How Trustworthy the Human Flow?
“I just got through listening to a tape of that show you did on ‘Understanding Evil,'” the letter began. It was from a man who had become, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, a much-valued friend of mine before he’d moved, a couple of years back, away from the Shenandoah Valley. His name was Roger Fravel, and his calling was the ministry in one of the more conservative of the Protestant denominations.
We’d first made contact through his calls into the radio show –on the Harrisonburg station– where I was a regular guest. As a Biblical Christian, Roger –or Reverend Fravel, as he identified himself in his first call– would take issue, from time to time, with statements that I made on the air. His mission was to bear witness for right thinking against the unbeliever to whom –regrettably, as he saw it– the station was giving air time.
That’s how we started, but happily the relationship developed from there. The change was initiated, I believe, by my making an appeal to him, during perhaps our fourth on-air conversation, not to see me as the enemy. True, I conceded, I did not share some beliefs that were vital to him. But he and I did share some fundamental values, such as a passionate commitment to the right and the good. We could focus on our doctrinal differences, I said, or we could focus on those heart-felt concerns that made us potential allies.
In a public forum like that, it is almost unthinkable for someone who has walked onto the figurative stage in an oppositional mode to change directions right then and there, in front of everyone, and Roger did not give any sign on the air that my words had any impact. But a week later, I got a note from him sent care of the station inviting me to lunch. And over time, we became friends.
“As you can imagine,” Roger’s present letter continued, “I found the program of great interest. I was glad, as you can also imagine, that a couple of your callers stressed the role of the Evil One. But another essential element of the picture was left out, or at least given short shrift.
“Pointing at Satan can be a way of shifting blame. True, as when he appears at the very beginning, he is the Tempter. But there had to be some defect of will for the temptation to succeed. What I would have liked to have heard –what I’d have called in to add, if I still lived within broadcast range of your show– is more about the inherent tendency toward evil in the human heart. Original sin, if you will. (Or even if you wont!)
“We human beings are fundamentally flawed. There’s something deep within us that craves what’s evil, the way a little child will crave the sweets that will rot her teeth. And just as the child must allow herself to be governed by the commandments of her parents, so also must humankind –if we are to have any hope of orienting toward the good– allow ourselves to be commanded by the laws given us by our Almighty Father.
“That’s what I’d have wanted to add, anyway, Andy.
“But I really do also want to say that by raising such questions you’re doing a great service. The overall message might not be just what I’d want delivered from the pulpit of my church, but for a Sunday afternoon on a secular radio station beaming out to the general area, in your own way you’re doing God’s work by calling upon people to think about these matters.”
And then Roger went on to talk about how things were going for him in his new church, how his wife’s health was, how his ministry was going with the prisoners at the state penitentiary at Lorton, in the eastern part of our state, and then he signed off, “Your friend, Roger.”
Later that same afternoon, I finally got an email message back from my brother. This was in answer to my question to him about whether I’d understood correctly the implications of that dumb joke he’d sent me. Was his point, I’d asked, that we intervene to try to control the flow of things only to the extent that we don’t trust where they’re heading on their own? After acknowledging that he’d not gotten back to me as quickly as he’d like, Ed went on to affirm that I’d read his intended point correctly. And then he connected the issue with his way of working as a psychotherapist.
“We’ve talked about how non-interventionist I generally am in my therapy work. Though I’m far from just an ear, it’s rare that I do most of the talking. And, going back to the joke about the kid not talking, it’s because I have faith in the natural tendencies of the human being. The client’s there to become more whole. He or she isn’t paying to stay stuck, or to make his or her life worse, but to walk along the path of healing.
“This inclination toward healing is, I believe, part of our essential nature. When I cut my finger, my body stops the bleeding, and in time it mends the cut. When I get an infection, my body works to isolate and to destroy the invading germs. Likewise in my work, as I see it: the organism naturally wants to heal itself. (Though there are caveats to this, especially around really profound psychic injuries, but I won’t go into that now.) The person’s energies naturally will flow that way, and all I have to do is to make very small adjustments in that flow to help it around the obstacles that come up. Like a midwife helping turn the baby a bit this way or that so that the birth process goes more smoothly. ED”
Between Ed’s words and Roger’s, I saw an interesting juxtaposition. At first I thought it was a contradiction, but, upon reflection, I saw that they might not actually be on a collision course. In other words, although the two points of view weighed on different sides of the question, “Can we trust the natural inclinations of the human being?”, I wasn’t sure if they were addressing the same dimensions of the question.
Roger’s indictment of human nature, as I understood it, was on a moral dimension. We’ll do evil, he was saying, if left to the free expression of our inborn nature. Ed was expressing faith in human nature along the dimension not of good vs. evil but of health vs. sickness. The organism inherently works toward its own health. I could imagine that both of these propositions could be true, each in its separate domain. But also perhaps the domains overlap, so that “goodness” in the moral sense was not wholly independent of the kind of wholeness and health of which Ed spoke. But whatever the connections, the domains were not identical.
It was Ed’s mention of the self-healing of the body when it’s cut that gave me a glimpse of how the contrast between these dimensions might be explained. The need for the body to heal itself from a cut must go back in our evolution as far back as we had skin. Maybe as far back as our ancestors were multi-cellular. Evolution had eons to perfect this kind of wholeness, to make it trustworthy.
But the problem of good and evil, I thought– that was on a rather shorter timeline, wasn’t it? In Roger’s framework, of course, the problem arises right away– perhaps on the second week after that Day One where the Almighty creates heaven and earth. But putting aside that biblical notion of that six-day Creation, as all the scientific evidence requires, I saw the problem of choosing between good and evil as emerging rather recently in our evolutionary history, only after our cerebral and cultural development gave us a broad range of options in our conduct. Only then did our survival –the health of our communities– begin to hinge on “moral” choice.
So it was possible for both Ed to be right about the trustworthiness of our self-healing tendencies and Roger to be right about the moral untrustworthiness of our innate motivational tendencies. Moral issues being of such comparatively recent emergence, our moral nature might well be still at that “lousy first draft” stage. Evolution doesn’t see ahead very well, probably not even having headlights to drive by.
That evening, after I got tired of pondering this juxtaposition, the question of the dimensions of our human trustworthiness (or lack of it) got complicated further.
My intention was not to work on the project but to take a break from it by reading in some back issues of The New York Review of Books. My supposed break relapsed, however, back into my work when I came upon a particular line in a piece by the Nobel prize-winning physicist, Steven Weinberg. Weinberg had written, “Nature seems to act on us as a teaching machine. When a scientist reaches a new understanding of nature, he or she experiences an intense pleasure.” 
Immediately I wondered: Is Weinberg saying something here about human nature? Not necessarily. When he writes of the intense pleasure of the scientist upon making a discovery, Weinberg could be talking about the learned motivational structure of the scientist, rather than about anything inherent in our humanity. After all, environmental influences can teach people to take intense pleasure in almost anything. (Some sadists can get pleasure from unspeakable things.) But a rereading suggested to me that, while Weinberg specifically mentioned scientists, he must have something fundamental in human nature in mind. Else, why would he have started that passage with the statement about Nature acting on us as a teaching machine? Given that formulation, surely he is saying something rather general about the relationship between the creature and its environment. Well, maybe not surely, but quite likely what Weinberg is asserting here is something like: “We human beings have evolved so that we’re wired to feel deeply rewarded to discover new truths about the natural reality in which we live.”
Very interesting proposition. And I’m inclined to believe it.
Now, if that were true, what would the implications of that be for the overall question of the trustworthiness of what unfolds from the expression of our natural inclinations? Two pieces of an answer came to me.
On the more obvious level, the idea of us as naturally motivated to learn what Nature is teaching implies that human understanding of our natural reality will naturally tend to expand and deepen. And if one believes in the value of such understanding, then it follows that in this domain at least the natural flow of can be trusted to unfold toward the good.
But there was another, more subtle and intriguing piece concerning the question, “How did this natural inclination toward learning fit into the evolutionary time-scale?” It seemed improbable that it was truly ancient, like our bodies’ penchant toward healing themselves. More like the time-scale in which the moral dimension emerged into human life. The growth of human knowledge did not take off till we were virtually on the threshold of historical times, did it? Or at least till we were pretty fully human.
True, a brain of some sort has been around for a goodly while, and one might say that all mammals, in comparison with reptiles, are into learning. So we might say that we’ve been learning from this Nature-as-teaching-machine for some tens of millions of years. The take off was recent, I decided, but the roots lay in distant antiquity.
Something here now started tugging at me. It involved this distinction between the long glide and the sudden take-off– in combination with my initial gut feeling that our inclination to learn and our need to be moral would have arisen roughly contemporaneously. If the one had roots going way back, might not the other. In other words, might evolution have had time to instill in us some natural inclination to do the right thing?
Then something, a propos of this question, popped into my mind. The evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane said in a famous line: “I would willingly lay down my life for more than two brothers, four nephews or eight cousins.” The idea here, as I saw it, is that the evolutionary process –with its selection for genetic patterns– would long, long ago have begun to craft us to be naturally inclined toward behavior that, in a moral framework, we would call altruism.
The idea now seemed to me quite plausible that morality of some sort might have its beginnings way far back in our evolution. Not so far back as the healing of our cuts, but far enough back that we might reasonably suppose that by our nature, contra what Roger said about our depraved inclinations, we might be at least somewhat inclined toward the morally good.
Who Knows What Good Lurks in the Heart of Man?
I found myself getting increasingly interested in exploring the moral realm, in light of the question of unfolding. Although I’d thought about “right” unfolding, and about things happening as they “should,” I’d not attended enough, I thought, to the moral aspect of “right” and of “shoulds” in the human project. The issue of right unfolding concerns not just whether some journey is fulfilling, but it also embraces the question of whether one’s conduct moves the world in life-serving rather than life-destroying ways.
The question of how flow and control might dance together in the living of the morally good life had been lurking at the edges, but now seemed a good time to focus on it.
I felt impelled to contact Roger in a medium more immediate than a letter, and more direct than email– which was not, in any case, an option as Roger had not gone as modern as that. He was willing, however, to be modern enough to have a telephone and, inasmuch as his new church was on the other side of the state, telephone was as good a medium for contact as I was going to find.
I wanted to find out just how far Roger was inclined to go in condemning our inherent inclinations as evil. Clearly, he was saying that he sees our nature as far from good enough. But from his statement — about “the inherent tendency toward evil in the human heart,” and our being “fundamentally flawed”– one might draw the conclusion that he sees us as not good at all, that we escape evil only through obedience to the One who is All Good. Was his indictment of our nature that complete?
His wife, Martha, was the only one home. Martha and I had a friendly, and on occasions meaningful, connection that could, almost, stand on its own.
After she told me that Roger was off working with the men in the prison, I asked about how things were going in their (still somewhat) new home. They had been sent from this area for Roger to take over a church whose membership had long been declining. The decline (I was told) was due not to any profound “problems” in the church so much as to a lack of much happening in it of deep spiritual meaning. Roger’s denomination had chosen him to be the new pastor, doubtless having noticed what had occurred while he was minister of the church back in our area. In a half dozen years, the size of the congregation had almost doubled. And it was not just people from his own denomination that were coming to join, but people from other churches, or no church at all, who had heard about and then experienced Roger.
What was it that had made him so successful? I had a guess. He was a good, but not a great preacher (I’d heard a few tapes). He was not a charismatic person. What was special about Roger was quite simple: he was a wonderful human being. He was genuine, he was caring, he was humble (though he regarded himself as vain, which I suppose he also was), he was reliable, and he had integrity. He was such a splendid specimen of a man, it occurred to me, that he might be regarded as a walking refutation of his own thesis about human nature.
He was a godly man, and people felt spiritually nourished by their contact with him and wanted to be part of his flock.
So I was not surprised when Martha told me, in answer to my direct question, that the congregation had indeed stopped declining. In their now second year, the congregation was about a third larger than when they’d arrived. I asked about some of the schisms that Roger had told me he’d found in the church, divisions that were ostensibly about matters of doctrine but that he suspected had more kinship with high school cliques. Martha told me that somehow all that had resolved itself.
