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"Our Freedom to Treat Others Well or Badly,
and the Essential Survival Function of Homeostasis"

by Benjamin B. Conley, M.Div., LMFT


What 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.

On 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?"

The reality 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 wagon" and not do hurtful things in the name of what is positive.

Why do 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 bad, 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 differently.

So how 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.

She, along 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.

As 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 homeostatic balance.

We might 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.

Perhaps 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 value.

Of 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" option.

So the 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.

This is 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.

By "pushing 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

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