Archive for the ‘The Compassionate Instinct’ Tag


Many years ago now, my friend and colleague Barbara McEwen, a physiological psychologist,  made me aware that I didn’t fully understand the meaning of “The Survival of the Fittest.” Like so many people, I thought it meant that the winners were the ones who managed to beat the competition and pass on their genetic material. Barb pointed out that cooperation is every bit as important as competition, evoking my reaction of “Of course, why didn’t I know that,”

Sadly, Barb is no longer with us to see the influence of people like her. But, fortunately, scientists are now exploring the implications of humanity’s cooperative side, with an emphasis on human goodness. Right now I’m reading a collection of articles by scientists who are exploring this side of humanity. They don’t deny what we can’t avoid seeing — the competitive side of our heritage. But it’s not the only side. (In fact, right now it seems to me that’s the major battle going on politically and throughout the world: selfish competition vs. compassionate cooperation.}

The book to which I am referring is edited by Dacher Keltner and Jason Marsh,”The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness.”It’s a selection of articles from the magazine “The Greater Good.” It’s one of three magazine I need in my life to offer the positives over the noise and stress of today’s communications.

I’m not going to review the book here, or try to summarize the kinds of things that have been studied. I just want to mention two of them: gratitude and forgiveness.

As for gratitude, I’d like, ironically, to start a competition. Who can provide the longest list of things for which one is grateful.

As for forgiveness, I’m going to break down and summarize, bit by bit, the content of my own “Forgiving One Page at a Time.”

So be prepared, I’m about to start compiling my own gratitude list and share the numbers, not necessarily the content.

Forgiveness will be next.

Tell me, does that sound like a good plan?



I can hardly wait to get back to “My Father’s House.” I have ‘til 1986 to go.

Since my accident, the process is a little different. Sitting at my computer eventually becomes too painful for my back, so I have to choose one of two ways to relieve it. I can lie down on my love seat with my feet elevated. That works very well, but it’s hard to stay awake. Or I can walk – these days outside in the lovely weather we’ve been having, or indoors on the treadmill. I suspect that’s the healthier method. Either way, it takes time away from writing.

So, why tell you this? It’s my excuse for being so remiss at caring for my blog.

Today, though, there’s something quick I want to tell you. Sometimes when I’m on my back I stay awake enough to read something. Right now it’s “The Compassionate Instinct: The Scientific Roots of Human Goodness” by Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh, and Jeremy Adam Smith. It’s a collection of articles from the “Greater Good” magazine – the kind of thing I need to read to stay alive in this age of anger, cruelty, and violence.

I’m reading it on my Kindle which creates a bit of a problem, because I still haven’t learned how to cite a quote. But I think it’s OK here to include one short one. In pointing out the other way to understand human beings, not as competitive fighters or fearful victims, but as cooperators as well, they describe the other option as “…not to fight or flee, but to approach and soothe.” Then they go on to provide supportive scientific evidence.

I wish my colleague and friend, Barbara McEwen, were still with us to see this development. I learned from her many years ago that survival depends just as much on cooperation as on winning the battle. A physiological psychologist, her major interest was in oxytocin, a major player in the more positive side of our personalities. Don’t worry, that’s as far as I’m going with this little lecture. Just a chance to remember her.

This plays into the observation of “mirror neurons” which lead us to experience other’s emotions. Last night I took note of my doing just that while watching the end of “Wheel of Fortune.” The winner had solved a tough final puzzle with minimal cues and ended up with a big win, a huge smile, and a happy family hugging him on stage. And I noticed myself. I was feeling and looking as happy as a clam.

That’s the kind of thing we’re capable of. Let’s not forget it in the midst of all the negativity, and the assumption that the best thing to do to protect ourselves is to kill the other guy. I hope there are occasions for each of us when someone else’s joy gives us a happy jolt.

By the way, and totally off the subject. I was reminded again recently in conversation with a friend, of two important rules of therapy: (1) avoid triangles; (2) Use no more words than necessary.

I don’t think I have a triangle in this posting, but maybe I’ve used more words than necessary. I don’t want to spend a lot of time editing, though. While I am still sitting in comfort, I want to get my father through the entry of the United States into WWI.

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