Circling the Wagons – January 16, 2017

AAUW Presentation
Martin Luther King Day, January 16, 2017
Grand Rapids, MN

Circling the Wagons:
Why We Protect Ourselves from Change and What to Do About It


  • In this presentation I hope to address some aspects of the biology, culture, and psycho-spirituality of our relationship to change in society, especially in regard to people different from ourselves.  I plan to talk about some of the myths that get in the way of living freely and heartily in a time of change and suggest ways to broaden the nature of our relationships to ourselves, others, and the world at large.
  • I think that we can agree that we appear to be living in an era of surprising and unusually fast-moving change.  Change is not new, of course, but people everywhere in the whole world are experiencing it at a breath-taking speed and in terms that they – we – were not predicting.
  • I say “breath-taking” because I noticed recently that my friends and I were increasingly talking in more incredulous tones:  a sort of breathless “did you hear what he said today?”   I don’t suppose I need to make that reference clearer.  Let me just say right now that I do not intend to talk directly about politics today, which may come as a relief to you.
  • No, we have bigger fish to fry given where our society and the world appears to be headed.  We need to seek a bigger view than mere politics.  I believe that what we need is to understand the human condition better, and we need bigger and better paradigms than social policies that include political correctness, for example, because clearly these are not working.
  • Something is afoot that is asking for an alternative perspective.  It can no longer be “business as usual.”
  • I do believe that the current rate of change has to do with the emerging communication technologies and their increasing availability even to very low-income peoples all over the world.  The effects include that now we know much more about people everywhere, how they are living and what they are experiencing, but I think more significantly what they are feeling and how they are motivated.
  • At the same time, it can be said that from the social science and psycho-spiritual perspective, what we are learning about people is not so much new as that the communication technologies are taking the lid off traditional social control mechanisms:  you can now tweet the world when you are about to be murdered by your own government or when you think a corporation should keep manufacturing jobs in your own country.
  • Lest I sound naïve at this point, let me acknowledge that this same capacity is also making it possible to disseminate socially and politically dangerous propaganda at an unprecedented depth of reach.  And, we might include advertising in that.
  • The new communication technologies, in the meantime, are also undermining skilled professional journalism, the ethics of which used to include a commitment to as unbiased a point of view as humanly possible, as well as to a sincere search for and representation of facts.
  • Yet, if you are a teacher, you will have heard that even university students can no longer define what a fact might be.  Is this perhaps why so many people in the United States today have so very little respect for science?
  • But I don’t want to talk directly about science today either, because it suffers from the same fatal flaw as politics and social policy – the view of human subjectivity and motivation as nothing more than a nuisance and confounding variable when in fact it drives the way we organize everything.  This is actually my topic today.

Biology (the not kid-friendly part of this talk)

