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Freeing Ourselves From Prison... and Expanding Our Circle

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist

The news around our house is that John returned this weekend from a three-week trek in the Himalayas. He has many stories which are still unfolding.

As a young woman I longed to go to exotic India. I studied Sanskrit in college and read some of the ancient texts which inspired me with their wisdom.

As time went on, what I mostly heard about India was about the extreme poverty. People suffering everywhere. I wondered how John would experience it.

One of the things he shared was about how he kept his attention on his intention of deeply connecting with everyone including wandering ascetics, beggars. Possibly it helped that the trekking group carried around a “kindness counts” banner.

John could not usually communicate with words, but rather relied on his heart. He looked people in the eye and reminded himself of their shared humanity.

I love this story because what it suggests for me is what we all need to do more of ---complexify, widen our identity. Embrace our common humanity.

Why? Well, let me start with some identity issues. And share some research about how we can trick our brains into getting around our obstacles to cooperation and helping each other.

The biggest issue around identity is that our most challenging conflicts appear to be identity-based:

Israeli vs. Palestinian, Democrat vs. Republican, Christian vs. Muslim, for example. We get “into it” because we pit our identities against each other.

Conflict researchers have tried to figure out how to work with this. Particularly how can we not only live together, but actually help each other?

A researcher almost twenty years ago, Mark Levine, and his team recruited British Football (soccer to Americans) fans. Now if you know anything about the British, you know they absolutely lose their minds over their Football teams. And, as far as I can tell, the big rivalry is between Manchester United and Liverpool.

In one study Manchester United (MU) fans (all male) were selected from a larger sample of football fans. Each was given a questionnaire regarding how much and in what ways they liked their favorite team. They were also required, in each question, to write down the name of their favorite team.

After filling out the questions and having their identity as MU fans activated, the subjects were asked to go to another building on campus to do the 2nd part of the study.

On the way a student (a research confederate), would run by and pretend to fall and hurt his ankle.

Three research assistants were hiding in the bushes observing what was happening. The injured runner was wearing either Manchester United (in-group member), plain white (no visible social category) or Liverpool T-shirt (rival out-group member) jerseys. What were the helping rates?

Well, if a Manchester U runner appeared to need help – those identifying as MU supporters helped over 90 percent of the time. How often did the MU fans stop to inquire about the well-being of the plain t-shirted runner and the Liverpool shirted runner? About thirty percent of the time (the plain shirt a bit more than the “enemy,” but not significantly which gave the researchers a bit of cause for hope).

Next, Levine conducted a second study with the same methods, but subjects were primed to activate their identity as football fans, not specifically MU fans. What were the helping rates?

About 80 percent of the time, they helped both the MU and the Liverpool shirted runners. Plain shirts? About twenty percent of the time.

Clearly, the findings suggest that helping behavior is more likely when we perceive the recipient belonging to our in-group. Fortunately, as the second study shows, most people have enough layers of complexity to expand their own identity to include a greater number of people.

And that’s what John did. Beautifully. Reminded himself, primed himself, to find the common humanity in the poor, the crippled, the people from a different culture with various skin tones and languages.

That’s an example of one way we can work with our brains to get out of our personal prisons – our prejudices and biases so that together we can cooperate, do hard things, and have a chance for world peace.

How might we journey together to the Good Life by experimenting with our identities… complexifying, expanding to take in all of humanity ?


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