Then I asked Martha, “What do you think it is about Roger that leads to the thriving of whatever church he’s the minister of?” I wanted to give Martha an opportunity to speak in praise of her husband. The two of them were deeply committed to their marriage. At the same time, I’d come to know enough about their relationship to think that Martha’s celebrating Roger’s fine points would be a healthy thing. And this moment, with her talking with me out of Roger’s presence, seemed opportune for such a celebration.
“Well, I’d put it this way,” Martha replied. “Roger’s willing to get out of the way and let the Lord do good work through him.”
We talked a little about this way of looking at it. I expressed my sense that there was more of Roger going into that good work than she was allowing for, but then we got interrupted by something –I don’t recall if it was at her end or mine– and we had to hang up.
I left the conversation thinking that I’d certainly want the woman in my life to give me more credit than that for whatever good I accomplish in the world. But then I remembered an earlier conversation I’d had with Roger, and I recognized Martha’s way of representing his goodness fit well with Roger’s theology of the human condition.
In this conversation, several years earlier, Roger had been telling me about his experiences in his prison ministry. I had responded by saying how wonderful I thought it was that he gave of himself to these men, people whom many in our society just want to lock up and forget. Roger more or less waved away my appreciation, which then prompted me to try to get him to take in my appreciation. “No, Roger,” I’d said, “I mean it. You have a generosity of heart that’s rare. Like the rest of us, you’ve got plenty of other things to do. You’ve got your flock to tend, and your family to raise. You could easily take yourself off the hook. ‘I gave at the office.’ But still, you take the trouble to visit these troubled men, bringing to them a message that at least some of them, evidently, can use to turn their lives around. I think it’s admirable.”
Again, Roger would have none of it. “It isn’t my word that turns those lives around, it’s the Lord’s. And it isn’t my love that touches their hearts, it’s the love of Jesus whose mere messenger I am.”
Not long before, Roger had told me of something that he’d done –words he’d spoken in anger, that he regretted– and I now asked Roger: “When you felt repentant about those angry words, you seemed to feel that the error had been yours. So why is it that when you do good things, all the credit goes to God?”
His response had been, essentially, to confirm that dichotomy: our sins are indeed our own, but when we do good, it’s because we’ve surrendered our wills to God, allowing ourselves to become God’s instruments.
Recalling all this, after talking with Martha about Roger’s bringing that church back to spiritual life, it occurred to me that –even without reaching Roger to ask my questions– I already knew the answer. His indictment of our nature was pretty complete. Whatever goodness comes out of us, as Roger saw it, involves the subordination of our natural inclinations to moral controls coming from outside and above us.
Later that night, when everyone in my family was already asleep, I was sitting at my computer to write down some thoughts, listening with headphones to choral music by Heinrich Schutz. One piece was so gorgeous –I believe it was “Herr, auf dich traue ich”— that I stopped my work and just sat there, allowing myself to be transported into a place of great spiritual beauty. With the headphones, I didn’t have to worry about waking anyone, and I turned up the volume to the level it would have been had I been sitting close by the choir, inside a Gothic church in Schutz’s seventeenth century Germany.
Hearing such music, the sound bouncing off the stone, the people in those churches must have really felt a sense of greater nearness to the Holy One. Which, of course, was the idea of such sacred choral music. The question then arose in my mind: with such beauty coming out of the mouths of human singers, giving voice to the aesthetic creation of the human composer, did people conceive the sacred beauty of such music as something from God, or as from those human beings who had created such beauty in order to sing His praises? Was there some Great Composer standing behind Schutz, just as Schutz himself stands behind the singers who put out into the church such glorious sound?
When, after a while of listening to this wonderful sound of voices, I opened my eyes, I found that a new email message had arrived. It was from my friend Barbara, my friend and former colleague who’d become the head of a private school near Seattle. This message was the belated fruit, evidently, of a phone conversation she and I had some weeks before. She had called me to add some thoughts to what she’d written me about the ways that most American schools treat their students– as cattle to be driven into the box cars, was one intemperate image she’d voiced that day, rather than as human beings with their own inner sense of their own right destiny. And in the context of that conversation, I had brought up my interest in the concept of a “calling.”
To what extent, I had asked, was a “calling” to be understood as an assignment, coming from outside? And to what extent is it to be understood as a natural form of self-expression, as the production of roses might be described as the “calling” of a rose bush? We’d discussed these matters without arriving anything consequential, and now Barbara was writing to follow up on that conversation.
“You’ve probably observed,” Barbara wrote, “that certain quotations have a way of getting swept up into the Zeitgeist, so that for a while it seems you see them everywhere. Nowadays, with the ease and speed of email, that process seems to have been magnified.
“Anyhoo, there’s a line that, as it just passed by for the half-dozenth time, finally struck a chord in me: I realized that it has some not-trivial bearing on that conversation you and I had about the meaning and nature of the ‘calling.’ Without further adieu, here’s the quote (from some guy named Buechner): ‘We are called to the place where our deep joy meets the world’s deep hunger.'”
That was it. A lot there, I thought, though I wouldn’t mind some explication and elaboration. My first thought was that Buechner’s idea was akin to Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss.” But I couldn’t recall Campbell’s idea reflecting concern about any deep hunger of the world or, for that matter, about any needs beyond the individual’s desire for bliss.
The next question that came to my mind was, what relationship was being posited between one’s joy and the world’s hunger? Was Buechner simply suggesting that we look for some place where the two sets just happen to intersect, like two people who happen to be sitting next to each other on a bus and who, striking up a conversation, seek some topic of mutual interest? Or was he possibly suggesting that there is an organic relationship between those sets, for example that it is precisely in meeting the world’s deep hunger that we have our best chance of finding our own deep joy?
I liked that latter idea. There’s a beauty to it, and a simplicity, that appealed to me. And, more than that, I felt that in some important way my own life-experience was confirmation of that notion. Much of my own deepest joy has come through giving out what feels to me to be the best food I have to offer this world.
But it’s unclear to me how much that says about human nature. If I take joy in giving my best food to the world, is that because of the unfolding of my nature? Or is that the fruit of the second nature trained into me by my upbringing, an upbringing that made it pretty difficult to feel comfortable except by fulfilling responsibility? So my strategy for pleasure might say little about our natural inclinations.
It was a phone call the next day from Tina that led to the most intense of the explorations I was to make regarding human nature and the trustworthiness of its unfolding.
“I hear you’ve jumped ship,” was the way Tina began the conversation. And then, in response to my subsequent “Oh?”, she continued. “By which I mean to say that you’re no longer a card-carrying member of the Unfolding Party. I hear you’re advocating compromise with the enemy.” Evidently, Tina was in touch with one of those folks on that forum I’d organized where I had been taken to task for being too conceptual, and for arguing that the will has a constructive role to play. I knew that when Tina used the word “enemy,” she was attempting humor, as Tina’s doesn’t believe in “enemies.” Nonetheless, as I have often said, many a funny word is spoken in jest.
“So why aren’t you a partisan anymore?” she wanted to know. “Why have you left the faith?”
“I’m not sure I’d say I’ve ‘left the faith,'” I said, somewhat defensively. “I’d rather describe it as fleshing it out in a more balanced way.”
“Can you be a little bit pregnant?” she replied. “Anyway, whatever you would call it, have you shifted your stance since you started this project?”
“Yes. As the project’s unfolded, the issue of flow and control has become more complex in my eyes. The ideal now seems to be some kind of dance of integration.”
“Yeah, that’s what I meant,” Tina said. “I’m really wondering why you have lost faith in that pure unfolding you started out intending to celebrate.”
“Hey, Tina. I thought you’d decided that this was the kind of conversation that you’d rather not have with me. You know, the kind where I question articles of your faith.”
“Yeah, but in this case my curiosity wins out.”
So, I told her some of where the path had taken me. In particular, I brought up the idea that when we look at the world around us, in addition to the many ways control seems excessive, there are important ways in which things seem out of control. And I specifically brought up that notion, raised by Frank Hartley, that American society today displays prominent and troubling signs of moral deterioration– a point I illustrated with some contemporary problems including the greater incidence of illegitimate births, the apparent decline of ideals of honesty and integrity, etc.
Tina’s response to all this conveyed real disappointment, with the flavor of “you just don’t get it.” She didn’t say that directly, but that was underneath the words, I think. Had she believed in exasperation, I think she’d have been expressing it toward me. As it was, what she expressed was sadness, and the words in which the sadness was embedded were these: “Setting aside my reservations about the whole concept of ‘moral deterioration,’ I’d say that interpreting these problems (however one characterizes them) as reflecting badly on human nature –and demonstrating the need for tighter moral controls– is a misdiagnosis of the problem. It’s blaming the victim.
“Are you imagining that the people who go out and do the kinds of things you’re talking about are, somehow, plain old ‘natural people’ expressing their unadulterated innate tendencies? Look at the screwed up, inhumane society they’ve been ground up in. From the time they’re born, they’re exposed to a society that does not cherish their natures. It doesn’t respond to their needs. It teaches them all kinds of misguided approaches to getting their needs met.
“Then folks like the Christian Coalition point to how these people conduct their lives and say, ‘See, just as we said. These are sinful creatures!’ And the whole society conspires in interpreting the inability of people whom that very society has disabled to live healthy, fulfilling lives as clear evidence of the defects of human nature.
“But what these injured lives reveal is not human nature but the consequences of people being alienated from their nature. Such ‘moral deterioration’ demonstrates not the inadequacies of natural unfolding but on the contrary the price we pay when we interfere with that unfolding.”
I found Tina’s statement moving and, to a degree, persuasive. Her sense of how society injures us, and how those injuries disable us from living in whole ways, felt to me both important and true. It was a truth that I myself had taken deeply to heart in the work of my early adulthood. That truth, however, no longer seemed to me so complete as it used to.
“So, what’s your idea of how things ideally should be?” I asked Tina.
“You know I don’t deal in ‘shoulds,'” Tina replied, “but I’ll translate the question into terms I’m more comfortable with. What inspires me is –well, you know my vision, Andy. It’s a society where people’s needs get met. Where hearts feel free to be so open that, with all that compassion, people are continually in nurturing interaction with one another.”
“A world of Non-Violent Communication,” I ventured.
“Yes! If people were being open and supported in those kinds of exchanges, I’m certain this ‘moral deterioration’ problem would evaporate. Oh! That reminds me. Marshall’s new book is out. Well, it’s not ‘out’ exactly, but I’ve got my little box of advance copies. Are you still interested in my sending you one?”
To which I quite readily assented. And, after we’d established –at my insistence–that I’d send her a check just to cover her cost for the book, we said good-bye.
Back in the Middle
My conversation with Tina inspired me to seek out Eric again. He was the fellow who was, like Tina, an NVC maven, and who, unlike Tina, was happy to engage in probing conversation with someone, like me, who was not altogether of the faith.
“I’m wrestling these days,” I wrote Eric, “with some questions about human nature. I think someone deeply knowledgeable about Non-Violent Communication, like you, could help me sort them out. I see NVC as a means of bringing forth what is real and true inside people. The kind of permission it gives people to feel what they feel, want what they want, need what they need– all this permission opens the way for people to express themselves free of the channeling effects of morality.
“In the light of that understanding of NVC, and how it facilitates the flow of what’s inside us, I would like to ask you in how many of our interactions with people would wisdom tell us to follow the way of NVC and how much need there is for other kinds of interaction as well?
“I believe your response might help me clarify my understanding of human nature and the extent of its trustworthiness. I look forward to hearing from you. ANDY”
After I’d emailed that message to Eric, but before I’d received any response, I got a call from Roger. He’d heard from Martha that I’d called, and now he was calling back “at your service.” I told him, in a nutshell, how I’d called to check out with him a question that his letter had raised in my mind, and how, after talking with Martha –I left out any mention of the way she’d given God all the credit for the fine work that Roger did in the world– I’d remembered that earlier conversation between us that seemed to answer the question. “Recalling what you said then,” I told Roger, “I concluded that you see the human will as irremediably defective, and that it’s only when we give up our will to allow God to work His will that we do anything of much good. Right?”
“I think that pretty well sums it up,” Roger assented.
Suddenly I had an intuitive sense of coming upon the spoor of something interesting. “Well then, Roger, why is it that some people, like you, for example, go about in the world doing healing things while others don’t?”
“It’s possible for people to open themselves up to God’s will, or to the Holy Spirit. Some people do that, and then there are others who don’t.”