  • Let me start with some biology as I build a human being for you (to put it a little overconfidently perhaps) from the ground up; what, after all, is a human being from this perspective?  Nineteenth century wags described us as “featherless bipeds.”  (Do you remember the 1960s’ expression for girls?  Birds!  And today in some circles people say “chicks.”  Somehow this description seems to keep hanging on.)
  • From a physical anthropology point of view, we are an ape, albeit the most adaptable and clever one.  We are not highly specialized biologically which is a big part of how it has been possible for our species to colonize the entire planet except Antarctica (and the only reason for that is that there are not enough animals to hunt for food there).
  • Many people are repulsed by the biological perspective because as human beings we privilege our intellectual and spiritual capacities; we simply don’t like thinking of ourselves as another animal, but this doesn’t make biology go away.  What are some significant adaptations and behaviors that we share with other animals including apes?
  • Here is a brief list:  we are born and we die; our bodies disintegrate (unless your bones are fossilized through extraordinary coincidence).  We are conceived on the basis of two opposite sex individuals coming together in an embrace that has often been preceded by courtship displays and sometimes coercion.
  • Courtship and procreation is based a lot on perceived compatibility of pheromones (modern petroleum-based perfumes not withstanding) and males’ innate ability to detect levels of fertility in females, which are indicated especially by hip dimensions (yes, “baby got back” . . . .)
  • The rearing of the young is largely up to the female of the species, in large part due to her ability to lactate.
  • Males tend to be violent with each other and territorial, and these behaviors increase exponentially when they are confronted by members of groups other than the one to which they belong.
  • There is a strong tendency to collect harems of females and monogamy is an exception among species, not a norm.  All the social species also organize themselves into “pecking orders” in terms of individual strength and aggression which is enforced ruthlessly, including by females.
  • Violence towards others, especially females, takes the form of rape.  And when one group of apes takes over another group, which happens in a bid for more territory, the violence often includes killing off all the young.
  • I’m sorry, but does any of this sound familiar?  Here’s a hint:  war crimes.  Our species carries out precisely all these same behaviors.
  • At the same time, note that all mammals, which of course includes the apes, also share all the same emotional capacities; that is, if the animal has a brain with a limbic system, then it can also feel exuberance, sadness, longing, and anger.  And their brains use all the same neurotransmitters.  How many of you have heard of oxytocin, the bonding hormone?  Dare I say it – they are like us, we are like them.
  • All animals learn and have awareness; they are not inanimate machines.  Animals exhibit intentionality; they are not mere stimulus/response mechanisms as we were still being taught only forty years ago.  These includes species that aren’t even mammals.
  • All animals also communicate, and this includes insects and plants; consider that plants are composed of living cells.  So, even in the case of plants, there is the ability to perceive danger, and they exhibit strategies to protect themselves.  We are in fact part of a massive web of life and biologically, we share its fate while fighting to the death to preserve ourselves.


  • The American philosopher Mortimer Adler wrote a book that captured my attention when I returned to college in my late twenties and continues to hold it:  The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes (1967).  After all these years and all my studies, I still find his essential argument valid:  although we are indeed a biological creature, it is not the only valid way to perceive our species and we do indeed bring something different to bear on the world.  What is that difference?
  • It is that we are also a meaning-making being, a symbolizing creature, a creature capable of creating systems of thought that helps us to adapt and to sustain ourselves.  Our capacity for this does seem to go beyond what our biology would indicate, the frontal lobes of our brains notwithstanding, which is to say that there really is no satisfactory biological explanation yet as to how we are able to do the things that we do with our brains.  The creativity of the human species transcends the biology, which is to say that it is a broader capacity.
  • Culture is a highly complex system of meanings and problem-solving strategies that must be taught; furthermore, we have become a creature that is now dependent on culture, right down to the cellular level.  That is, culture also organizes our biology.
  • And the latest and greatest findings along these lines indicate that even genetic expression is influenced by culture.  In fact, neither physical nor social science can draw lines as to where biology and culture begin or end; they are reciprocal and intertwined.
  • Meaning, therefore, is as significant as biology; there is therefore no longer any real nature-versus-nurture debate because we are recognizing that both are important.
  • Currently, we are witnessing a rise in political and religious fundamentalism in several major regions of the world including in this country, not unlike what happened in Europe between the world wars.  This is an example of cultural defensiveness, just as violence and territorialism are examples of biological defensiveness.
  • And indeed we find that the more abject the social condition of a human group is, which is to say suffering from lack of the most basic needs, the greater the odds are that people will be attracted to meaning systems that promise them what they lack.  This can include power and influence over their own lives.  Thus, poverty and also the perceived lack of a viable future are the single biggest risk factors in today’s world for dangerous fundamentalism because its adherents having nothing left to lose.

