[This piece was published as a newspaper op/ed in July, 2019.]
Wholeness begets Wholeness.
In a previous piece, I said that my life’s work might be said to be an effort to show how two things might both be true: “that people are basically good” (Anne Frank); and that when evil winds are prevalent in the world, most people will go along with evil (my Holocaust-survivor friend).
That has come back mind — how there can be wholeness at our core that can be turned into brokenness if the brokenness of our environment injures us – because of my new kittens.
With their every move, these two kittens demonstrate how at this young age they are marvelously well put together: their body language, their way of interacting with the world, the completely open way they invite their bellies and rib-cages to be stroked, purring spontaneously just about every time you touch them. Such healthy, happy, well-behaved little beings.
I don’t get credit for this. I am the heir to the good work of three very nurturing females, who met the needs of these kittens rather fully and lovingly.
- First the mother cat, who I am told was a wonderful mom.
- Second the woman in whose house the mother gave birth to her kittens and who, I’m reliably told, lovingly tended the kittens until such time as they were weaned and handed off as a litter to a
- Third female, a cat-loving woman who has fostered hundreds of kittens over the years (who has a little pet boutique in downtown Winchester) and who clearly conveyed to my wife and me how well she knew and loved the kittens.
So before they came to us, these kittens had been cared for and bathed in love. Thus these affectionate furballs entered readily into a relationship with us where love is the main medium of exchange. Well-nurtured, and so demonstrating cat nature fully and beautifully blossomed.
“I still believe that kitty-cats are basically good,” to paraphrase Anne Frank.
But not always so good when the world is not so benign a place as these little kittens have found it to be in their little niche. I’ve known kittens with disturbed kittenhoods that have grown up to be neurotic, not very happy little beings, nor a great pleasure to be around.
As with kittens, so also with us humans.
To the extent that we can build a world that gives every growing human as much of what they need as these kittens have gotten in their first three months, perhaps we can also nurture a population of humans who bring love to each other, who are secure and comfortable in the world and feed security and fulfillment back into the world, and who fully demonstrate the truth of Anne Frank’s belief in human goodness.
Are We by Nature Whole or Broken?
But of course, there’s a big chicken-and-egg problem here. We need to be whole to make the world the more whole place where people will grow up more whole, and so make the world a more whole place.
You might ask: if the world is sufficiently broken that it is only the fortunate that get the luck of the draw (the way my kittens did), and that just as often people (and kittens both) are shaped by very imperfect and often injurious environments, why consider the best nurtured specimens – like my two kittens – more indicative of a creature’s “true nature”?
Part of the answer is that this ideal represents what life is striving for, so to speak. In the history of life, the tendency of evolution has been to match
- what a creature needs and what the environment provides, and
- what survival in an environment requires and what the creature is motivated to do.
So, with it being, as it were, the fundamental “goal” of life’s development to match need with environment, it seems appropriate to gauge a creature’s nature by what that creature becomes when its needs are well-met.
With humankind, there’s one more reason to see our nature as more whole than what we generally find: that’s how the rise of civilization unleashed into the human world a major force of brokenness we did not choose and that is not a function of human nature. As a result, the human world that developed has been in some important ways hostile to human needs. (See my book, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution and “The Ugliness We See in Human History is Not Human Nature Writ Large.”)
As a result of that impetus of brokenness that was introduced into the human world, we get what my friend perceived: so many people broken in ways that make them vulnerable to being enlisted in a force of brokenness when it rises in the world around them.
But if we can heal that brokenness and create a civilization well ordered to meet human needs, people will be more like my loving Kittens, more like what Anne Frank sees at our core.