One day a man said to God, “God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.”
God showed the man two doors. Inside the first one, in the middle of the room, was a large round table with a large pot of stew. It smelled delicious and made the man’s mouth water, but the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.
The man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, “You have seen Hell.”
Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same. There was the large round table with the large pot of wonderful stew that made the man’s mouth water. The people had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.
The man said, “I don’t understand.”
God smiled. It is simple, he said, Love only requires one skill. These people learned early on to share and feed one another. While the greedy only think of themselves…
“Giorraíonn beirt bóthar”
(two shorten the road).
The psychiatrist Bruce Perry writes that by understanding and increasing the capacity for empathy huge social change would be possible. Love and empathy are gifts of our biology; they are a potential but not a guarantee.
Infants brains are most malleable when they emerge from the womb. Empathy and love require experiences to develop and babies don’t learn to care and connect without those experiences. Changes in the timing, nature and pattern of these experiences will influence how relational capabilities emerge; these changes determine which genes will be activated and which will never reveal potential for good or ill. Children are born for love but we need to provide experiences to unleash that potential.
Humans spent most of past 150,000 years living in multigenerational, multifamily groups where the ratio of mature adults to young children 4:1. Aunts, cousins, neighbours, friends all took on caregiving/ parenting roles. All could nurture, discipline, educate, enrich. There were two parents, but many caregivers. These rich human interactions are not as present in modern western societies, but this enriched social environment is what our brain expects.
Sue Johnson argues that we are not created selfish but designed to be empathic. We have an innate tendency to feel with and for others. This part of our nature can be overridden or denied but we are wired to care. We are not born competitive, seeking our own survival at the expense of others, but born to co-operate. Throughout history the greatest resource that helped us survive was by caring for and cooperating with others. Our brains are wired to read others faces and to resonate with what we see. It is not just our large thinking brains alone that has helped us survive and become the dominant species on the planet, but our emotional responsiveness and ability to work together.
When we are securely connected to others, we are more likely to tune into and respond to the needs of others as if they were our own. Morality and altruism come from our emotional connection with others. Love is our primary personal and social resource, the greatest source of strength and joy. We are the species who helps and receives help; the species who bonds.