in their state of nature. Yet, even though we live in cities and are surrounded by cars and computers, we remain essentially the same animals with the same psychological wants and needs." pg 26

The author goes on to describe a life time's worth of studies of primate behavior and characteristics, balancing the good with the bad, drawing parallel after parallel to us humans. In the end we all need and want the same things: food and a place to live; a place where we can procreate, nurture and raise our young; a sense of security balanced with the freedom to move around; and a sense of belonging and being needed. The science behind all of his observations is compelling and serves to reinforce the more abstract notion that we do all these similar things because we recognize a piece of ourselves in each other. Animals probably 'understand' this less than we do but still we are all ultimately driven to care for each other.

"To call upon this inborn capacity can only be to any society's advantage" pg 226

So, apart from the logical survival reasons, why is there such an inner urge to care for each other? I don't know but it brings me to the spiritual aspect of empathy and, really, any recognition of another's worth. If there is any common theme among the world's spiritual leaders it is just that.

"The good man is the friend of all living things" ~ Gandhi

"Fashion your life as a garland of beautiful deeds" ~ Buddha

"A man's true wealth is the good he does in the world" ~ Mohammed

"Do unto others as you would have them do to you" ~ Luke 6:31

"If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other" ~ Mother Teresa

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