Pondering the season of kindness

(The Charleston Gazette - 12/17/2002)

By James A. Haught

This season of holidays - Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan - always stirs the humane instinct in people, a yearning for more compassion in the tormented world.

That's why so many charity drives are held at this time: because the subtle mood change makes nearly everyone a bit kinder, more caring, more eager to help others.

An amazing demonstration of it happened at Christmas, 1914, during the sickening slaughter of World War I. German and Allied soldiers in their muddy trenches heard each other singing carols in the distance and began serenading each other across No Man's Land. A spontaneous truce developed, and the enemies met amid barbed wire, chatting and exchanging small gifts of candy and food - then resumed killing each other after the holidays.

Year after year at this time, I ponder a puzzle: Since an innate sense of kindness obviously lies inside every person, flowering at the holiday season, why doesn't that instinct do more to prevent the terrible cruelties that people inflict upon each other around the planet? Why is humanity such a self-contradiction?

One of my heroes was Carl Sagan, the brilliant astronomer who imparted poetic wisdom in his many science books. His sister, Cari Greene, lived in Charleston for several years. She donated bone marrow repeatedly in a doomed attempt to save him as he succumbed to a leukemia-like disease in 1996. Through conversations with her, I felt almost like a neighbor to the Sagan family.

In one of his final books, "Pale Blue Dot," Sagan wrote a profound observation that has been quoted many times, and even made into a poster. He adapted it for commencement talks to university students. The astronomer displayed a photo taken from the Voyager I spacecraft, looking back from 3.7 billion miles out in space. It showed the Earth as a pale speck in the sprinkled night sky. He told the students:
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness - there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us.
It is up to us. What a simple, yet profound, realization. We ourselves must make the world safe for humanity. Somehow, we must maximize the kindness urge that blossoms at holiday time, and suppress the savage instinct lurking in the primitive part of our brain.

Scientific insight into the origin of kindness was given by Sagan in a different book, "The Dragons of Eden." He outlined the astounding theory of "the triune brain," which goes like this:

Reptiles have tiny, rudimentary brains, capable of little except fight-or-flight responses. As mammals evolved, the little reptilian brain remained within their skulls, overgrown by a larger mammal brain capable of group feelings and nurturing urges. Then as humans evolved, the reptile and mammal brains remained, enveloped by the huge cerebral cortex capable of language, logic and endless achievements.

Thus every human head contains three overlapping brains: the crude reptilian base, the surrounding mammal brain (limbic system), with both engulfed in the large cerebrum that is the unique feature of humans. All three parts function constantly.

It's popular among science buffs to blame crude and brutal actions on our reptilian core, while wisdom, love and insights are attributed to the higher brains.

This makes sense to me. When fanatics kill "infidels," or tribal mobs beat neighbors to death, or "hawks" clamor for war, I envision the little reptile mind at work. When peacemakers try to end bigotry and make life better for all sides, I tell myself it's the large cerebrum doing its finest work.

Humanity's harmonious impulses are strong enough to suppress the destructive urges. It happens a million times a day around the world as people live in non-hurtful ways. Therefore, intelligent people must strive endlessly to bolster the humane elements of the psyche - the Christmas feelings - and defuse the ugly ones.

A similar message was delivered by the movie, "Oh God." The crusty old Deity (George Burns) told the idealistic young man (John Denver) that humanity has been given everything needed to make life good, but it's up to people to make it work.

The mood at holiday time shows that it's possible.