Frances Cohen Praver Ph.D.

Love Doc

Our Personal and Political Brains

How do our private relationships reflect our political ones?

Posted Jan 23, 2010

Obama's election brought hope, the promise of change, and a revival of the idealistic "make love, not war" ethos of the sixties. So many of us yearned for those times where empathy, resonance, and love were on the horizon. By electing Obama we voted for the good of all of society's people. It was not only the rich, the privileged, the business tycoons ─ those pretentious, materialistic, power hungry 60's Mad Men ─but for the poor, the underdog, the disenfranchised, the racial and ethnic minorities. That's what the country wanted. Instead, this Tuesday night, we got Scott Brown.

The heavy-weight Ted Kennedy's senatorial seat was filled by a light-weight ─a Don Draper look-alike draped over a Cosmopolitan centerfold!

It's not that the Obama is flawless or that the conservative Republican Party is fatally flawed. Obama's escalation of the war in Afganistan is not exactly worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. But then again, neither is the fear mongering of the Tea Party worthy of killing a national health care bill. That fear kills love, empathy and caring is self-evident in our private lives. That fear kills love, empathy and caring in our public lives is not as clear. But what is clear is that a mean-spirited ethos pervades our society.

Why so?

As a psychologist, I believe we can mine some meaning from mind-brain research. That we are born to bond, to connect, to empathize, to resonate with one another is part of our humanity and our ability to survive as a species. Alas, things may go awry in infancy, childhood, and later in life, so that these very essential characteristics become dormant. We start focusing on ourselves, and rather than a "we" mentality in our personal lives, too many people are invested in a "me" mentality. As we all know the personal is political, so that what happens in our private lives is emblematic of what happens in our public lives.

This very self-centeredness, this lack of empathy for the other person can be endemic and infiltrate even the most well intentioned politicians. Narcissism is also a large part of the picture, where the arrogance of power takes over rather than the greater good of all. Here again our social and interpersonal brain ─ the one that transcends itself, the one who cares for others ──is turned inward toward the self.

Then there's another dilemma that prevents progress. In our age of twitting and texting, low frustration tolerance, impatience, and instant gratification is the norm. Self-discipline, contemplation─ the marks of strength ─are thought of as weak or indecisive. We expect a new administration to right the wrongs of the last eight years of our administration in one single year. Near impossible.

These, then are just a few ills that our society suffers from. The good news is that there is hope for healing.

Here's why.

The brain is plastic and it can be reshaped and rewired. Because we are born with empathy, love, connectedness, caring, and love ─when all of this goes awry ─ we can bring it back.

To begin the process of rewiring the brain and healing, we must turn to our personal lives. And that's because each and every one of us is a reflection the larger society.

Here's how.

Practice empathy ─the ability to transcend your own needs by stepping into the shoes of your family, friends, and lovers. Think of their point of view, their needs, and their concerns, not only your own. Go for equal power relationship, mutuality, and reciprocity. Refrain from overindulging your children, so that they develop frustration tolerance and don't expect instant gratification. In the process you will rewire your own brain and the brain of others with whom you interact.

Because the greater society is the individual writ large, this type of empathy and loving interaction can trickle up to our politicians. Imagine our world then!


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About the Author

Frances Cohen Praver, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and relational psychoanalyst and author.

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