The Struggle to Maintain Basic Humanity

It’s difficult, but the alternative is unthinkable.

Posted Nov 11, 2017

Like a lot of old people, I’ve thought more and more of late about the world I’m leaving behind. Some 30 years ago I developed a program, thought foolish at the time, to help angry, resentful, and violent clients get in touch with their basic humanity. We called the approach CompassionPower, because people have more personal power (ability to act in their long-term best interests) when compassionate than when resentful, angry, or abusive. The program remains remarkably successful, but now, partly due to my age, I find it a more daunting task to help clients stay in touch with their basic humanity.

Basic humanity is innate interest in the well-being of other people. When we feel more humane we feel more compassion and kindness and less guilt, shame, and resentment; we feel more loving and worthy of love. Basic humanity motivates respectful, helpful, valuing, nurturing, protective, compassionate, and altruistic behaviors. In adversity it motivates sacrifice; in an emergency it motivates rescue.

The sense of basic humanity is narrowly focused in early stages of life, largely restricted to caregivers. With prefrontal cortex development, it expands to kinship and tribal or communal affiliation, and with maturity it can include the entire sea of humanity. It grows with high self-value and contracts with low self-value. The only way to maintain genuine self-value (apart from narcissistic delusion), is to think and behave humanely.

There are subtle inhibitions (internal blocks) and constraints (external blocks) to humane thoughts and behavior. One major inhibition is fear of vulnerability; thinking and acting humanely can make us feel more vulnerable. (Fear inhibits humane behavior, unless we intentionally overcome it.) The constraints these days make it seem much harder to maintain a sense of humanity on a daily basis. In addition to the well-documented increases in narcissism and entitlement, a major constraint comes from too much information in general, and too much negative information in particular.

The sense of basic humanity evolved in small social units and is typically activated by social cues—facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, eye contact, and so on. In large, complex social organizations with copious social cues, and a 24-hour cascade of device-driven media, the ability to focus on humane interest is easily overwhelmed. Kind folks sound cruel on the Internet and compassionate people in a crowded city pass by homeless sprawled in a gutter. At our worst we react to jerks like a jerk.

Frequent violations of basic humanity invoke at least unconscious slivers of guilt and shame. That’s why people get angry when you mention passing by the homeless and justify their lapses on the Internet—the urge to justify is evidence of guilt and shame. A great deal of our resentment is fueled by our own violations of basic humanity, which we tend to blame on those who stimulate it: “Those damn homeless are lazy, crazy, drug addicts.”

When informational exchanges become voluminous, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll be dominated by negative emotions, which get priority processing in the brain. We react to positive exchanges over the negative in roughly a 5:1 ratio—we need five positives for every one negative to react positively. Negative posts and tweets grow exponentially, creating a sense that we live in a hostile world, which in itself produces more aggression and defensive negativity.

The Way Out: Build Basic Humanity

Basic humanity is like a muscle, it gets stronger with exercise. The key is to view it as pro-active, rather than reactive (I’ll behave humanely whether or not you do the same), and as internal reward, rather than social investment with expected return from others. I’ve heard many people say, “I’ve been compassionate, and it doesn’t work.” If you’re thinking of compassionate behavior as “working,” it will surely come off to others as manipulation, intended to get them to do something. Behavior construed as manipulative is bound to get a negative response, from which the misunderstanding about humane behavior "not working" is derived.

Genuine humane behavior is its own reward. (It’s actually more likely to be reciprocated if you don’t expect it to be.) View it as outward-directed – value pours out of you, not into you. If you try it for a few weeks, to paraphrase the old Men’s Warehouse commercial, “You’re gonna like the way you feel.”

The following are brief mental exercises to show the relationship of basic humanity to self-value.

Think of the most important thing about you. Is it:

  • A personal quality (honesty, integrity, industry, friendliness, ambition)?
  • A personal talent or gift (intelligence, skills, intuition, savvy, street-smarts, athleticism, beauty, artistic or scientific aptitude)?
  • Accomplishments and successes?
  • Compassion, kindness, and love for the significant people in your life?

All the above contribute to self-value, but which do you think is the most influential and the most within your control? Which do you think you’ll most regret not doing enough of near the end of your life?

Think of what you would want your eulogy to mention:

  • What you gave to the world or what you took from it?
  • What you improved or what you made worse?
  • Who you criticized or who you appreciated?
  • What you created or what you destroyed?

Think of which attitude or emotional state will help you like yourself better:

  • “There are a lot of cruel people in the world.” Or, "Most people are more frail than cruel.”
  • “He or she is narcissistic, manipulative, a liar.” Or, “He or she would probably help a child in danger.”
  • “My son-in-law is lazy and irresponsible.”Or, “My son-in-law loves my daughter and treats her well.”
  • “This traffic is unbearable, the highway is designed by an idiot and the road is filled with jerks.” Or, “We’re all in this together, though some people have a hard time with stress. This moment of my life counts, so let me make the best of it, by listening to music, playing an audiobook, calling a friend…”
  • "I'll be respectful to you if you agree with me or validate my experience or my worldview." Or, "I'll be respectful to you because it's the right thing to do. My respectful behavior will make it more likely that you'll be respectful to someone else, who then may be respectful to yet another person."

Though it seems that we have to work harder these days to maintain a sense of humanity, the reward in self-value is unsurpassed.