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The Extent Of Human Love

October 13, 2013

In a recent post, I claimed that problems arise in the world when there is a lack of love.  This applies equally to personal relationships and nations as a whole.  So the next question to ask ourselves is why there is any love at all, and second, why do our love relationships break down?

I’ll begin with a personal observation.  As many of you know, the United States is currently in a bit of a budget crisis.  I was visiting with my parents and my mother made a comment, “Why are we sending aid to foreign countries when we can’t even pay our own bills?”  Now, I’m going to ask you all to shut off your “political” brain.  Don’t think of the statement in terms of policy analysis, such whether or not we truly have funds to help poorer nations (for example, if we cut military spending, etc), but instead let’s analyze it as a psychological statement.

Why does my mom think an American life is more important than the life of a foreigner?  Why aren’t all people loved equally?  Why are there these invisible lines in the sand, making some groups of people more important to us than others?

This brings us to a talk I recently listened to on one of my favorite websites, edge.org.  Dr. Joshua Greene of Harvard University was promoting a book he recently finished called, Moral Tribes:  Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them.  In the talk he discusses how “us” vs “them” dynamics are formed.  He begins by noting that we evolved in small tribal groups.  There was “our” group in which we  hunted and lived with, and then there were “other” groups which were almost always the enemy.  The emotional systems within our brain are pre-wired for “us” vs “them” behavior.  Let’s take a few examples.

In an experiment done a while back, everyday people were asked whether or not they were obligated to help out after a natural disaster.  People’s responses depended on where the disaster took place.  If it happened in the area in which they lived, the vast majority of people felt it was appropriate for everyone to chip in and help out.  If it didn’t happen in “their” area though, things were different.  Say their friend was visiting a distant country and the same disaster has taken place.  He sends them pictures of the rubble, the starving children, and all the homeless victims.  He then asks for money.  The number of people who say it’s a moral duty to send aid plummets.

Why is this?  Well, we have hard-wired emotional systems that work in terms of “us” and “them”.  In mom’s case, there’s America (us), and there’s other countries (them).  When it comes down to it, our survival is more important than other people’s, just as it was in our hunter gatherer days.  The problem with this is that nations grow and there’s only so much land here on Earth.  As countries grow and expand, they naturally bump into each other and fight for resources.  Both groups think in terms of “us” and exclude the “other” groups, and we get a nasty form of conflict.   This is because we haven’t learned to love the “other”, and for that reason we have wars, violence, and greed.

But that’s not to say we’re in a hopeless situation.  Dr. Greene compares our moral instincts to a camera.  Most new digital cameras these days have pre-set “point and shoot” settings that will give you a good picture in most common situations, but not always.  When the pre-sets won’t do, you need to fine-tune the settings by hand, and then take your picture.   Our brains are the same way.  Our emotions are pre-sets which we’re born with and they work pretty good in a lot of situations, but they have their limits.  There are times when emotion is limited, and that’s why we have reason.  But reason is complicated and there are lots of settings.  You have to spend a lot of time studying your “camera” to know how everything works.  With time and patience, you can manually tune your “camera” and get better results than the pre-sets.  That’s what moral and spiritual instruction does.  You can go beyond your pre-sets.

Tribes form around religions, cultures, political ideologies, and many other things.  If you can’t accept people who have a different culture, a different belief system, or different ways of life, you have to go into your head and change your brain’s settings to be more inclusive.  More tolerant.  More accepting.  But that’s not easy, especially if you disagree with them, or feel that doing so would put your way of life in danger.  It’s a tricky business.  If you accept just anything, then you stand for nothing, but if you’re too rigid, there will be conflict.  To get things going, it’s important to understand your brain’s “camera” and know that it has these settings.  From there, we can debate what to do.

Now I’d like to discuss relationships among individuals within those tribes, particularly between men and women.  There are also emotional pre-sets to that process as well, and it’s worth discussing them.

As I mentioned, we are creatures which have evolved here on planet Earth, struggling for survival.  For most of our existence, we have lived short, difficult lives.  Human romantic love is rooted in these ancient instincts.