The psycho-spiritual dimension (also known as the personal and transpersonal)

  • Since World War II, most of the sciences and even much of modern philosophy has come to agree that we are not, after all, a primarily rational creature.  Rather, we use rationality to carry out our motivations and intentions.  That is, we can be described more accurately as a psychological creature.  So, instead of “I think, therefore I am,” we should be saying, “I want, therefore I do.”   Doing here includes thinking, which is a very powerful tool, no more or less.
  • Psychologically, then, it is well-known that people are generally unconsciously motivated in mainly one of only three ways:  security and survival, which tends to translate into fearfulness; power and control, which tends to play out against other people; and the search for affection and esteem, which tends to translate into extreme goal orientation and competitiveness.
  • Notice how there is a connection to biology here as these motivations assist in helping to ensure our place in relation to the social and physical environment in which we find ourselves.  The problem, however, is that without personal conscious awareness these motivations tend to result in personality distortion which is, once again, defensive.
  • At this point, are you noticing a theme?
  • When we encounter the new, the different, and the Other, we tend to react defensively – biologically, culturally, and psychologically.  This is human nature.  We can think of it as tribal. We circle the wagons and hunker down unless we are confronted directly, at which point we are quite ready to resort to violence.
  • This is why “civilization” can seem like such a thin veneer, because I believe in fact it is.    Nationalism and its milder cousin patriotism, for example, are simply dressed-up versions of biological, cultural, and psychological defensiveness and they can be very dangerous.  Think World War II.
  • (Is all this simply a curmudgeonly view of the human condition?  Let me reassure you that there is indeed more to the story.  The other day, I was in a stationery store at the check-out and a friend of mine comes up behind me and slaps a package of printer paper down on the counter and points at the description on the package, which says “no-jam paper” and then says, with mock outrage, “Look at that!  They’re selling the jam separately now!”)
  • There are indeed other human capacities related to the psychological and the creative and I hinted at it by using the verb transcend and by alluding to the transpersonal.  So, in art, literature, and the mystic dimensions of religion, for example, we can find described a certain something else which I would like to define as a deep intuition about the universe and reality not simply being a kind of shadow box in which we move the furniture around; rather, Reality – the Universe – is a vast, endless Whole of which we ourselves are an extension or manifestation and we also influence it.
  • There is nothing separate in this reality.  There is at base only a Oneness.  It is from this type of perception that we can cultivate a different relationship to ourselves, the environment, and each other.  Perhaps most significantly, from this type of perception we can transcend our limited animal reactivity.
  • This does not mean getting rid of it; it means coming into a different relationship to it and with it as part of what exists.
  • (I will be saying more about how to do this).
  • First, however, what are some of the myths that inhibit us from bothering with finding a broader perspective other than the tribal one?  Note that they are all somewhat related to each other.


  1. That we are “all the same”:  we are the same in terms of biological needs, but human beings are decidedly different in terms of cultural and personal meaning-making.  Thus, thinking in terms of “everybody just wants the same things” is simplistic; it can refer only to the most basic of creaturely needs which includes the well-being of one’s own children.
  1. That one particular religion, form of government or education could solve all human problems:  this is wishful thinking and could only be remotely plausible if all human beings had been raised in the same culture.  Even then only “remotely,” because there is still individual difference, which is both biological on the basis of temperament and psycho-spiritual.
  1. Someone or something “out there” has the solution:  again, this is wishful thinking and childlike.  The societal problems we have are largely our own creation, therefore it behooves us to create something different if we want a different outcome.  Goethe reputedly said that God gave us nuts to eat but we have to crack them open ourselves . . . .   And then there was Einstein who pointed out that we’d have to use a different kind of thinking than the kind we used that got us to where we find ourselves.
  1. Just wait it out and the problem will resolve itself:  this is a passive-aggressive stance towards life, aggressive because it is intentionally non-involved; it also caves into entropy, that downward dragging force inherent in every material thing including our physical bodies;
  1. “It’s not my problem”:  this attitude is famously captured in a “statement and poem [known as “First they came”] written by Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group” [Wikipedia]:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

