If I had to chose one thing I really love about martial arts, it’s that I get to punish people for thinking that they know me.
The human brain arose from a some relatively simple biochemical processes, some basic rules that come from the physics of our universe. These simple little building blocks lead to some very complex interactions. One of these interactions is symbolic learning, where we learn to associate things with symbols. Stick equals that long brown thing. I can know say or hear “stick” and know it means and is understood to mean that long brown thing. Easy.
That same process lead us to understand things that don’t exist, like the future. And to connect and imagine possibilities for that future. And even useful, except when we can suddenly imagine improbable futures of threat or crisis. The potential for depression is baked into the system, but it’s hard to imagine it was anything other than an unfortunate byproduct.
We are far from perfect creatures because of these building blocks that solve one issue, but create others.
But also integral to the process is that we are aware (if not conscious) of these flaws, and come up with solutions to them. One of the solutions to reduce some processing overhead is that we use symbolic learning to speed up and organize things in our minds. This is where we say “that is a man, and that is a hippy” when we see two different people, because it is easier to sort those people into blocks and then stop trying to actually understand them.
This is how the brain works. It does not so much look for new data, as look for ways to filter out the flood of data that comes in. We are built to strive to make ourselves deaf and blind as best we can.
A problem arises from this in that we are now able to imagine from these symbolic connections many potential futures. Normally this is good and functional, but we are now able to imagine futures that are not good or functional…whether they are likely or not. This can lead to depression, indecision, stress, or a myriad of other issues. The process itself creates these potentials, and the prevalence of one type of future or another to be imagined is a product of our perceptions in no small part, but that’s another post.
Much like depression is an unwanted side-effect of this brain structure that we seek to work around, racism and tribalism and other bigotries can arise from what should be a beneficial process. These things are somewhat like cancer, in that they are otherwise normal and healthy behaviours in isolation. When they break out and reach beyond their original territory, things fall apart.
To be human is to recognize these essential flaws in our system, and strive to overcome them. This is the “Obligation” or “Duty” that Cicero speaks of in his definitive work on Stoicism, “De Officiis.” Every philosophy or religion, to some degree or other, also addresses this.
When the system works, humans pull together into communities that balance individual growth with community needs, and extend that same pull together, or prosociality, to other groups. When it fails, individuals who move to the extremes (fascists, racists, stalinists, etc) become selfish and reduce the capacity of the group to support others, and groups can similarly become extreme to the detriment of other groups. It is in our nature to do this, but it is not normal, efficient or healthy for our nature. It is a cancer, that out of place and uncontrolled, will kill the organism.
It starts small within all of us. When we walk into a room and immediately, before we can even think about it, categorize each person in the room. When we see a friend, but do not recognize the changes in them. When we are sparring, and see the obvious opening and strike, only to be parried and struck back.
Our nature is not defined by who or what we are, or how we act in a moment, but rather by the accumulation of all that we are over the span of our lives.
This is not just a personal journey, though. The core of all of this is how we connect one to another, and how our varied communities connect to each other. In a time of pandemic like this, we can clearly see the orientations of groups. The norm is to pull together in solidarity and mutual assistance, but there are pockets of selfishness, of self-selection, to be seen easily. You can watch the history of one nation fragment into pockets in an almost daily progression, led by the actions of one man, to one group, and out to the whole country. Like a prion that shapes by contact, the infection had spread years before this and is only apparent now in the madness that finally starts to show.
But again, it has been with us all, in us all, from the beginning. We build societies and cultures, and ensure that they live on past our own lives, in order to defeat this and keep it at bay.
Perhaps now it is time for us to recognize that the seeds of corruption have grown out of hand, and we are at risk of losing our future without action. Knowing that we are prone to cancer, we can no longer pursue a life of not caring, but must instead spend a little time each day paying attention to what we eat, how we exercise, what we surround ourselves with, and be vigilant about seeking aid when things seem off.
Look to your friends and your communities, and see how they support each other, or how they drain. Does one voice or group dominate, or do all work to make each strong and known? Now is the time to be decisive about interactions, about whether to leave or excise the extremes. The time to sit back and see what develops is gone.
If you have the energy, it’s also time to form new communities. Communities that can promote and protect prosocial behaviour. Communities than can grow into societies and cultures, and be a strong and active opposite to the cancerous groups.
The world is full of Beowulf’s. Perhaps now is the time for the Grendel’s to rise up again and have their turn. Be an outsider, so that you always have a broader perspective of things and can be compassionate. Learn to see everyone as an individual, and see their uniqueness. Build a habit out of it until it is integral to who you are. And in doing that, look for others who do the same, and join together.