Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why I am still, and always, hopeful

In 10th grade, at Great Neck North High School, I signed up for a a class called "Evolutionary Psychology". On the first day, Mr. Slater, an odd man with a white flat top haircut and neanderthal body, outlined the three basic survival instincts which, he explained, control all human behavior: Food, Shelter, Warmth. He added, also, clothing, explaining that, even though it isn't really a survival need, in modern society, no one could do very long without it. "

"When one of these needs goes unmet," Mr. Slater said. "Everything else in your life will go out the window. If you are hungry, nothing matters but food. If you are cold, you will burn anything you own to keep the fire going. If you have nowhere to live, you will either invent a shelter--as homeless people will--or invade someone else's. When these needs are not met, all civilized behavior goes out the window."

It's been 35 years since I took that class, but I've never forgotten that first lesson in what makes people do what we do--and I'm sure that weird, old Mr. Slater was a kind of gatekeeper in my own biography, opening the door to a study that would compel me for the rest of my life.

Because all the way back in 1973, at my little wooden desk with dried gum beneath and 30 years of initials carved above, I was furiously scribbling: There has to be more.

There is, of course. And in our modern society, with those basics mostly met, other drives can--and have--bubbled to the surface. New compulsions to drive us, as Mr. Slater presciently intoned, to throw everything else out the window.

These are three that I've noticed:

First: The drive to FEEL--preferably to feel something good. Every moment of every day, we are making choices toward the things that make us feel good--away from that which disgusts or hurts us. We reach toward soothing, comforting, smooth, soft and cuddly. We shrink away from spiky, slimy, too sharp, and too hot.

We reach toward beauty with all of our senses--to taste, touch, hear, smell, and see the world in its fullest expression. We reach toward love--toward connectivity to friends, to a partner, to a community, to our families and ancestors, to our culture and our world.

This drive lives in and out of=2 0the emotions. It is activated by and activates our inner sensory organ, the heart, which is the processor, the container, the sorter and sender, of the essential substance of this drive, the honey rich fluid of love, beauty, and joy.

Second is the drive to be OF USE. We want to be part of something. We want to help. We want to lend our hands to our tribe, our work community, our world. We want to see ourselves reflected well in the positive regard of parents, teachers, and friends. We want to make things with our hands and our study, with our contemplation and our mastery; and then, we want to stand back, surveying what we've made and find it "good." Finally, when all is said and done, we want our lives to have meant something. We want to be able to look back and say, I walked here, I had a positive impact on this place.

The center of this activity is the deep belly "will", where its essential substance--the woody solid of service and meaning--is forged and processed until our own special something is ready to be born--until we, too, are ready to express our priceless (and unique) gift into the world.

Third is the drive TO KNOW. We want to puzzle things out. We want to understand. We want to solve our mysteries. This activity is activated by and activates the formless organ of the psyche--a "place" which, though not visible with the eye, is a very real, perceivable structure visible with the=2 0imagination.

If you want an experience of the structure of the psyche, close your eyes and imagine a long stemmed rose. As you bring the image into focus, notice how and where the image appears in your "mind's eye". Notice the container of this inner place. Try and "see" out to its edges. Where, exactly, is this mind's eye? How does it work? It takes practice, but imaginal exercises like this one build on each other. Like any muscle, the psyche--and its ability to imagine and to visualize--responds to practice. The more you work with it, the stronger the ability to meditate, to visualize anything (including the ability, which each of us possesses, to receive extra-sensory perceptions and psychic impressions) becomes.

So, the organ of this activity is the Psyche (engaging, also, the will forces discussed above, for our puzzling often leads to action) and the substance of this activity is the formless language of the psyche: story, archetype, thought and meaning.

What happens when we don't or we can't satisfy these drives?
We experience a deep loss at the level of the soul. We feel empty. We feel craving. We feel desperate to fill our emptiness.

The emptiness compels us out of ourselves; it makes us reach for more, for better, for different. It makes us reach toward light. We find this light in creative activities, in passionate pursuits and warm relationships, the cravings subside; we=2 0are satisfied and full and out of that fullness we can love and serve and puzzle.

If we aren’t able—because we have not been taught; because we have so few role models—to fill our emptiness with positive activities, we will reach for shadow experiences: addictions, empty entertainments, negative relationships.

Many would agree that, right now, we are living in a time of profound emptiness. But as Mr. Slater taught me all those years ago: We are survivors. And these are survival drives.That's why I am still and always hopeful. For if what he taught me is true, we human beings will do anything to climb up out of this emptiness.

We will reach toward help--the flicker of concern in the eyes of a doctor or therapist; toward the hand, extended by a rescue worker; toward the fire flickering in the windows of the shelter that invites us in; toward the candle we light at the edges of the church or synagogue or mosque. We will reach toward light and warmth, upward and outward--praying for guidance, asking for help, calling a friend or long-lost family member.

I know this because I write about it, because week after week stories continue to stream into my mailbox about the profound miracle of the human spirit's drive toward healing, toward wh oleness toward FEELING, toward BEING OF USE, toward MEANING.

I know that we will find our way out. I know this because the light of hope, that sturdy flame deep down in our own hearts keeps burning, leading us up and out into the warmth of the sun, leading us up and under the starlit canopy of the vast night.

I know this because, as Mr Slater taught me, human beings are survivors, and because I have seen with my own eyes the way we always cluster around light.