Not to over-generalize, but men’s brains evolved to be polyamourous.  You have to remember that we’re gene-replication machines.  Think of what strategy would be best for a man’s genes to be passed on to the next generation?  The more women he impregnates with his children, the more likely his genes will survive.  So throughout all the animal kingdom, males fight for power and resources so that they can support large families of females and their offspring.

Women’s emotions are wired differently.  They look for messages which signal commitment, fitness, and resources.  They want healthy children who will be cared for and will have access to the food, clothing, and other resources which they will need while raising the child.  Their best interests are to avoid men who will not commit or leave them with a child to support on their own.

So there are complicated mating rituals in human love ultimately rooted in that basis.  It manifests itself in many ways.  I’ll give you an example.  Since we were discussing my mother earlier, let’s give another example with her.  I was hanging out with Mom one time and she was watching television.  The Wendy Williams show was on, which is basically a women’s daytime comedy program which gossips about celebrities.   Maybe I can find a clip?

So what’s a typical show like?  Well, she may begin with pictures of “man-candy”, attractive men, dressed nicely, showing off their sculpted muscles.  What is this rooted in?  In times past, men were hunters.  A good hunter has to be strong and swift so that he can help provide.  So women’s brains are attracted to muscular, fit men.

Next Wendy Williams begins to gossip, mostly about male celebrities and their relationships.  The focus is on children, such whether or not these men take care of their children, custody battles, how well the men provide, etc., but they also gossip about how well these men treat their wives, etc.  Why does this take place?

We evolved in a much smaller world.  Women in the tribe evolved to gossip, primarily about the men in the tribe, but also other women in the tribe.  If the men were not faithful to their wives, the women acted as little broadcasters to warn all the other women what kind of man he was.  Considering they may end up pregnant and he’ll run off, it’s good for other women to know in advance.  They also gossiped about other women so they could compare mothering strategies.  As for women gossiping to men about other women, well, that’s mainly to convince the men that she’s a slut, and if he has sex with her, he can’t be sure that the child will be his.  That’s the primary basis for why women are always “slut shaming” each other.  It has to do with telling men, “Stay away from here!  Get with me instead!”

Wendy Williams gossiping about a handful of celebrity men with whom these normal women will never meet is completely useless.  But, if you look at the audience, it’s all women.  There’s not a single man out there.  This is a left-over vestige of our evolutionary past, sort of like our appendix is to our digestive track.

To get back on topic, when I said the world has problems when we don’t love each other, I mostly mean that we leave ourselves to these emotional systems which evolved in world in which we no longer live, and they’re not fully up to the task.  A lot of the moral and emotional instincts we have within us don’t make much sense anymore.  We have to fine-tune our settings through education and rational discourse to be more inclusive.

I’d like to end this post with a few thoughts on love.  When I look at human love, and what it’s rooted in, I find it comes up short.  I wish the attraction process between men and women was deeper than money, good looks, and access to society’s resources.  Unfortunately, for the most part, it’s not.  I also wish people’s in-groups were far more inclusive.  If you want to leave out Neo-Nazis, the Westboro Baptist Church, and other hate groups, I can understand.  Even so, the type of love I wish existed in the world is like that found in mystics and saints — an unfailing, pure love, like the type God is supposed to have for us.

Personal human love is rarely God-like.  It normally has limits and is dependent on many factors.  It’s more of a cost benefit analysis masked in rationalized emotion.  You’ll attend a wedding and hear all sorts of vows, but they’re rarely meant.  The real test comes as their relationship goes on and each partner weighs the benefits and costs of being in the relationship, day by day.  Benefits include things like finances, does he or she make me laugh, how is the sex, affection, intellectual companionship, and so on.  Downsides may include alcohol or drug use, embarrassing or humiliating experiences, private or public, lack of a sex life, lack of affection, bad relationships with children, avoiding domestic responsibilities, lies, deceit, arguments, threats, violence, jealousy, lack of intellect and education, heck, even bad driving habits.  Once you’ve been weighed on random, rather arbitrary scales which change all the time and vary from person to person, you may or may not be loved.  It all depends.