“Some do, and some don’t,” I recapped. “So the doers of good have done something that the doers of evil have not?”
“It’s God’s Grace. I feel that God has, by his Divine Grace, allowed me to open my heart to Him.”
“Reminds me of the way God ‘hardened the heart’ of Pharaoh, so that he wouldn’t let His people go. It raised the question: was Pharaoh responsible for his cruel refusal, or was God? But anyway, is God then responsible for all those people who don’t open themselves to be ruled by God’s will?” I asked.
“No, he’s given us free will. It is up to us whether we will open ourselves or not.”
“So, let me get this straight. Everything good you do happens by the Lord’s acting through you. Right? Because your own will is so fundamentally sinful that you couldn’t will anything truly good on your own. Right? And in order for the Lord to act through you, you have to exercise your free will to choose to surrender to God’s will. Right?” He assented monosyllabically to each “Right?”
And then I came in with the syllogistic problem emerging from those propositions. “And so it seems that for any good to come out of you, you have to make basically one good act of will– to choose to be ruled by God. Or, put another way, what does it say about human nature that some people –using their free will, and unaided by the Lord– are able to make that choice for the good?”
He was quiet a moment. And then he chuckled as he asked, “Now, we aren’t on the air here, are we?” I laughed in return. “I’m sure there’s an answer I’m supposed to know. But at the moment –and I’m thirty-five years out of seminary– it escapes me.”
I agreed to let him escape me, and he said he’d call me when some good response came to him.
“Dear Andy,” began the reply that came in from Eric the following day. “I’m delighted to resume our conversation, and I don’t wish to disappoint you with my answer to your inquiry. But I really cannot answer it on your terms.
“You asked about the limits to the domain in which we are wise to use NVC in our dealings with each other. And I’ve got to tell you, there are no such limits. Ideally, all human interactions would follow the approach of Non-Violent Communication. This I deeply believe.
“I’m hoping that this answer –which in a sense does answer the question you put– gives you the help you sought. I can imagine that it would, for you intimated that your underlying concern was to learn how trustworthy human nature is, presumably in comparison with whatever else can be made of us. My answer to that one similarly involves no fine drawing of lines. Human nature is entirely to be trusted: if it is nourished and supported with compassion, it will give forth with what is most life-serving among human potentialities.
“I’ll welcome your taking this conversation in whatever direction you feel will best serve your needs. ERIC”
“Dear Eric, Your answer does seem to address my concerns, but let me make sure I understand you correctly. Are you saying that there are no circumstances in which relating to people in a way that is at odds with NVC is the best alternative? In other words, the giraffe is the only creature in your ideal zoo. ANDY”
“Dear Andy, Yes, you’ve understood me correctly. The giraffe-speak I identified earlier as our natural language –which I said does not require, in undamaged people, to be learned as a form of art– I am now also claiming to be in all instances the best form of human communication. ERIC”
At this time, world events had reminded me of the terrible crimes tyrants can commit against the people under their control, and of the agonizing dilemmas such evils compel lovers of justice to confront. Not long before, the Western democracies had been compelled to deal with two dangerous and unscrupulous tyrants– Slobodan Milosovich of Yugoslavia, whose forces had been engaged in mass murders and ethnic cleansing, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who seemed willing to bring about any injuries to his people in order for him to gain possession of weapons of mass destruction.
With all this in the news, and in my mind, I responded to Eric’s unqualified statement about giraffe-speak with a message that concluded thus: “So, Eric, I wonder if you are maintaining that a Milosovic, or a Saddam Hussein, or a Hitler, can most effectively be dealt with through the compassionate approach of the giraffe. ##I recall Tina’s once saying, in a conversation I had with her a couple of years ago, that if one could give a Hitler enough compassion and empathy, even his heart would melt in that warmth. Is that also your position?** And are you saying, moreover, that force –or the threat of force– is never the best available option for dealing with people like these brutal killers?”
“The most important thing I can say in response,” Eric replied, “is that if a Saddam Hussein or a Hitler or a Slobodan Milosovic could have been reached with compassion early enough –before he became the troubled and destructive person we see by the time he gets onto the historical stage– these kinds of terrible conflicts could certainly have been avoided in the first place. If their needs had been better met when they were in their formative years, they’d not have become the ‘monsters’ –to use your word– whose warped and destructive ways of seeking to get their needs met we have to deal with later. ERIC”
“I really resonate with your point about how people can be warped by their traumas, and how better nurturing earlier in the lives of us humans leads to more whole people later,” I wrote in return. As indeed I was, having written two books to explore how the traumatic effects of our history –as a species, and at the level of the individual– ramify back into the world, compounding the violence and other evils. As the world sows in us, I had written, so does it also tend to reap from us.* And –according to my understanding of the inescapable dynamics of the evolution of civilization — it has been inevitable that over the millennia the world would sow in us some deep traumas, regardless of the inherent bent of human nature. Hence, I was quite receptive to the idea that, if we could arrange for all God’s children to have nurturing and supportive experiences, we could be much more wonderful, much happier and kinder creatures than our recorded history has shown us to be.
But it wasn’t the value of compassion I needed to be persuaded of, but its sufficiency as an approach to the conduct of our relationships. So I proceeded, in this next message to Eric, to rephrase my question to see whether he would agree that, in some circumstances, given the way the world actually is, instead of how it might ideally be, the path of wisdom and goodness requires a person (or a nation) to deal with a potential adversary in an uncompassionate way. Not that one would stop feeling compassion, I allowed in this message to Eric. But would one’s actions always be empathetic, supportive, nurturing? (I used the example of the boy at the end of Old Yeller who is compelled to shoot and kill his much-loved but rabid and dangerous dog.) Would there be times when the best thing to do was to threaten violence, or actually use it, in order to control the actions of another person? Or would he maintain that one should always deal –even with a Saddam or a Slobodan or an Adolf Hitler– in that compassionate giraffe way that supports the flow of whatever it was that was naturally tending to come out of that person in their words and their deeds?
I found Eric’s response interesting but not entirely comprehensible. Eric mentioned NVC’s allowing for “the protective use of force,” but somehow it seemed he regarded that as compatible with the idea that the giraffe way was always the only right way to act in human relationship. He said something about how any time people are forced to do things out of fear, or in response to pain being inflicted on them, it does damage to them that ramifies in the world in regrettable ways. But it wasn’t clear from how he said it whether he was leaving room for the possibility that sometimes, nonetheless, acting to control and maybe even to hurt might be the best of the available options. I didn’t feel he was deliberately evading my question, but I still wasn’t clear just how he was answering the crucial piece that concerned the comprehensive sufficiency of giraffe as the mode of human communication.
At this point, I hesitated. Did I really want to get into that conversation, the one about pacifism, the one in which I had developed, over the years, such practiced and (to my mind) effective moves? The answer, I discovered, was no. And for two reasons. At the level of argument, it seemed too much –as the saying goes– like taking candy from a baby. But the more important reason had to do with staying focused on my larger purpose: the question of whether or not one had to deal with monsters like Hitler by other means did not really get at the heart of the deeper question about human nature. I didn’t imagine for a moment that Hitler was a clear embodiment of human nature. I was willing to grant Eric his earlier point, that if Hitler’s basic human needs had been better met he’d not have become the agent of death and terror in which he played his historical role. So it could well be true both that human nature needs only be nurtured and allowed to unfold freely and that when this does not happen, there will arise individuals who must be dealt with quite differently.
So, I decided to back away from what was the limiting case –should one fight Hitler?– for the most absolutist possible interpretation of Eric’s comprehensive assertion. Instead, I would take the conversation in a different direction, to test the limiting case on the other side. If the first kind of limiting case involves the most damaged people, who also wield great might that can inflict harm on others, the limit in the other direction would be defined by the most clearly undamaged people, who are most defenseless, and with whom one interacts primarily for their own sakes.
By which I mean, one’s own children.
When we meet them, our children are as undamaged as a person can get. And we understand our job to be helping them grow into the best people –in whatever is the most meaningful sense of the phrase– they can be.
I started out by sending Eric two separate messages, just to set the stage. In the first, I explained that I’d decided that my bringing up the problem of war and peace had been a sidetrack, and that, if he didn’t mind, I’d like to talk about child-rearing instead, since it seemed to me that would provide the terrain in which his assertions –about human nature, and about NVC– would be able to make their strongest stand. If it was OK with him to shift the conversation to the question of child-rearing, I said, I’d like to start out by asking him whether he thought that the best possible parenting would make any use of ‘jackal’-style communication, or if he was indeed going to maintain that it would be 100 percent giraffe. (And did I understand correctly that he would regard as jackal communication any effort to use guilt or shame or fear –or the infliction of any kind of pain– for the purpose of influencing behavior, and/or shaping the child’s character?) Then I asked him both if he was a father and, if so, if he would be willing for us to explore our own experiences as parents, or if he’d want to keep his family experience private.
In the second message, I indicated to Eric that, since we were talking about what approaches to relationship were ideal, or best, or whatever language we might use, I wanted to make sure that we had some basic agreement about what criteria we were using when we made any such assertions. Then I quickly roughed out my own consequentialist position, according to which that course of action is best that has the best results in terms of its overall impact on the world. And I would define the “best impact,” using the language I’d heard from him and Tina about “human needs,” as being that which leads to a world in which human needs have overall the best chance of being most completely met (with a caveat for other sentient creatures). And I asked him if his way of assessing goodness involved similar or different standards for evaluating different courses of action.
In response to both those messages, I got back a single very friendly message from Eric. He indicated, first of all, that he welcomed talking about raising kids, that our personal experience could certainly be included, and that I should feel free to tell whatever I wanted about my own experience and ask whatever I wanted about his. And yes, I understood correctly that a commitment to giraffe-speak would exclude any use of guilt or shame or threat of punishment. Finally, on the matter of my consequentialist criterion for saying what was “best” –he put it in quotes– he operated by similar criteria, and had been employing such a standard when he had asserted that NVC is always the way of choice: anything else will just interfere with the optimal chances for human needs getting met. And oh yes, he did indeed believe that at every juncture in a parent’s interaction with a child, 100 % giraffe and no jackal was called for.
So, the way was open to explore our respective views on what way of relating to our children fosters the best possible –the healthiest, the most whole, the most life-serving– human beings.
This was a most fitting time for me to have such a discussion with Eric, for it was a time I was struggling with some jackal-giraffe issues in my own parenting. These days April and I were more than usually embroiled with Nathaniel over how much he should be allowed to be self-governing and how much he should be regulated by parental authority. The discussions centered around the choices he makes about the use of his time.
Funny how some bones of contention keep needing gnawing. My previous book had begun with the “Nintendo Dilemma,” and that dilemma, though dealt with, never simply disappeared. Nat’s desire to play video games continued to be strong and, if we didn’t intervene, would have absorbed more of his time than we, his parents, thought good for him. And in addition to the problem of his doing some things more than (we thought) would be best for him, there was also the matter of his doing some other things less than (we thought) would be best. The lure of the video game, for example, could easily have kept him indoors practically all the time, despite our living in a beautiful, forested mountain setting of the kind that boys, in the pre-video age, have loved to tromp over. And then there were those worthwhile activities –learning about the world, challenging and developing his intellectual capacities, etc.– that he liked once he got into them, but that he didn’t seek much without our pushing.
To forbid, or to require– those are the methods of the jackal. The way of the giraffe allowed the parents to express their feelings, their concerns, their encouragements, their joy, their pain. But the giraffe would never exercise parental authority to impose upon the child’s free flow. All unfolding. No controls. The other person, in NVC, is always granted full autonomy. Free to be you and me.
In my role as a father, I do plenty of giraffe. But I also feel aspects of jackal summoned out of me.
With Nathaniel and his use of time, we do some forbidding and some requiring. So Eric and I were beginning this conversation about child-rearing at a time when my personal life was also confronting me with these issues. I began by telling Eric about all this, about my continuing struggle to find the best way to be a father to Nathaniel in order to help him grow into the best person he might be, and about some of my experiences with my two older children, now off to college and thus now pretty much self-governing adults.
Eric responded with his usual kindness, which was welcome since I knew that, with his pure-giraffe position, he certainly was not about endorse everything about my approach to parenting.
