The best and worst experience of human life is other people. As social organisms, almost every one of us spends every moment, from the cradle to the grave, deeply intertwingled with our fellow human beings. Even those of us who bail and live the rest of our existence on a mountain carry with us all the language and identity that we internalized while growing up – so, you can take the people out of culture, but you cannot take the culture out of people.
It’s forever “wired” in our brains, a part of our anatomy: the “mirror neurons” that enable us to mimic one another, and are part of why we have this totally incorrigible habit of detecting faces in a rock, or Jesus in a slice of bread. We are so thoroughly defined by our relationships that we attribute agency and purpose to the vagaries of weather – after all, or so the story goes, our predecessors on the African savannah lived by betting that a mind’s behind whatever mystery noises we might notice. We err toward thinking something is intentional – our circumstances sculpted us to make the habit of assuming there’s a signal (meaning and intent) in noise the safer bet.
And yet! The social selves that evolutionary pressures form for keeping track of family and tribe create a kind of psychic friction – using “you” and “I” to navigate creates new boundaries, even as it joins what once were solo creatures in a group. A sharper sense of self means rubbing up against each other – where before, without a single personality between them, differing opinions couldn’t happen in a group of simpler beasts.
Step back and see the family as singular and modular, one animal in many bodies, and the tension we experience is like the balance of opposing muscle groups: Republicans and Democrats are, maybe, quadriceps and hamstrings, and they hold the body politic upright, each new election half a step as one group pushes and the other pulls.*
But rarely do we ever manage to maintain this point of view while interacting with our spouses, roommates, neighbors, cops… The overwhelmingly more popular perspective is that we all have boundaries that other people don’t respect. We step on one another’s toes. We leave the chores for someone else. We leave the door unlocked or steal each other’s girlfriends. We live together out of choice if we are lucky, but it’s mostly out of need – and wow, if only everybody else were more like me, we’d get along a whole lot better.
It’s hard to reconcile these two as-different-as-can-be epistemologies unless we take them both as options in a larger space, a field of possibility within which ways of seeing can be used or not, depending on their relevance and practicality. (Is there a difference between the ego-story me and effortlessly-lived-in-context me? What feelings differentiate the two? Is one more applicable for a certain setting than the other?) If boundaries are ideas, not absolute realities, then we can take them up when necessary, drop them when appropriate, arbitrate together the complexities of sharing space, and celebrate our unity more frequently than we would ever have been able to when we assumed our separation as the basis for our interactions.
Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people,” and he’s right: Hell is being stuck in thinking there’s an “other” that we have to suffer. But that was 1944, and we can see a little further, feel a little deeper, know a little wider, now. Let’s!
- One more example: Orson Scott Card, in his epic science fiction novel Speaker for the Dead, suggests that factions function in society like organ systems:
“Some sort of rigid hierarchy always emerged as the conservative force in a community, maintaining its identity despite the constant variations and changes that beset it. If there were no powerful advocate of orthodoxy, the community would inevitably disintegrate. A powerful orthodoxy is annoying, but essential to the community. Hadn't Valentine written about this in her book on Zanzibar? She compared the priestly class to the skeleton of vertebrates.”
...according to this thinking, astronauts would be the sperm and eggs, perhaps?
- Evolutionary science talks about this in relation to the issue of what, exactly, natural selection is “selecting.” Is it individuals, or groups? This question makes no sense, since every individual is also a cooperative colony of smaller units. Our questions often teach us more about our own assumptions than they do about whatever we believe we’re asking. The inquiry is in the question, not the answer.
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