Most of what goes for “love” in our world is more or less rooted in survival.  Does it benefit me?  Is this person good for me?  Does this person make me happy?  Will a relationship with this person help me get where I want to go?  Does being this person’s friend benefit causes I care about?  And so on.  But I personally like the type of love I grew up in church hearing about — the type of love Jesus gave.  It didn’t ask for anything in return.  I don’t see much of that in the world.

I actually had a discussion about love and relationships with a woman not too long ago.  She found me rather strange.  I told her that I would stay with a woman, even if I didn’t love her, as long as she needed me and was fine with me.  She told me, “That’s kind of sad.”  I’ll agree, it’s not ideal, but I grew up as a pastor’s son and I remember we would help troubled families get through hard times.  Maybe I’ll tell the story?

There was a married couple in the church and things weren’t as romantic between them as they once were.  Another woman in the church started messing around with the husband and they ran off together, leaving the former wife in abject poverty.  She lost everything.  She was a homemaker, older, and didn’t have any career.  She mainly relied on her husband for income.

He traded her in for a better model, I suppose, and maybe he was happier with the new woman.  Who knows.  But I remember it was the middle of winter, and me and other people from the church had to help this poor women move her furniture (what she got from the divorce) into this tiny ratty trailer.  It was so cold and that trailer wasn’t even insulated.  It was more like a freezer.  I could see my breathe indoors.  She had no money.  I turned on the water faucet to rinse off my hands and brown, disgusting water came out.  I let it run for a while and it was brown and never cleared up.

I heard water running outside when the faucet was on so I looked under the trailer and sure enough, the pipe just ran a short ways to the hill outside.  There was no sewage system.  I went to the bathroom and my foot went through the rusted floor of the trailer and hit the mud underneath the trailer.

Quite an ordeal, huh?   To top it off, human emotion is fickle and can come and go.  They soon tired of one another and went their separate ways, but the damage was done.  Look at what this process of seeking happiness does to people.  When people can’t find peace and happiness from within, they search for it in the world outside of them, oftentimes leaving a path of destruction behind.

The same applies to ambitions, goals, and dreams.  If you can’t be happy unless you achieve whatever it is you think needs to happen in your life, and if you think your personal happiness is all that matters in the world, you’ll step on everyone around you, chasing something that doesn’t even exist.  If you can’t be happy now, you won’t be happy later either.  If you can’t live and be happy in the present, you’re not going to be able to set goals to be happy in the future either.  You have nothing to go off of.

We live in a world where external things are supposed to fulfill you.  Achieving some goal (dreams), meeting some dream spouse (love), or owning some home (things), all of these things are what happiness supposedly is.  But it’s a lie we’re told to fuel the economy which needs people in perpetual want.   After all, the human race has to progress!  We need new gadgets.  Bigger homes.  Faster cars.  We need more!

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Entertain me.  Please me.  Scratch my back.  Did you guys hear about the Playstation 4 video game console?  Chinese university students are forced to work in electronics factories putting together Playstations and iPhones or they cannot graduate.  It’s part of their curriculum.

People can’t wait.  Fast food, fast love, fast entertainment.  I want it NOW!  I don’t care what it does to Chinese workers or what their working conditions are.  I want my new console NOW!

If American workers were the ones forced to make Playstations under those conditions, we’d be furious.  But the Chinese are the “other”.

I spoke of how we need spiritual instruction more than anything else.  Jesus once said, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things will be added unto you.”   And what does it mean to seek God?  God is love.  God’s kingdom is one in which we’re all brothers and sisters in a loving family.  We don’t take advantage of family.  Once we learn that lesson, and no longer think of outsiders as the “other”, a new form of prosperity and wealth will naturally come to us.  Why?  We’re not fighting one another, we’re cooperating.  Peace brings prosperity.

This world that we live in is a product of all of our actions.  If you’re able to find peace and love within yourself, if you can find that inner stillness deep inside you, coming to a place where you are no longer chasing or fearing things, finding a sense of contentment from within, then you’re able to give love, and that’s what the world needs more than anything.  You can’t give from deficiency, from an emptiness.  You have to give love from a well which springs within you.  That’s the adjustment your inner camera needs.

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