“I can tell you are a very caring parent,” Eric wrote, “and I expect that your love can make up for a great many missteps. (And we all make missteps as parents. I know that all too often I still come from a jackal-like place in my relationships with my children. It is not easy for people brought up as most of us were, and living in this society, to free ourselves of such influences.) But I also want to say, in keeping with how you and I agreed to conduct this conversation, that your imposing your will upon your child –forcing him on a course of your choosing and not his– is bound to create difficulties.
“In particular, whenever people are subjected to some kind of dominating power, it creates resentments. Have you never noticed that your children, when you compel them in the ways that you describe, have negative feelings about being treated that way? ERIC”
“Yes, I have noticed that there is a danger of such resentments,” I conceded. “That does concern me, and sometimes it’s led me to back off from taking that approach. I don’t want the results of my punishing a child to be that he or she feels wronged, rather than looking at the wrong he has committed. But the fact that negative effects can ensue from one course of action does not in itself prove that a better course was available. ANDY”
“Punishment– that favorite tool of the jackal. But it is implied in the whole range of tools. It’s implied by any kind of forbidding and requiring. After all, how do you compel except by the threatening negative consequences to disobedience? But just what do you think is taught by punishment, except that the more powerful person can use his ability to hurt the weaker to get his way? ERIC”
“Again, Eric, you’ve pointed out a legitimate concern about these jackalish approaches, and any parent who is not sensitive to such concerns is likely to reap some unhappy consequences. But, again, one has to consider the alternatives. If the parent never imposes his will on the child, will the results be better? After all, will the child not, if left free to make his own choices, make some rather poor ones? ANDY”
“I do not abandon my children: my way of giving them space does not prevent me from giving them the benefit of my experience, and the counsel that comes from it. And when they do, nonetheless, make choices that cause me worry or unhappiness, I feel completely free to share those feelings. I let them know my concerns about where their choice might take them, such as the future options they may lose if they don’t educate themselves well. And sometimes I even ‘scream’ in giraffe (meaning show quite audibly how deeply upset I feel). But nonetheless, I feel that they are their own people, endowed by nature with an innate wisdom I am wise to respect. ERIC”
“So tell me, Eric, about some of these choices your children move you to scream in giraffe at them, but not to exert parental authority by imposing your judgment upon them. ANDY”
And Eric then went on to write rather interesting and vivid portraits of his two children, a girl of fifteen and a boy of eleven. He expressed his love of both, and his faith in their growth, and then went on to tell about some of the areas of concern he had with each child. Neither did well in school. The girl, moreover, habitually ate junk foods, despite Eric’s oft-stated desire for her to eat healthfully, and –especially upsetting to him– was now a habitual cigarette smoker. The son, said Eric, seemed to feel powerless in his world, and tended to spend (waste, Eric felt) a lot of his time in front of the TV.
After reading Eric’s disclosure of all this, I wrote back a message expressing my appreciation of his openness and seeking to confirm that it was OK for me to share openly my thoughts and feelings about him and his children, as if we were intimate friends.
When he replied, quite promptly, that I should feel entirely free, I wrote back: “To my eye, Eric, your account shows the human condition to be more tragic than your faith would have it. You’ve said that it’s best for a parent to relate to a child 100 percent giraffe, with no jackal whatever because of the damage that the imposition of parental control does to a child’s feelings. But is it not possible that if you’d mixed a bit of jackal in with your giraffe, your children would be in a better situation now in their lives? I mean, might not the path of wisdom be something like 98 percent giraffe and 2 percent jackal?
“Your portraits of your children depict the kinds of problems I’d anticipate from just letting their natures unfold, unchanneled by any power beyond themselves. ANDY”
“When you talk about the ‘channeling’ by a ‘power beyond themselves,'” Eric replied, “I imagine you’re talking about the usual jackalish approaches that comprise most socialization in our society.
“Children are routinely taught through the use of fear and guilt and shame. They’re taught to regard aspects of themselves as bad and unworthy. They’re taught to distrust their own innate desires and needs. They’re taught to surrender their needs in submission to the powers above them. They learn that pain, and the fear of pain, are useful motivators in the realm of human relationships.
“Is this the kind of teaching you have in mind? ERIC”
“Well, Eric, when you put it that way, it does have something of a bitter taste. But is it not possible that, in the nature of things, there is some bitterness included in the overall flavor of life. (After all, there are some wonderful dishes in the world’s cuisine that contain quite bitter ingredients.) Whether the flavor is pleasurable or revolting depends on the proportions used. And likewise with those ingredients that you listed above, though they lack sweetness, is it not possible that some measure of these ingredients might improve the dish?
“Is it not possible that there are some aspects of ourselves that cannot wholly be trusted? Is it not possible that as children we’re in need of having controls imposed on us to help us learn how to subordinate of our desires and needs in some circumstances? And therefore, is it not possible that the best recipe for parenting includes some jackal ingredients? ANDY”
“In response to the idea that it could ever be right to not use giraffe (or NVC), my thought is, ‘How could that be?’ To me, it is so obvious that the evolutionary process that created us has given us so life-serving an inborn nature that I can’t conceive how the healthy fulfillment of our nature could possibly require the negative dynamics of the jackal approach. What can it mean to say that we will be improved by being thwarted? How could it be that our development will be furthered by our being subjected to pain? How will we become more whole if we are taught to think of some of our desires as unworthy?
“No, Andy. To me, to say that I cannot trust the way of the giraffe is the equivalent of saying that life cannot be trusted. It makes no sense at all. ERIC”
The Will and Its Training
A few hours after I got that last message from Eric, I was still contemplating where I might go next in my conversation with him. That phrase of his –in which he’d rejected the idea that giraffe might ever be inappropriate by equating it with the notion that “life cannot be trusted”– caught my attention. The idea that “life” is to be trusted seemed, in Eric’s mind, to be so self-evidently true that any proposition with which it came into conflict could be assumed false. I was considering questioning whether life’s trustworthiness was so self-evident. But then, another brief message came in from Eric, and it was from that message that he and I took our next direction.
“I forgot,” Eric wrote, “to ask you to reflect back to me in more detail your thoughts about my kids and my giraffe-style parenting. You indicated that my kids’ problems are the kind that you’d expect from a deficiency of jackal in their parenting diet. Could you explain what you had in mind about that, please? ERIC”
“The common element here among your concerns about your two kids,” I wrote in response, “points to the question: how fit is the child’s will for self-governance?
“Your daughter eats foods –chocolate and other junk foods– that are known to be seductive. They’re full of sugar and fat, and they give something of a rush of immediate pleasure, even if they don’t do such great things for one’s long-term health. Likewise, I gather –though I’m not a smoker– with cigarettes: the nicotine gives a rush reduces anxiety, but the cigarettes are also dangerous, both because they’re addictive and because they damage the body.
“Your son’s relationship to TV might also be seen as having some addictive properties. I know that I’ve had a strong sense that –for our son and, it seems, most other boys of his generation– there’s an addictive element to video.
“About your kids’ lack of motivation in their schoolwork, the issue is less clear to me. Again it could involve a conflict between present ease and future well-being– the old ‘delay of gratification’ aspect of morality– as in your concern that they may not be developing the internal resources that will give them good options for meeting their needs when they’ve grown up. Also, are there are not some disciplines that become rewarding only after one has mastered their foundations, and might it not be necessary for that initial engagement to be compelled, with the wiser will of an elder overruling the more ignorant will of the child?
“The great moral traditions of civilization have generally recognized that the will of a child is not the equivalent of that of a well-put-together adult. The immature will seems to have difficulty keeping immediate pleasure from totally outweighing even important future considerations. That’s but one example of where the well-being of the child may require that the its desires be overruled by some wiser will than it yet possesses.
“So might your kids have avoided these problems if you had told them, ‘No, you can’t eat that food, you must have this food instead,’ and ‘No, you can’t sit here and watch TV so much, you’ve got to come up with something more constructive to do,’ and ‘No, you can’t do that until you’ve done a satisfactory job on this homework assignment’? ANDY
“Why don’t you trust the child, Andy, to know what it needs? Is the organism lacking in native wisdom, so that it requires outside forces to push the child around that it might learn wisdom? ERIC”
“Again, Eric, it’s not all or nothing. Yes, the organism has wisdom. But that doesn’t mean the natural wisdom is complete?
“And then beyond the question, ‘Does the organism know what it needs?’ there’s the separate matter of ‘Does it always have what it takes to do what it knows is best for it?’
“I expect after all your giraffe screaming, your daughter knows that cigarettes aren’t what she really needs. Yet she returns to them. (Don’t we all have such difficulties? I know things that would be good for me, but that I don’t do, or don’t do enough–like yoga, and running.)
“When it comes to the will, I think of the example of Ulysses, who had himself strapped to the mast so that he would not be free to answer the irresistible –and deadly– call of the siren. He was wise enough to know he needed external controls to block the exercise of his untrustworthy will. Our children also face temptations, do they not? (And does not the whole concept of ‘temptation’ suggest we’ve got inclinations to which we ought not yield?) And do we not have to serve as the bindings that keep their Ulysses from answering the call of one siren or another? ANDY”
[poss chap break?: Unfinished Creatures II]
Beyond Our Own Needs
A while went by without a response from Eric, and I wondered if perhaps I’d offended him. How we parent our children can be a pretty touchy subject, I thought. When there wasn’t any message from Eric the next morning, I wrote him a quick message asking him if my way of talking about his kids had been hurtful in any way, or if there was anything else amiss.
He wrote back soon thereafter, assuring me that he’d simply been called away to other things, that there was nothing insensitive in my treatment of him. Moreover, he reassured me, if there were a problem between us he’d not just withdraw but rather would find him in the form of a giraffe at my figurative doorstep.
“In fact, I’ve really enjoyed our exchange thus far, and I’m up for continuing. For one thing, I appreciate the chance to articulate my perspective to someone, like yourself, who doesn’t fully accept it. I want to be able to reach people who are not in the movement, and you –with your appreciation of NVC, combined with your skeptical approach to things– seem like a good person to practice on. My only frustration is I’ve not converted you yet! :)” That was a little smiley face of the kind used in e-mails to signal benign intention and good humor.
“There’s another point I wanted to add,” Eric continued, “to show how my giraffe approach to parenting is more capacious than I may have conveyed earlier. While a child can be trusted to know what it needs, the child may inadvertently choose ineffective ways of meeting those needs. Hence, children sometimes need adults to help them learn good approaches to getting their needs met. For example, when a child of mine is trying to meet her needs in a way I think unwise –like my daughter with her sweets– I may work to help her become clear on what need it is that she’s trying to meet and then to see if we can come up with any better way for her to meet it. ERIC”
I found this a most interesting amendment to his position. This point, I recalled, wasn’t entirely new in Eric’s exposition– there’d been a hint of it in his earlier mention of how early traumatic experiences might lead “monsters” like Hitler to learn “warped and destructive” strategies for getting their needs met. But now to that earlier notion of developmental trauma, Eric seemed to be adding some kind of original ignorance as a reason why people might choose unsound ways of meeting their needs. Intuitively, I thought that –though Eric seemed to regard it as a minor amendment– this new point might open a big hole in Eric’s argument.
In Eric’s perspective, unlike Roger’s, we are to trust fully the goodness, or rightness, or fittingness, of human needs. The trust in the flow that permeates Eric’s vision of the human condition is predicated on the idea that if we but nurture and support the natural unfolding of all human beings –all of us engaged in trying to get our inborn human needs met– all will be well.
But now I was wondering: once you’ve admitted that our way of going about getting our needs met can go astray, because of our ignorance, what then happens to the assumption of the trustworthiness of the natural unfolding, free of jackalish mandates and restraints? What difference does it make whether it is the needs themselves that cannot be trusted, or our inability to judge how to get them met.
A line from the poet Robert Bly came to my mind in this context. Of his alcoholic father, Bly said that he “thirsted for Spirit” but that he “reached for the wrong one.”
Another little bombshell implicit in Eric’s addendum was the idea that we may not always know what need is motivating our actions. Eric’s trying to help his daughter become clear about “what need it is that she’s trying to meet with some activity” implies that self-knowledge may not be a birthright but an achievement. A person might say, “I need a drink,” or, “I need something sweet,” not knowing that needs more fundamental than those she recognizes are waiting to be discovered. Would Eric say this ignorance is fostered in us by an injurious world? Whatever the reason for such ignorance, doesn’t it have implications for whether parents ought sometimes exert control, and not just give counsel, regarding their children’s course?
