It is hardly news that love makes us feel good. Most of us have experienced these feelings when we love and are loved. Indeed, spiritual seers have long told us that love is the key to fulfillment, contentment, and joy.
But love does much more for us, individually and collectively, than evoking well-being and pleasure. Our human capacity for love actually played a major role in the emergence and survival of our species. And now findings from both social and biological science indicate that love may be the key to helping us solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.
Contrary to the theory of “survival of the fittest” — where only the strong and ruthless survive — caring is integral to our survival. Infants require much longer, sustained, and intensive care than the young of other species. Consequently, the capacity for sustained caring and nurturing became a necessary part of our behavioral repertoire.
As philosophers, psychologists, and mystics have often noted, love contributes to the transcendence of self. While one identifies with a loved one, a child, a lover, a friend, thus including the other into one’s sense of self, there is also empathy for the other. So one also transcends the self in feeling what the other feels, even placing the beloved’s needs and welfare over one’s own.
This human capacity to care – which neuroscience shows is integral to our species – is central to creating the type of social system that will help us find creative solutions to pressing issues such as: How can we preserve our life-supporting natural environment? How can we close the widening gap between haves and have-nots, effectively address poverty, and end destructive financial practices?
To build this system we have to leave old thinking behind and embrace what I call a “partnership system” rather than the “domination system” we are currently battling. Placing partnership over domination will enable us, equipped with the right mindset, to tackle major systemic problems that currently seem too big to conquer.
These new categories transcend old ones such as right/left, religious/secular, Eastern/Western, socialist/capitalist, and so on. For one thing, there have been violent and repressive domination societies in all these categories. For another, none of our old categories take into account the whole of society — and all pay scant if any attention to the majority of humanity: women and children.
Relations in a partnership system – beginning with gender and childhood – are based on mutual respect, accountability, and equity. Activities essential for making the world a better place, such as caring, caregiving, and nonviolence – which in domination systems are off bounds for “real men” since they are stereotypically associated with the “soft” or “feminine” – are not considered inferior or unproductive. So in partnership-oriented cultures, empathy – or “feeling with the other” – can have freer rein.
We see the life-enhancing impact of partnership principles like equality, care, compassion, mutual respect, and accountability in European nations such as Sweden, Finland, and Norway. Here women and men are partners in both the family and national leadership, laws prohibit physical violence against children, and a generally high standard of living prevails.
In contrast, in domination systems family, economic, and social structures support rigid top-down rankings. Historical examples are Genghis Khan’s, Hitler’s or Stalin’s rule of terror, and the autocratic family patriarch of earlier times. Nowadays, we see domination systems in despotic regimes such as the religious ISIS or Taliban, the secular North Korea of Kim Jong-un, and at the family level in abusive parental behavior.
Social systems that orient closely to the domination side of the continuum are ultimately held together by fear and force. Beliefs and social structures cause chronic insecurities, fueled by artificial scarcities. Violence or the threat of violence, and constant battles for control by those on top, are prevalent. What caring children receive is linked with coercion, and all too often, with violence.
These dynamics create stress–often extreme. Neuroscience shows that stress can inhibit our capacity for empathy, mutuality and caring by changing our brain chemistry. Our neural structures become primed for fight, flight or freeze and identification with bullies and strong-man leaders as well as denial. In such an environment, it is difficult at best for love’s positive impact to prevail.
But we have the power to begin shifting away from cultures that skew toward domination. There is incontrovertible evidence that the human brain is flexible. Through the interaction between genes and our lived experience, behavior patterns become woven into our individual and social fabric over time. A lived experience couched in love and empathy leads to a shift away from selfish, cruel behavior and toward the pro-social, cooperative, nurturing behavior that brain scans show we are naturally inclined toward. I talk more about this in my new book, Nurturing Our Humanity.
With love, caring, and empathy as vital foundations, here are steps we all can take:
- Shift away from cultural narratives that perpetuate the erroneous notion that human nature is inherently cruel and selfish, justifying the persecution and subordination of “inferior” beings and presenting the control of females by males as normal.
- Replace these with partnership narratives, especially in the socialization and education of children.
- Come together to end traditions of domination and violence in parent-child and gender relations: the relations children first experience and observe, impacting how their brains develop – and what they grow up to consider normal, moral, inevitable.
- Take concrete steps to reduce the staggering rates of abuse and violence against children worldwide — the foundations on which domination systems keep rebuilding themselves, whether secular or religious, Eastern or Western.
- Reverse the devaluation of women and activities stereotypically associated with the “feminine” such as caring, caregiving, and nonviolence – whether in women, men, or fiscal policy.
- Recognize the enormous value of the essential work of caring for people, starting in early childhood, and caring for nature, by assigning it real, economically quantifiable value.
In a virtuous cycle, these steps will, in turn, help enhance the conditions in which love can thrive.
Riane Eisler’s new book Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future is out now.
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