  • I am not advocating activism today; as you will see, I am suggesting what I believe to be a more important and basic starting place, one which I think we are neglecting and are being called to remedy.  However, you may find yourself moved to activism but it won’t be sustainable without a deeply grounded personal foundation.
  • So, what can we do about our deep and pervasive defensive tendencies?
  • The single most important step is to cultivate a certain kind of awareness, and this must begin with ourselves.  If we begin with others – other people – we have only two recourses:  top-down analytic approaches which are precisely what do not appear to work over the long haul; and violent reform which by definition would be based on force and therefore questionable morality.
  • There you have the history of every revolution, all of which eventually fail.  Those of us in our 60s today, for example, have experienced the Berlin wall both go up and come down, and with it the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  • Furthermore, we tend to be no more aware of others and their needs than we are of our own; without the kind of awareness I am talking about, we are in fact only seeing ourselves in others – we are not seeing them.
  • I believe that we need cultural change but the solution will never be merely political because that is always about power, which creates its own resistance.  The anthropological record shows that culture changes when people’s needs are no longer being met.  Note, however, that human needs are not only biological.  As I have tried to show, they include creating coherent meaning at both the cultural and psycho-spiritual levels.
  • In other words, this is a deeply personal as well as cultural process, and neither personal psychology nor culture will change substantially if meanings are merely imposed.  Example:  “bringing democracy to Iraq.”  This, I believe, has also been the problem with “political correctness” – because you can’t mandate a change of heart.
  • So, the growth in awareness that all this entails, like happiness, is an “inside job” – it cannot be done for you; you have to seek it yourself – you have to be personally motivated – and you have to work on it.
  • Here are some questions to get you started:  Ask yourself,

What kinds of situations do I hate?

What kinds of people do I dislike extremely?

What kinds of change make me very nervous?

Now ask yourself, what do my answers tell me about myself and what I think I need?

  • What you are likely to discover is that there is a disconnect between your dislikes and your needs; in other words, for example, you may not like people who seem very different from yourself but that does not mean that your actual needs require that everyone around you appear just like yourself.  Our needs are actually quite simple; it is our meaning-making that introduces problems.
  • Becoming aware can be a harrowing journey as we stand to discover some not very pleasant things about ourselves.  However, it is only with personal awareness that we can make true and authentic choices.
  • So, here is a list of ways – actually practices – for beginning to take a broader, less defended view:
  1. Be curious; make fewer assumptions about other people and situations; talk to people; ask them sincere questions about their hopes, plans, and desires;
  1. Be the change you wish to see (Gandhi):  what does your own life demonstrate?  Is it actually a reflection of what you most deeply value?  Or do you just talk a lot?
  1. Most importantly, put your mind into your heart, meaning put your mind in the service of that much greater perceptive ability you already have, that of sympathetic resonance (as Cynthia Bourgeault outlines in her book, The Heart of Centering Prayer:  Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice, 2016.  Page 120).
  • This is not simply subordinating thinking to feeling; it is operating from your whole self instead of only the intellect which is by definition a very narrow thing not up to what John Kabbat-Zinn calls “full catastrophe living.”
  • Let me give you an example:  there was a Western photojournalist in Africa struggling with whether or not to interfere with an eagle about to attack a dying child as she stood there with her camera . . . .  (What was the nature of this struggle for her?)
  • Another very common example:  when trying to talk about the plight of hungry children in our society, for example, and the only responses you get are theoretical and ideological.
  • When one becomes adept at shifting one’s perception on the basis of practices like these, many issues become crystal clear intellectually, psychologically, and morally.
  • You will generally know what to do in the moment and you will be living much more freely and heartily, versus from some automatic and deeply unconscious script you yourself may not even have written!  You will also inflict far less violence on others.  (Consider how we do violence to one another by, for example, not even listening to each other.)
  • We then stand to become whole persons who can welcome and cooperate with others; we can be assertive when necessary because we are speaking and acting from integrity instead of social role; and we naturally become a force for good in our own circles of influence.
  • In conclusion, let me say I believe that the rationalist project of the West is failing.  We need a new kind of radical engagement predicated on an open-heartedness that responds to what life presents in the moment.  This is a call to living deliberately and fully with courage and spontaneity in the moment.  This is a different kind of fierceness that dares to confront the monolithic thinking that builds the walls and can take it down brick by brick.

Copyright Sylvia Olney 2017

One Comment

  1. You have hit it on the head!

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