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Freedom to Treat Others Well or Badly,
and the Essential Survival Function of Homeostasis"
B. Conley, M.Div., LMFT
might creat a 42% divorce rate in the United States? It might be
that instead of cooperating in concrete ways with the structure
of our human nature and the most intimate connection with our loved
ones, we may be contaminating our relationships with behavior that
is domineering, critical, demeaning, and intrusive. To the degree
we go against the way we are created to be and become, we will experience
pain and suffering, the pain of divorce (and other failed relationships)
being one result.
the other hand, when we are in harmony with the spiritual
dimension, we connect with others in a loving way, accepting
others and the entire world as they are, not as we
wish them to be. Even when the way we wish others to be
would be a relatively objective "improvement," acceptance
means giving others our "permission" to be the way they
are, though we ourselves are deeply committed to being
a different way.
The most practical emotional
and cognitive problem this
position raises is: "But what shall I do about things not being
the way they should be? Do I just sit passively by and
let things deteriorate while I am being loving and accepting
of the negative behavior around me? How do I know
I am not a wimp, not whipped? How do I tolerate the evil
around me?" Another version of the same question is "Why
does God let evil exist?"
Where we live, one application
of these philosophical questions
could be: "How do I get along with my spouse, when
he/she doesn't agree with me?"
is that we are all free to treat others in whatever way
we wish. We can be loving and kind or we can be hurtful with
our words and actions. The most loving thing to do is to accept
others and the world as they are, without being mean and
critical about it, and instead being loving and nurturing of
what is positive and loving. Yet it is difficult to "stay on the
and not do hurtful things in the name of what is positive.
we do hurtful things? In the words of Paul in Romans
(Chapter 7, The Message Bible, Peterson): "I decide
to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do
but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don't
result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me
and gets the better of me every time." Even though we have
the freedom to do what is positive and loving, we may find
it difficult to do so, and even do the opposite - do what is mean
and destructive as defined by our own values, thus contaminating
the spiritual dimension of our own lives and the lives
of those around us.
It is also
understandable that our marriage partner and other
friends can have the same difficulty that we do, that of not
always acting in harmony with their own highest values. We
may want them to "shape up" in the same ways that they, themselves,
wish to "shape up," though they might say it
can we understand this puzzle of our willingness to
contaminate the metaphorical bed we sleep in, the spiritual dimension
of our lives? Strange as it seems at first glance, we
may find that our actions are first and foremost designed for
personal, biological survival, and that we are unwilling at a
non-verbal (outside our consciousness) level to do what intuitively
seems to compromise our need to survive. Homeostasis
"kicks in" and has the upper hand, whatever we consciously
decide to think or do.
Let us examine the function
of homeostasis, and perhaps we
can see it as our friend, rather than our enemy, as Paul did.
In the early part of the 20th century, W. B. Cannon described
homeostasis as "the coordinated physiological reactions
which maintain most of the steady states of the body,
and which are peculiar to the living organism" (Walter B.
Cannon, The Wisdom of the Body (New York: W. W. Norton
and Co., 1912).
Homeostasis keeps us
alive in a primitive fashion, not requiring
any more mental ability than that of the amoeba, the
one celled animal that also uses homeostasis to stay alive
as long as possible. Humans, though much more sophisticated
organisms, also use the functions of homeostasis
to stay alive, a very positive thing, indeed.
My thinking presupposes
that our fundamental orientation as
humans is organized around our survival, first physiologically,
and then later psychologically and spiritually. As we
develop physically, we experience our need to survive in
more and more sophisticated ways as our brain and emotional
development through age 13 or 14 allows us to define
survival as preserving our importance, autonomy, and
style of living, as well as other less fundamental values. These
values are themselves built on our physiological development
through childhood, and are non-conscious as
well as something we may talk about in a rational way.
For example, Kevin L.
Ochsner and Matthew D. Lieberman, writing
in the American Psychologist (The Emergence of Social
Cognitive Neuroscience, Journal of the American Psychological
Association (2001). (56)9, 723), note that "By
about age four, children then learn that their beliefs about
the world may differ from those of other people and that
the beliefs that anyone holds may in some cases be false."
This is not news, you may say, but it is still another corroboration
of the genetic reality that each person is different
from others and realizes it, even at age four.
So we can
note this developmental reality as the physiological
and cognitive basis for adopting the value that it is OK
for people to be different, making that value commitment
the spiritual basis for accepting others as they are, even though
they may be "wrong" from our own point of view. We
can support this belief that each person is different as a
part of the homeostatic foundation for survival, so that anything
that would seem to contradict it becomes a threat, something
to be feared and defended against. We can know whatever
seems to support the principle that it is OK for us each
to be different from each other is nurturing and loving, to
be embraced with appreciation.
Then our homeostatic
power is used to preserve our fundamental
values. Our values may be modified to mean more
than physical survival. We may place a commitment to
freedom or individuality even higher in our hierarchy of values
than physical survival. We have the freedom to choose,
but in order to know what to choose, we must have a
hierarchy of values so as to discriminate between what is
more or less essential to our existence.