Next I wondered if our confusion about our true needs and how to meet them might point to common ground between those apparent opposites– my interlocutors Eric and Roger. Eric maintains we can trust that our basic needs are good. Roger says we’re depraved. But perhaps they’re looking at different parts of the picture. Perhaps Roger would assent that at some fundamental level we all do thirst, like Robert Bly’s father, for something holy and good, and that this can enable us to make that turn –otherwise inexplicable in his system of thought– toward God. And maybe Roger’s sense of our depravity reflects his focusing not on our basic needs, as Eric does, but on how our ignorance leads to confusion about which course leads to true fulfillment and which to intoxication and harm.
Perhaps, at this level at least, good and evil are indeed matters of knowledge and ignorance. Perhaps sin is a matter not of our inclinations, as Roger had been seeming to say, but of our confusion.
I was thinking how I might write to Eric about any of this when the mail arrived, and in the mail I found a little package from Tina containing the promised book by NVC founder, Marshall Rosenberg, entitled Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion.  In an enclosed note, Tina indicated that she’d heard that Eric and I were having a spirited exchange, and that though she didn’t wish to enter into that conversation, she wondered if she might be included in the mailings. If it was OK with Eric and me, she’d like to follow the discussion.
I was eager to start my reading of Rosenberg’s book, so I ended up writing a rather shorter and less path-breaking message to Eric than I might otherwise have done, one that served mainly to let Eric know that I was still engaged with him.
“As you know, Eric, I am very enthusiastic about NVC’s continual focus on the importance of meeting people’s needs. And from everything you’ve indicated about your relationship with your children, I’m sure your children know you’re really on their side, eager to help them get their needs met. Your most recent message leads me to wonder — in view of the fact that we humans (and perhaps especially children, who know less about the world than we older folks do) are prone to error about how to get our needs met– might not some of what they need have to be imposed upon them? Given that they might mistake something that they want for something they need, is it not possible that they might sometimes need for their will to be overruled by the will of someone wiser? Is it possible, then, that part of our human needs is to grow up with a structure that contains some jackal elements? ANDY”
And I also asked Eric if it was OK with him if Tina were included in our mailings, as she’d requested.
In a few hours, I got a response from Eric which mostly repeated some of his earlier comments about the deleterious effects of the ways of the jackal, of such things as compulsion and of giving people the message that some of their desires are wrong or sinful. He talked about how moral language is just a life-denying way by which people attempt to extricate themselves from their true position in the world, which is as vulnerable creatures with their own feelings and needs. Rather than alienating ourselves, through this excrudescence called morality, from that real experience, we should stick with what it is that we need, and allow other people the autonomy to experience themselves in that same, universal human condition.
And then he closed his message with the suggestion that I get hold of Marshall Rosenberg’s new book, which was now available although not altogether out into the world. (In a P.S. he added that he’d be delighted for Tina to be included in our discussion–past, present and future.)
I wrote back to Eric, confessing that I’d neglected to tell him of Tina’s having just sent me the book. I’d begun reading the book, I said, and it confirmed my great appreciation of the spirit and the practice of NVC. At this point, I didn’t touch upon my having already seen that I’d be having the same reservations regarding Rosenberg’s apparently absolutist or unbounded way of looking at things as I’d been having with Eric’s, but said only that I anticipated wanting to explore some of the book’s ideas with him in the future. And then, in response both to the rejection of moral thinking that Eric had just expressed and to some of what I was encountering in the book, I launched our conversation in a somewhat different direction.
“Let’s turn momentarily, Eric, from the question we’ve recently been exploring about how well the human organism naturally knows what it needs, or how to meet those needs, and consider the question: what is it that the world needs from the individual? This question touches upon the moral realm, and I gather you have qualms about the use of moral language. So I’m not sure how you’ll deal with this piece of the human challenge: that meeting our own needs is not all that we’re called upon to do, that we must also consider how our actions affect other people and the larger human system as a whole.
“I know that it’s important to me, as a parent, that my children attend to more than their own fulfillment. And even if one believed that the innate wisdom of the organism were complete regarding seeking its own good, I don’t see how that would get one off the hook of that parental challenge. Given that you advocate a purely giraffe approach, I’m wondering what you suggest about this aspect of the child’s socialization. Is it sufficient to just give them counsel and encouragement in the language of the giraffe? ANDY”
Meanwhile, I also sent off to Tina the gaggle of messages that had been exchanged between Eric and me.
“I gather from your way of asking that question, Andy, that you see a significant distinction between our work to meet our own needs and acting in accordance with the needs of others. While you might be willing to concede that the first one unfolds out of our own nature, the other you see as somehow different, more against our natural grain. This need to overcome our alleged selfishness therefore provides ‘justification’ for jackalish approaches to parenting (and, I imagine, other aspects of social control). I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that I see matters differently?
“The solution to this apparent ‘problem’ lies in the fact that we human beings –by nature– are compassionate. This truth is obscured in a world, like ours, where people receive so little compassion. In a society, unlike ours, that did not inflict so much pain and alienation on us, our natural compassion would shine forth. We’d still want to get our own needs met, of course, but we’d not be ‘selfish.’ Our natural mutual caring would lead us to negotiate the best ways for all of us to get our needs met. ERIC”
“I’m probably willing to agree that in the unfolding of our nature there is an element of natural compassion, the way a mother cat naturally loves and nurtures her kittens. I suspect, though, that we also need to be taught compassion as we develop. Most two-year-olds I’ve seen have seemed preoccupied with getting what they want, and who cares about anyone else! I’m dubious that enough compassion just naturally flows out of us to restrain our self-serving motivations adequately out of concern for the good of others.
“In your system of thought, Eric, is there no place whatever for moral ideas to restrain our natural impulse? Is there no place for the idea of sin? ANDY”
I sent off this message, and then got back, by return mail, an automatic message from Eric to the effect that, as he was now embarked on a retreat of sorts to do some NVC teaching, he would not be answering his email for a while, and giving a way to reach him if the matter was urgent. Which I didn’t figure mine was.
Carved in Stone
A few days later, it was Sunday. Show time! This week was “Caller’s Choice,” the kind of show for which there was no way to prepare myself, except to be in good fettle and to be light on my mental and spiritual feet, ready to deal with whatever should come my way.
The first caller and I turned out to have something in common. He, too, had sin on his mind.
“I heard the show you did for Valentine’s Day, the one where your cohost was that woman Unitarian Minister from Minnesota,” the caller started out. “You asked everybody to call in with answers to the question, ‘What have you learned about love?’ Well, some of your callers that day had been in plenty of ‘love’ relationships –meaning they’d been sexually involved– and they talked about learning this, and learning that, from these various relationships. It was plenty clear that a lot of these folks had done this ‘learning’ in sexual relationships outside of marriage. Of those who had been married, a number of them talked about their ‘first marriage,’ meaning that there had been at least a second one. And what I didn’t hear was anyone who exemplified a good Biblical marriage, the kind we’re supposed to have: till death do you part, what God has joined together let no man put asunder. Like that.”
I let him go on till that point, at which he seemed to come to a stop, waiting for me to hit the ball back over the net to him. “I gather that you don’t approve of the way these people’s sexual lives have been conducted,” I said, “but I’m not sure where you want to go with that. In terms of this show, and the calls we got, I don’t have control over which people choose to call in to the show.” After I said that, though, it did occur to me that a good share of the callers were my Non-Areans, and though I do not determine who will call in, nonetheless it’s true that few of those favorite interlocutors of mine who comprise that group have lived their lives according to “Biblical” strictures.
“Where I’d like to take this is to talk about sin. What none of those callers seemed to have ‘learned about love’ was that some relationships are sinful, and others are consecrated. They talked about compatibility, and they talked about needing to be able to fight fair– and that’s all very good, I suppose. But none of them seemed to have learned that there’s a price to be paid for living in sin.
“But it isn’t just those callers and that week’s program I have in mind,” he continued. “That’s just a way for me to make a bigger point. Which is that in America today it doesn’t seem fashionable anymore to talk about sin. And if you ask me, that’s part and parcel of why we’ve got such moral chaos in America today, women having kids without having husbands, kids talking back to their teachers, leaders who lie to us, people forgetting about God.
“You know, the only time I hear any mention of sin any more in the mainstream culture –I don’t mean like Billy Graham on TV– is like in those advertisements that talk about sinfully delicious desserts.” When he said that phrase, his voice dripped with scorn. “Ours has become a society that can’t rouse itself to call adultery a sin, but labels some darned confection as ‘sinful’ to eat. Like our society is mocking its own core heritage. Or maybe it even means it! Maybe it thinks it’s more important whether a woman keeps her girlish figure than whether she keeps her virtue.” And he gave an unmirthful snicker, as if he could just see how the earth might open up and swallow our whole society for its iniquities.
I didn’t really know what to say. The caller’s complaint about the disappearance of the concept of sin, or its being mocked or transformed in application to delicious but overrich foods, was not unfamiliar to me. I’d seen that point made in journals of a conservative bent, such as the National Review. It seemed to me that those folks had a legitimate point, but also that there was something else to be said. But what that something else was I wasn’t sure.
“Not everyone who cares about our living decent lives,” I finally ventured to say, “is also inclined to use the same, traditional language as you in talking about it.”
“It isn’t my language,” he replied. “Talking about ‘sin’ is using the language of the Lord.”
“Do you feel pretty confident,” I asked, “that those people you know who use that language live more fundamentally decent and good lives than those callers to my Valentine’s show? Or than people whose wrestling with temptation involves ‘sinfully rich’ chocolate mousse?”
“Here it is. God handed down the Ten Commandments way back.” At this point, a joke I’ve heard Unitarians tell about themselves popped up into my mind, something about how Unitarians believe in the Ten Suggestions. But I kept that to myself. “And not a one of them says anything about chocolate mousse.”
The Evolution of Sin
Holding together in my mind the conversation with that caller and the exchange with Eric, I found some ideas swirling in a dance that suggested another free-standing essay I might write. I was struck by the contrast between Eric’s vision of the human condition (rejecting the whole idea of our needing to channel our unfolding with jackalish moral commandments) and the caller’s (calling for our submission to the rule of moral structures so carved in stone that the further unfolding of the human project was to be blocked). One was all flow, the other all immutable channel.
Perhaps, I thought, a piece could be written that highlighted this tension between these sides of our cultural spectrum, this failure to integrate the elements of flow and the control around the issue of morality. The fact that these voices were from the ends of the spectrum did not, in my view, make them of only peripheral importance. They were, rather, especially clear embodiments of widespread tendencies.
Deciding to begin with a certain kind of rejection of morality, I began a paragraph speaking appreciatively about the members of one of our society’s subcultures, people “who appreciate the wonders of our creation, who do not denigrate our natures as inherently depraved, and who grasp that we are embarked on a process of unfolding and growth.” I went on to describe how their appreciation “of the miracle of wholeness in evolution leads to a belief that we are naturally designed to unfold into all that we should be. Believing that we are, in some sense, created perfect, people in this part of our culture see no need for our bending to the yoke of any law, no need to train our wills to do other than what comes readily and naturally.”
Because of their belief, I wrote, that “we are somehow made perfect, they fail to grasp the strenuous challenge imposed on us by the process of evolution to create a wholeness that does not yet exist.”
Then I was about to start the second avenue of entry into the piece –the one inspired by my caller– when I suddenly grasped that this two-fold approach was going to be a clunker in terms of form. I took the problem under my mental wing to incubate while I did some pruning of my fruit trees, and shortly came back in with a different concept for the piece. I was going to pitch it in response to the caller’s point of view (the fellow with the immutable moral structures). The other (like Eric’s) I’d address only implicitly, by taking seriously the idea of sin as a part of our self-understanding that has had –and continues to have– an essential role to play in the right unfolding of our species.
By the next morning, I was ready to begin, and I started out with these passages.
New Sins and Old
“Sinfully delicious,” the advertisement purrs to us on television. The idea is that the chocolate confection they’re hawking is so rich that it obviously is not good for us. It’s one of those “sinful” desserts.
To some Americans who adhere to traditional, Biblical morality, this use of the concept of sin is quite galling.