Patrick Henry, for example,
made his personal freedom more
important than physical survival, and immortalized his point
(and the developmental truth of every two-year-old) with
his words, "Give me liberty or give me death." This is striking,
because the freedom to decide for himself was elevated
to a level of more significance than physical existence.
This redefinition of the focus of survival pointed his
energy in a different direction than would have been true if
physical survival had been on a higher plane.
So, too, the woman who
is physically severely abused may
at some point stand up and declare that even if he kills her,
she will not put up with the abuse anymore and moves out
of the home. She, in that move, has acted on her reordered
values, making her emotional survival more important
than her physical survival.
with Patrick Henry could be described as having
redefined her homeostatic balance. Yet even that redefinition
is based on the physiological development of the
two year old who is beginning to master control of her own
body, and experiences the survival value of being in control
of herself. All mammals go through the came process,
but humans are able to consciously reflect upon the
experience and define autonomy as a value to be preserved
in emotional as well as physical terms.
Autonomy embraces our
thoughts as well as actions, feelings,
dreams, and values. All are under our control and
as such form an essential part of who we are. To be forced
to give any of them up is an infringement on our survival
as individuals with integrity. We develop a sense of
the homeostatic balance needed to maintain our values, including
a sense of personal freedom.
In the same way, my style
of life is a part of who I am, a part
of my identity. So an attack upon my style of living is experienced
as a survival issue, even if I agree that my style leaves
something to be desired. It is all I have, for now. Homeostasis
helps us maintain, within limits, our style of living,
based on the process of learning as children and adolescents
how to do things our own way.
we establish our own style, our own ways of doing things,
whether they are tremendously satisfying or not, we develop
a sense of homeostatic balance that serves to preserve
our identity. Then any confrontation that occurs over
"my way versus your way" may very well be experienced as
a survival issue, to the degree to which I identify "my way"as
an essential part of my personal identity.
The power of the homeostatic
balance is in preserving life, even
when conceived of in terms of our values, resulting in maintaining
our values and the actions that flow from them, even
when we acknowledge that our values are less than the
ideal. Our ability to continue learning and using our consciousness
to evaluate our experience allows us to realize
that our own imperfections are perpetuated by our current
wish to lose weight, but our body's homeostatic mandate
is "no." And there we are, looking into the refrigerator
for something to eat. This was Paul's problem in finding
himself impelled to do the very thing that he had consciously
decided not to do. We can all identify with Paul,
and so it seems there has been little change in the last
2000 years. But the change is in how we deal with the
human issue Paul described, universally addressed by
all from the beginning of human existence.
a short view of the history of the universe will help
us be more patient. To give a bit of historical perspective,
as outlined in the National Geographic recently, let
us review the current understanding of our origins based
on the latest scientific research. (Carl Zimmer,"
How Old Is It," National Geographic Society, Washington, DC,
200(3), pp. 78-101, September, 2001). The
universe has been expanding for the past 13 billion years,
with earth's beginning dating back 1/3 of that, around
4.5 billion years. It took awhile (around 4 billion years)
for complex animal life to develop, starting only 555 million
to 590 million years ago. Jump forward 55,490,000 years.
Scientists date the earliest discovered human skull as
100,000 years old, with human use of language evolving about
10,000 years ago.
Our written historical records of human
activity go back only about 3,000 years, or 1000 BC. Put
into historical perspective, if you think of the earth's 4.5 billion
years as one day, man's entry 100,000 years ago is equivalent
to the last two seconds before midnight. We have
come a long way in those last two seconds, developing
languages, our civilizations and a level of spiritual consciousness
that acknowledges caring for others as a high
course, from the perspective of a given individual, change
and personal growth come painstakingly and often
painfully slowly. From the perspective of the universe, which
I assume to be closer to the perspective of God, we are
moving right along. My conclusion is that it is important that
we each make our contribution to finding ways to build love
into our relationships and give our own tiny push in a positive
evolutionary direction. In so doing, we also reduce the
pain and increase the joy in our own lives and in the lives of
those around us. This is an "everybody wins and no one loses"
problem of evil is built on our limited evolution as a
species, though we have come some distance in the last 3000
years. The problem of evil is built on our freedom to treat
others and ourselves well or badly. At the same time we
resist changing even in a direction we define as positive, since
it upsets the biologically based homeostasis that has made
it possible to survive as a species.
also a way to think about the difficulty of personality reorganization
in psychotherapy, and the painful, slow process
of character change, even when done with the help of
a competent psychotherapist.
the envelope" with our thinking and behavior, by
listening to the emotional and spiritual direction that comes
from within us, and with the use of new tools, such as
eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, we can
be part of the evolution toward love and contribute our small
part to making the spiritual landscape more loving.
© 2001 by Benjamin B. Conley, All Rights Reserved