Part of what they find galling is that the idea of sinfulness has otherwise largely disappeared from the mainstream discourse of contemporary American culture. So they find it offensive to hear this ancient and vital word applied –in a culture that regards the term as at best quaint, and at worse offensively moralistic, to use in relation to adultery or theft– to the consumption of cheesecake and chocolate mousse.
Then there’s the fact that the sinfulness of these confections is used as a selling point. “Sinfully delicious” is said with a smile, the hucksters of Madison Avenue quite openly and with levity playing the role of Tempter.
But there’s more to it.
It’s not at all unusual for the ad-men to put themselves in the position of Serpent in our Garden –“Here, eat this”– but it was not Madison Avenue that invented the notion that fattening foods were sinful. The idea was born among dieters, particularly among women wanting to retain or regain their girlish figures, yet also lusting after the sweet pleasures of rich foods. The sense of sin from succumbing to the temptations of the dessert plate was not, initially, expressed with irony. In some non-traditional circles, the idea of eating healthfully, and with restraint, has itself taken on moral and religious aspects.
And this, too, galls those whose view of morality is received from Biblical tradition. They see it as a terrible trivialization of a mighty idea to bring it to bear upon something so inconsequential as dietary indulgence.
In conservative, and largely Christian, publications like the National Review, in between essays decrying the moral breakdown of American society, one not seldom finds mocking denunciations of the “food police,” the liberal moralists who preach against things like junk food.
They do not like this invention of new sins.
Then I developed an argument about why it is not a sacrilege, nor a folly, nor a misappropriation of an important moral concept –sin– to speak of the widespread contemporary indulgence in excessive and excessively rich foods, in our society, as being “sinful.” To demonstrate that, I started by proposing the definition of sin I thought most meaningful and useful.
A worthwhile answer to the question “What is sin?” will be inseparable from an answer to the question, “What ways of acting serve life, and what ways injure it?” A definition of sin that seems apt in relation to our moral traditions is this: Those patterns of action that injure life are sinful.
If adultery and theft are sinful, therefore, it’s not just because they’re forbidden on some list of divine Commandments. It is, rather, because –by the nature of things– the lives of people in a society where such practices are widespread are less likely to be satisfying and meaningful than in one where such behaviors are eschewed.
While the consequences of adultery and theft have presumably been visible to people for millennia, it is only in recent times that the consequences of the unrestrained feeding of our faces have become clear for all to see.
I then proceeded to show how, with changing conditions, new dimensions of human conduct can come under the aegis of the old concept of sin. The change that has brought to the fore the problem of our overeating, and the problem of “sinfully delicious” desserts, has been the recent swift emergence of unprecedented affluence. From a world in which starvation has been a serious and recurring threat to survival, we in affluent America have entered into a world where it is excessive eating that is more likely to kill us.
New choices lead to new temptations.
A Sin of Abundance
Meats, fats, sweets. These are, historically, foods for special occasions. The fatted calf was killed only when the prodigal son returned. But we, rich as we are, kill the calf regularly. Our daily bread has been replaced by our daily steak, accompanied by French fried potatoes, followed by luscious dessert.
Our organism is not well-wired for moderation in such consumption. In the circumstances of our biological evolution, what need had we of an “off switch” when it came to foods like meats, fats, salt and sweets? Getting enough was an issue; getting too much was not. In the absence of an inborn off-switch, once our cultural evolution had brought us to an economy of general abundance, we depend on our culture to find ways of getting us to exercise restraint.
Part of the strategy for that is for our culture to teach us to regard that rich and luscious dessert as sinful.
Although it’s true, as the traditionalists complain, that this is a new application of the concept of sin, it’s also in important ways continuous with the concept of sin as it has always been used.
It is fitting for a moral system that has traditionally condemned self-destructive behavior to bring under that rubric the self-destructive indulgences of overeating. For the inability, among many in our society, to discipline oral cravings is killing us.
The cover story of the magazine is entitled “Our Love Affair with Food,” and the picture accompanying the title is of a rich chocolate cake adorned with berries and whipped cream. The magazine is Modern Maturity (May/June, 1998), and the purpose of the article is to let Americans over 50 know how great is the obesity problem in America today.
With the exception of a few Pacific islands, the piece tells us, quoting a Boston doctor, “The U.S. is probably the heaviest society in the history of the world.” And the problem is still growing. Between 1978 and 1995, obesity among American adults increased more than 60%.
This development is not only dramatic, it is disastrous. Excess body weight, the article declares, citing the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, contributes to the premature deaths of 300,000 Americans each year.
My interest in this piece was not, however, really with chocolate mousse. That was just an entry way into the more general challenge to our moral traditionalists to open the moral system, of which they are important custodians, to the necessary evolutionary adaptations required by the increasingly rapid transformations of our civilization.
Take the matter of environmentalism—i.e., the recently emerged idea that it is morally imperative that we bring our relationship to the natural environment into sustainable balance. The extraordinary magnification of the human impact on our fragile planet, in the course of a single century, has brought into our lives other sins of abundance besides our indulgence in sinfully delicious desserts. For it is not only with rich chocolate mousse that we indulge ourselves far beyond our need, with potentially destructive consequences.
If we drive around in sports utility vehicles for which we have no need, and consume more carbon-based fuels as a result, thus possibly contributing to a destructive change in global climate, is that not a sin? If, to keep the price of our daily bread down to a few minutes of our labor per loaf, we support farming practices that lead to the washing away of precious and limited topsoil that future generations will need, is that not a sin? If fishermen refuse to enter into agreements to cut back on fishing, and continue to plunder the seas in ways that are causing some fisheries to disappear, is that not a sin? (Is it not a moral matter for fishermen to know what to render unto seizure, and what to render unto cod?)
The preservation of the health and survival of society and its members –the same ends toward which our traditional notions of virtue and sin were directed– is now as threatened by our careless disruption of the living systems of the planet as by any other aspects of how we act. In our unprecedentedly productive civilization, therefore, it is as important for a moral vision to inflame our hearts with a passionate concern about environmental sins as about those sins long emphasized by our ancient traditions.
Yet the traditionalists –who do not hesitate to try to awaken us to the sacredness of the unborn child, threatened by abortion– regard with scorn the religiosity of environmentalists who see something sacred in the earth’s forests and waters. Marriage may be a holy institution as they see it, but they despise that Gaian heresy that would see something holy in the wholeness of the biosphere on which our lives, from moment to moment, depend.
The traditionalists deplore the sin of those who pollute themselves with intoxicants, but regard it as a matter of liberty to pollute the earth’s air and rivers. They think it a proof of sin that promiscuous sex transmits deadly diseases, but would regard as heresy the idea that the industrial depletion of the earth’s protective ozone –bringing about an epidemic of skin cancers– is, by the same token, sinful.
In a static view of sin, it is only those transgressions specified in ancient texts that qualify for moral condemnation. But in the world that we have now created, through our rapidly-moving social evolution, it may well be the new sins that most threaten life.
Then I decided to put in a brief passage addressed to something I myself had not understood until I had lived among the traditionalists and had given more attention to where it was that they were coming from.
To many environmentalists, the unwillingness of many traditionally-minded people to sacrifice some present economic advantages to conserve the long-term viability of the biosphere looks like immoral selfishness. Doubtless, in many cases there is a powerful element of this. But often, this view of the problem misses the more fundamental reality.
Many of my tradition-bound neighbors in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley would not hesitate to answer their country’s call to arms if the nation were threatened. Moreover, they would regard as irresponsible and selfish anyone who, putting his own well-being ahead of his duty to the larger whole, refused to make the sacrifice of putting his life on the line for his country.
It’s therefore not that these people are more selfish than the environmentalists. They are deeply committed to an ethic of self-sacrifice for the common good.
But tell these same people that they’ll have to change their poultry-raising methods because the run-off they generate is killing off the rivers and the Chesapeake –or that the tax on gasoline should be greatly increased to stave off the problem of global warming– and they’ll protest. Don’t tell us what to do. The cost’s too high. Government has no business meddling in our affairs. Let us live our own lives the way we want.
They sound –in this different context– much like the draft-dodgers they deplore.
It’s not that they’re hypocrites. It’s rather that their minds are tightly coiled round long-established concepts of what’s duty and what’s sin, and are resistant to any revision of those concepts.
The call to arms to protect one’s community against external enemies has an ancient pedigree. The threat from our fouling our nest or changing the climate is of a newly emergent sort.
Doubtless, every cultural group has its blind spots. And wherever those blind spots lurk, the tendencies toward selfishness and toward the obtuseness that protects hypocrisy are likely to leak out around the moral channels. But I had come to believe that the deeper problem with the traditionalists was not in that leaking, but in the rigid way they conceive those channels, refusing to see how even our sacred truths must continue to evolve.
Although they think that –once God’s once-and-for-all Word has been given– “That settles it,” even that Word they saw as engraved in stone needed, as I saw it, to be understood in an evolutionary framework. I started sketching out a section entitled, “All Moral Notions Once Were New,” including in it the passage:
The idea that we now face challenges for which our evolution did not prepare us provides another point of connection with the traditional ideas of sin in the Bible. There, too, we find culture trying to use moral force to deal with new needs that arose over the course of human cultural development.
Originally, we didn’t need the Ten Commandments either.
Before we became the creatures who were capable of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, our direct ancestors spent eons in that amoral condition that characterizes (at least most, if not all of) the non-human forms of life.
The temptation of sin arose only when our evolution brought us the degree of flexibility –the loosening of the governance of instinct– that human consciousness entails. It took some evolving for sin to come into existence, because it is only a creature that faces genuine choices who is eligible for sin.
Then I started to explore how the changing size and structure of human societies meant wholly new forms of social relationships which, in turn, could only work if people could be induced to behave in ways that had not been required in those little bands in which, as social animals, we had evolved for millions of years.
Morally Stretched by the Expansion of the Human Empire
It’s not that it doesn’t come naturally to the human animal to be a reasonably nice guy. Biological evolution also demanded that a social animal like us have some good qualities. As the evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane said in a famous line: “I would willingly lay down my life for more than two brothers, four nephews or eight cousins.” 
A creature like ourselves did not originally need morality to be more than purely selfish. Haldane’s remark –about laying down our lives for our kin– captures the survival strategy for a social animal doing what comes naturally: mere biology, by making the gene selfish, is enough to prevent the individual creature from looking out only for Number One.
Nature says, be ready to die for more than two of your brothers. Civilization says, oh, and by the way, you’re supposed to regard all these other people as your brothers. Love thy children is built into the creature. Love thy neighbor is a stretch.
With the rise of civilization, we’re told there are limits to what we should do even in the service of our own families, our own clans. Within the boundaries of the new larger societies, we are commanded, regarding people not our kin, “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal.” To disobey is a sin.
Thus it is that the Ten Commandments also reflect the evolving nature of moral requirements reflecting the evolving circumstances of the human being, the creature whose project it is to transform himself and everything he touches.
For a creature thus launched into perpetual transformation, a morality that cannot evolve will fail to achieve the purposes of morality. So our moral heritage is a treasure, but it will not serve us if its rigidity makes it a strait-jacket. What humankind needs is a melding of the power of moral tradition with the adaptability reflected in new moral ideas.
We need channels to govern our unfolding. And we also need to build those channels of materials that are themselves capable of unfolding. The channel controls the river. But it is also true that the river cuts the channel.
With that last paragraph, I felt I had said something, had hit some complex nail on its heads.
At that point, I sensed also that there was another related area into which the essay wanted to move. It had something to do with wholeness, and an expanding range within which the creation of wholeness might be possible. I wrote down a section title, “The Moving Boundaries of the Larger Wholes.” But then I sensed that this was not something I wanted to get into just then, and I set the thing aside for a while.
The Compassion of a Shark, The Wit of An Opossum
After the hiatus for Eric’s NVC training retreat, he and I resumed our discussion. In the interim, I had given some thought to how much further I wanted to pursue our exchange, or rather I had reflected on just why I felt drawn to continue the contact with Eric.
At the outset, I’d hoped for help in sorting out how best to combine flow and control to create the best possible unfolding of our human potential. But it had soon become clear that the purity, or absolutism, of Eric’s perspective foreclosed that kind of collaboration. I wasn’t going to join him in his ‘100%’ position, and Eric wasn’t about to budge from it.
It occurred to me that one reason I continued to enjoy exploring Eric’s thinking was that his particular ‘100%’ form of doctrinaire faith was one that had a deep spiritual appeal to me. My own spiritual awakening –in the era of my coming to The Parable of the Tribes— had brought me into the same lovely Rousseauian primitivist pastures in which Eric envisioned us grazing. That might be part of why I was attracted to keeping him company there in his utopian green fields longer than I might otherwise.
Another part of the continuing appeal of conversation with Eric was that I found him just plain likable. In all our communications –some of them of a personal sort, and not recorded here– he’d been most friendly and forthcoming. Earlier in my life I would have been more frustrated by what seemed to me an unconscious intellectual evasiveness in his responses to my probes. But by this point in my life, I no longer felt so upset when, in an intellectual chess game, the other party blithely keeps on playing even after, according to my understanding of the rules of the game, he’s been checkmated.
It was this very unshakeability of his faith, I finally realized, that connected with the last strain of practical justification for me in continuing to discuss these things with Eric. I wanted to stay in touch a while longer so that I could experience more the way he held his beliefs. Perhaps I might learn more about the needs and feelings that turn beliefs into inflexible doctrines. Moreover, even if Eric’s 100%ism was more explicit than most people’s, I thought his way of keeping his beliefs pure and simple manifested a widespread human tendency, and I might gain greater insight by looking more closely at it.
When Eric wrote back to me, he said that he didn’t believe in the value of the concept of “sin.” No surprise. He asked me if I’d been reading Rosenberg’s book which, he said, powerfully explained how the whole practice of labeling other people’s actions with these supposedly objective kinds of labels and judgments is a part of the problem, not of the solution. All there really is are people, each with their own needs. We’ll best fulfill our own compassionate nature, and get our own needs met, if we understand ourselves in that way, rather than setting ourselves up to “play God” by erecting such judgmental structures, as if we ourselves stood above whatever and whoever it is that we judge.
Eric quoted Rosenberg as saying, “I strongly believe that to whatever degree I support the consciousness that there is such a thing as a ‘careless action,’ or a ‘conscientious action,’ a ‘greedy person,’ or a ‘moral person,’ I am contributing to violence on this planet.” 
I wrote back and told Eric that yes, I was reading Rosenberg and indeed had completed the book and was going on to comb through the book and cull out the passages I found especially interesting. “I think it is a book of great value, describing an approach to human relationships that is likewise of great value,” I wrote to Eric in all sincerity. “If the world were to read and absorb its basic message, I strongly believe, the well-being of humankind would be profoundly improved. In the human interactions of our present world, I feel, we have a shortage of the compassion of the giraffe and a surfeit of the way of the jackal. More of Rosenberg’s way –an open unfolding of relationship from a place of vulnerability and compassion– could be very healing.
“At the same time, I find in Rosenberg that same tendency that has concerned me in my conversation with you: toward taking what looks to me like an important piece of the truth and making it out to be the whole truth. Isn’t there a danger in disregarding another piece of the truth? (In this case, the jackal’s piece.) Might not indulging our desire for simple truths disable humankind from making the world as whole as we are called upon to do?”
I closed by saying to Eric that I would be open to talking about some of this imbalance that I find in Rosenberg, or would also be happy to spare him my arguments, if that’s what he’d prefer.
To this Eric responded with his characteristic openness, saying that not only was he interested in hearing what I had to say, in case there was something that he might learn from it, but also that he might discover from my reactions something that would help NVC present its vision more effectively to people, like me, who were not as fully persuaded of the truth of the NVC vision as he was. And in addition, he continued to carry the hope that, if he stuck with me long enough if in such exchanges, I might end up being persuaded, and willingly relinquish my (partial) allegiance to the way of the jackal.
“Perhaps a useful place to launch our discussion of Rosenberg,” I wrote back, “would be to look at the portrait that emerges of human nature: just what is it that he admits as a legitimate part of our nature, and what does he exclude?
“The reader doesn’t have to go past the first paragraph to find out that compassion is assumed to be a given in our natures. Not only a given, but the essence. Most of his life, he tells us, he’s wondered, ‘What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature…’  Well, you and I have discussed my uncertainty about whether our being compassionate is inherent in our nature in the same unsocialized way as, for example, our developing so as to locomote on two feet. But let’s stipulate that we are by nature compassionate.
“There’s no mention in Rosenberg, however, of our propensity also to be selfish. (I know, ‘selfish’ is just a label. But then, is ‘compassionate’ any less so?) There’s lots in the book about our wanting to meet our own needs, but no indication that this desire might conceivably cause difficulties for other people, might direct us counter to that compassion that he emphasizes.
“And if there are problematic aspects of our natures, would it not follow that we need to develop some means of judging which of our wants are compatible (enough) with the good of the overall human whole, and which, for the sake of some larger good, need to be curtailed or channeled elsewhere? Rosenberg’s rejection of the whole idea of judgment seems to be based on the notion that there’s no need for any such adjudication among needs, on the assumption that there can be nothing problematic in our natures. And so he dismisses judgments as ‘alienated expressions of our unmet needs,’  as if we had no need to be able to stand back and assess, from some higher viewpoint, just what it is that we should allow to unfold, and what we might need to block or channel.”
I knew this wasn’t altogether new ground for Eric and me, but I thought it worth another visit, especially with the chapter-and-verse from Rosenberg to focus the discussion.
“I’d like to challenge,” Eric wrote, “your apparent defense of judgment. I’m wondering on what basis you think we’re qualified to pretend that we’re more than just ourselves, that we’re entitled to ‘play God’ and come up with these supposedly objective pronouncements from on high, as if we were not what we really are: just ourselves, vulnerable creatures with our own needs. ERIC”
“You make a good point in questioning our qualifications to set ourselves higher than just our own vulnerable and needy selves. My answer, in essence, is that it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. It is part of the challenge of being a human being to create the frameworks that allow us to create the greatest possible harmonization of our various needs, to help the unfolding of our human project be as good as it can be. ANDY”
“Yes, that brings us back to your portrayal of our nature,” Eric replied. “I don’t understand why you would choose to see us in such negative terms– like labeling our needs as ‘selfish.’ That’s the kind of teaching that’s been instilled in us by our jackal society to belittle us and to justify the frustration of our basic human needs. Those needs that are deemed selfish are nonetheless the product of the life-serving, life-creating evolutionary process, and they are good and beautiful. How could our natures be so fraught with difficulty as you suggest? Compassion si! Selfishness no! ERIC”
I enjoyed Eric’s occasional flashes of playfulness.
“Yes, I recall your mentioning before, Eric, that the idea of not ‘trusting life’ was somehow incomprehensible to you. But as beautiful and magnificent as life is, it also does have its problems. Should the zebra ‘trust life’ when the evolutionary process has made also the lion that drags it down to the earth to be disemboweled and devoured? Should we ‘trust life’ when our own genes can involves themselves in the generation of cancers that will consume us? Life isn’t completely trustworthy, is it?
“Evolution is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t necessarily provide a foundation for drawing the conclusion that everything about us is just as it should optimally be. What is there in the nature of the process that created us that can allow us to assume, for example, that we are by nature compassionate? That same life-serving process created the compassion of the shark. But sharks, too, are just creatures trying to get their needs met. It is possible for a creature to emerge from it with the wit of an opossum. Where’s the guarantee of goodness, let alone perfection?
“Which reminds me, just as Rosenberg defines some wonderful qualities into our nature –like compassion– there are some things he seems to define out as well.
“For example, take his rejection of anger. ‘When we are connected to our needs…we may have strong feelings but we are never angry,’ Rosenberg claims. And then he declares that ‘Anger is a result of life-alienating thinking…’ If we’re angry, that’s an indication that ‘we have moved up to our head to analyze and judge somebody rather than focus on what we are needing and not getting.’ 
“It escapes me how he can believe that. I wouldn’t deny that anger can have an element of such things in it– I certainly know how people can dwell in anger in order, for example, to avoid experiencing the hurt that they’re feeling. But how can anger simply be dismissed as ‘self-alienating thinking’ when it’s clear that the capacity for anger is wired into our natures?”
Eric sent a brief inquiry about what makes it so “clear” to me that anger is natural, and I responded by referring to how other animals than man exhibit anger, or rage, or such behaviors –and to the various psychological/physiological research into the rage centers in the mammalian brain, places that can be stimulated and produce a rage response– and then I concluded: “Are we to imagine that when a cat gets pissed off and bites at the hand of someone who’s bugging him, or when a dog growls menacingly at some intruder who’s threatening to take his piece of meat, or lunges to bite him, that the angry animal in question is engaging in ‘self-alienating thinking’?”
Eric was not persuaded by my argument, conceding neither that what we see in animals is properly to be called by the same name as what we term “anger” in humans, nor indeed that we can infer much from human nature from whatever it is that we might find to be true about animals. I wrote back asking if, when he spoke of evolution, he had something else in mind than what’s generally understood in scientific circles.
Connections and Dis
After I sent that last message out to Eric, I found myself wondering something else about his –and I thought maybe also implicitly Rosenberg’s– way of regarding evolution. It seemed that some evolutionary unfolding was taken to be sacred and that evolutionary unfolding of another sort was taken to be nothing but error. The evolution that had created our inborn nature was assumed to have created something rather close to perfection. But the evolution that had occurred through a cultural process was given no similar appreciation.
Now, with my theory of social evolution, I agreed that some of our cultural processes were troubled. But I still wondered why there seemed such a strict dichotomy in their thinking between the adaptations that occurred through biological processes (embraced as wonderful) and those adaptations that humans have developed through cultural means (dismissed as misguided and injurious).
I had felt for some time, for example, that Eric’s position with respect to child-rearing and character formation represented a fundamental rejection of the core of the moral traditions of all the main civilizations that I knew about. In all those traditions, the culture always imposed as well as encouraged; there was always a dance of sorts between the child’s nature and the cultural structures, between giraffe and jackal. Yet it did not seem to give Eric (or Rosenberg) any pause to simply reject as “alienation” what those cultures, as they struggled to adapt to the challenge of being human, had deemed wisdom. Nature si! Culture no!
Before I heard again from Eric, I received an email message from Tina. She’d been receiving the exchange between Eric and me all this while, and she was writing to let me know that she’d like to be taken out of the loop. Exchanges of this sort, i.e., those in the manner of disputation, she said, she did not enjoy. She preferred the kind of conversation in which all the participants worked to find what was most useful in what everyone said, rather than focusing on differences.
And then she went on to say that one important reason she wanted to stop being in on the exchange Eric and I were having was that it was interfering, for her, with the connection between her and me. As the two of us had discussed previously, she reminded me, the very deep connection we had once achieved in the intense early months of our correspondence had diminished in the past couple of years. This, as we knew, was for various reasons, she said, including how much less time and emotional energy she had now than previously to put into the kinds of sharing that we’d done before.
But she also felt that this exchange with Eric had brought into relief another aspect of the problem at her end. And she went on to express what she described as “deep sadness” at how she felt that she did not feel in touch any more with my essence. Though she really cherished this “essence,” and felt very grateful that I had shared that with her in some of our previous contact, she felt put off by what she termed the “layers” that she saw me as placing around it, and that were visible in my intellectual probings of beliefs (like hers and Eric’s).
By my essence she meant, I gathered, my emotionally vulnerable place, the place from which I gave love and in which I desired to receive love. And the layers that got in the way of her experiencing my essence involved things like my process of rational inquiry and my attempts to formulate judgments about what’s true and false, right and wrong.
Tina went on to say that she saw these “layers” of mine as a means to hide my essence. And she found these layers hard to respond to with the openness and appreciation that she would like to be giving me. And so she felt sadness both to feel less connected with me, and also not to feel able to give me as much from her own heart as she had formerly been able to do. And she wasn’t sure just what we might do with this loss of heart connection between us.
When I read this message from Tina, her sadness proved contagious. I wrote back to her that I, too, regretted the loss of connection. I affirmed that I believed that she had, indeed, known that part of me that she was calling my essence. And I thought it probably apt to call it that: in some sense, it is at the core. Her not feeling so great about my “layers,” to some extent I could understand, I wrote. If I had my druthers, I’d come more from my heart more of the time.
But I also said that I thought part of the problem might lie in her way of characterizing those parts of me–the inquiring, reasoning, judging parts. They were, perhaps, structures that had been built up around my essential core. But it did not seem valid, to me, to see them as being there for the purpose of hiding my core. They were not just dodges, or barriers, or ways of avoiding emotional reality. They were adaptations, expressions, elaborations of the life-force that’s in me, I said. That’s how I see them. It was not clear to me that they were any less fitting expressions of my essence, I said, than her own learning and practice of Nonviolent Communication were of hers.
The task of making this world as whole a place as possible, one where human needs get met as optimally as possible, required, as I saw it, the employment of my “layers” as well as of NVC’s techniques of compassion. So I regretted her seeing what I took to be my gifts, and their expression, as impediments to the good unfolding and not as valued tools for its accomplishment.
And I closed by expressing my hope that –one way or another, later if not sooner — we would find a way to reconnect meaningfully, though I recognized, with sadness, that this could not be assumed.
Meanwhile, as it turned out, there wasn’t going to be much more exchange between Eric and me for me not to forward to Tina. At first there was a delay because Eric was again having to travel. Then, after he got back from his trip, we exchanged a few messages that dealt not with the substance of our previous conversation, but rather with coming to an amicable ending. We both felt that we had gone where we were going to go together in such a discussion. We both expressed gratitude for the conversation, both expressed, in a genial way, some wish that the other had been better able to see the truth of our own arguments, and both agreed to keep the door open in case either of us were to wish again to engage in conversation of whatever sort.
The call was from Anton Berg. In the background, I could hear a Bach cantata playing. (I thought it was Jauchzat Gott in allen Landen, with the soprano and the trumpet intertwining in the praising of God.) After asking after me and April and Nathaniel, Anton said that he’d had the good fortune to shoot a plump and juicy butternut squash that was trespassing on his place the other day, and he just wondered if I’d like to come over for a lunch of squash soup and some fresh-baked bread. Beneath the humor, I thought I detected some loneliness in his voice. So, despite having some plans of my own, I readily accepted. Besides, in the wake of the exchange with Tina, I had reasons of my own for valuing some good fellowship just then.
The weather was warm and when I got there, Anton had set up for us to have lunch outdoors on his patio. It was an intimate space, with the house on one side and fringed on most of the other three sides by a combination of mountain laurel, growing naturally, and several kinds of cultivated flowering shrubs. And then in the one opening out of the intimacy, a cameo of a view looking off his little ridge and on into the distance to the tiny village of Hudson Crossroads. Actually, the village was little more than two adjacent churches, their steeples paralleling each other as they reached up toward the heavens.
Anton sat me down at the little table in the chair facing this cameo view –he must have remembered my great enthusiasm for this tiny landscape canvas in his otherwise enclosed garden– and bustled off to gather up the elements of our modest repast which, he said, were virtually ready to serve. While he was gone, I noticed on the ground under the chair where Anton’s place lay a biography of George Washington, the bookmark placed near the end of the book. It occurred to me that Anton was one of those Europeans I knew whose understanding of their adoptive country put to shame that of almost any native-born American. And then I thought of how, when I read Joseph Conrad in my teens, his proficiency with the English language –as good as that of anyone I’d read except Shakespeare– completely astonished me, in view of his acquiring this new tongue only after he’d already become a young man. While most of us struggle with mastering our first path –or perhaps don’t even bother to make the effort– some people show how a second path can be adopted and made as natural-seeming as the first.
“I see you’ve been studying up on ‘the Father of Our Country,'” I said to Anton when we’d begun our squash soup.
“Your tone, young man, bespeaks the prejudices of your subculture,” Anton replied. And, when I looked at him quizzically, he continued. “If George Washington were alive now to see how he’s regarded by his people, he’d turn over in his grave. The conventional people adopt the conventional view and revere him as a statue in the park, sitting on his high horse. And the unconventional, especially the intellectual people, see him as being as two-dimensional as the Stuart portrait that adorns the one dollar bill. (Not nearly the equal of that great thinker, Jefferson!) But hardly anyone really comprehends what a splendid human specimen this man was, genuine greatness cast in flesh and blood.”
“I plead guilty,” I said, “if indeed it’s a crime. I’ve never had much feeling for Washington, never really understood what the big deal was. Wasn’t he a pretty uptight guy, pretty highly controlled, conventional in his outlook, sitting on a hot temper? So what was so special?”
“What was so special can be inferred by the role he was able to play in the formation of a country whose conception was, itself, pretty special. The role of ‘Father,’ as you said.” Anton chuckled at the juxtaposition of the idea of paternity with the conception of the nation. “It was commonly observed among his prominent contemporaries, that it was the honor and trust in which he was held by this group of strong-minded men –not easily impressed, they– that made it possible for them to get it together to make a Constitution and get the new country on a sound footing and headed on a good path. Did you ever think about what extraordinary qualities it must take to command that kind of respect and trust?”
I admitted that I had not.
“Or about how hard it is to establish a nation that’s reasonably well-ordered and reasonably free? Think about all the nations that have been launched in the second half of the twentieth century, and how thoroughly most of those efforts have been botched. At the moment, I can think of only one person –Nelson Mandela– who might be said to have comparable personal stature and quality to George Washington.”
“So what is it that Washington had.”
“You spoke of his hot temper. Yes, it’s true. But who was the master, the temper or the man? That’s the key. Washington was a man of discipline. Moral discipline. He was committed to the right, and his internal governance was such that you could bank upon that commitment ruling over whatever temptations he might face to do otherwise. He would not betray a trust. He would not abuse a power vested in him. Any order on which he gave his seal of approval was likely to be a just one.
“Uptight? Maybe. But so well ruled by moral structures enforcing integrity that it was possible for the great diversity of his countrymen to put their faith in him and, upon that faith, to help found a nation.”
This was a perspective that surprised and intrigued me. Never having been a fan of Washington –he’d finish well behind not only Jefferson in my American pantheon, but also Lincoln and FDR– I was glad to have some idea to try on that might make sense of the fact that the nation’s capital is named after him, and that the highest point in the skyline of that capital is the top of an obelisk to honor him. But part of me still balked at regarding Washington as an embodiment of human greatness, one who points toward the human ideal.
Was it the fact that he had been a slaveholder? No, that wasn’t most of it. I’d been to Mount Vernon and, from talking with the guides, gathered that –as slaveholders went– Washington was an unusually good one. A man of Washington’s time and place and social class would not have received much help from his culture in knowing how to treat people of the dark-skinned race in a way that we, today, would recognize as truly just. Some allowance must be made for context, just as few of us –I would guess– will fare well when posterity looks at how much we, in affluent contemporary America, indulged our desires at the cost of the sustainability of the biosphere.
No, it was something else. And when I realized what it was, I began to express it to Anton.
“When I think of the human ideal, I envision a different kind of dance from George Washington’s stiff posture. I think of someone dealing more flexibly with the life force in him than that stoic warrior standing in the little boat crossing the Delaware at Christmas. I think of someone who allows himself to be borne along by spiritual currents more than did old walnut-crushing George. I imagine someone, maybe, like the tranquil Buddha! Yeah, that’s it. He seems so much more comfortable in his spirit than George Washington. So much more at peace. His way of using his will upon his inner nature was not like some horseman who saddles and rides some beast. Washington seems all channel. Where’s the flow?
“So, Anton, have I bespoken the prejudices of my subculture?”
“You have bespoken something, and not all of it is prejudice. About the Buddha, who knows how much perfection the man himself actually embodied. With the likes of him and Jesus, we’re pretty far removed from a factual record. When we look at a more fully recorded spiritual hero like Gandhi– well, you’ve read Erikson’s biography of him. A great man, yes. But quite far from perfect.
“As for the ideal you’re referring to, it’s a beautiful one. But sometimes, in the world as it actually is, in its still rather primitive and unfinished state, what’s needed is a man who’s got the rigidity of steel up his spine. In the Taoist tales, it’s supposedly enough for the righteous man to just go to where there is contention and disorder and, through some osmosis of his spiritual vibrations, righteousness and harmony will spread across the land. But in reality, I don’t think it’s so.”
“What you say about the need for the warrior reminds me of something,” I mused, trying to get it to come into clearer focus. “Oh yes, it’s something Washington’s contemporary, John Adams said. I quoted it once in a book of mine: ‘I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy…commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music.’ ”
“Yes, that’s very nice,” Anton agreed. “At each step, doing the job right allows the next generation to be less wedded to structure, more allowed to get into flow. I dare say that has some bearing on that book you’re going to write. No?”
“I dare say,” I replied, and for the rest of our time together, during that pleasant lunch, as our conversation turned to other matters, I was subject to distracting thoughts on just what it was that I might dare say about that very connection.
The discussion of George Washington as one embodiment of greatness connected, in my mind, with my exchange with Eric. Anton appreciated in Washington the very qualities that Eric –and perhaps more generally, the philosophy of Nonviolent Communication– would regard as unfortunate alienation from our true nature: the paragon of upright, uptight virtues that made him suitable for portrayal by a statue in a public park mounted on a bronze horse.
The people of NVC reject altogether any getting up on a high horse. Quite beautifully, in a way, they call upon us to speak to one another only from the truth of our own feelings and needs, granting every other the full right to do the same, unjudged, in an encounter on fully equal terms. Doubtless, the world could use more of that.
But they carry this invitation to the giraffe dance further into the assertion that there is no other place from which we could speak. They deny there can be any viewpoint –accessible to us, or perhaps even conceivable– that stands above the feelings and needs of each person and that allows us to speak in its name. To speak from the higher stance of judgment is rejected as a presumption that alienates us from our true experience.
Doubtless, there are plenty of abuses of this proclivity to pass judgment. But is it the case that there is no such standpoint? Or that we have no need of it? I had concluded that what is required of us to help make a good, life-serving order in this world is not identical with allowing our natural proclivities to unfold. And if that is so, we have need for ordering principles that indicate how much expression and consideration our various needs and feelings are entitled to.
Are we entitled to elevate ourselves above our natural level as mere creatures, and to presume to play God? In some sense, no. But in the absence of a Voice of God to articulate and apply the ordering principles we need, the only way that these principles are going to play their necessary role among us is if people sometimes step up and give them voice.
My conversation with Eric also brought home to me once again how the polarization of our culture impairs our ability to achieve the dance of integration that we’re called upon to do.
Each side in our cultural debate fails to give loving respect to the element of the sacred that the other side represents. Most of my own adult life, I have focused on the failure of the conservative side to honor adequately the spontaneous stuff of our beings. They have disparaged our nature as the locus of the problem. They have failed to honor it as the place where the sacred must bear its fruit, failed to recognize that no order can be sacred or benign except to the extent that it helps to fulfill our nature. What else can be of value, except for that fulfillment of those needs that lie at the heart of what we are?
But in more recent years, I’ve come to be concerned also with the failure of the countercultural tribe to which I belonged when my own spiritual understanding first took shape. The failure of my tribe, as I have come to see it, lies in not honoring –as also an indispensable part of the divine– the dimension that encompasses power and authority and ordering principle. Not just the flow, but the active channeling.
The right wing judges and condemns, without also revering and caring for, the natural creature. The left does not acknowledge the profound challenge of creating good order out of the wild, self-propelling forces that dwell within us and that we dwell among, in this still-unfolding experiment of life on earth.
The two-fold truth about the sacred. On the one side, yearning for the idea of the sacred flow. On the other side, an insistence that we should compel that flow to follow certain ordering guidelines. Yes, flow along– and do it this way.
You’re right, too.
 Steven Weinberg, “The Revolution That Didn’t Happen,” in The New York Review of Books, October 8, 1998, p. 50.
* Sowings and Reapings: The Cycling of Good and Evil in the Human System, Knowledge Systems, 1989.
Andrew Bard Schmookler, The Parable of the Tribes, 2nd Edition, SUNY Press, 1995.
 Puddledancer Press, Del Mar, California, 1999.
J.B.S. Haldane, quoted in Ronald H. Pulliam and Christopher Dunford, Programmed to Learn: An Essay on the Evolution of Culture, New York: Coulmbia University Press, 1980, p. 274.
 Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communition, p. 105.
 Ibid, p. 1.
Ibid. p. 44.
 Ibid, p. 105.
 John Adams, in Bowen, Catherine Drinker, Miracle at Philadelphia, Boston: Little Brown, 1986, p. 195.