Never Too Early

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We’re tolerant of behavior by a two-year-old that would disturb us greatly if it were displayed by an adult. The behavior of the two-year-old is something we’d normally accept as natural to the condition of a two-year-old. The same behavior in an adult would challenge us to reconcile our ideas about what is natural in adult behavior with the disruptive behavior we see before us. It follows from this that reconciliation among adults might be easier if we learned to see a wider range of behaviors as normal to the human condition, rather than perceiving disruptive behaviors as a sign of moral deficiency or moral misconduct. (Please note that adults who’ve had little contact with very young children might not find it easy to adjust to the behavior of two-year-olds.)

The tolerance that comes from this recognition – not all behavior that seems deviant actually is deviant – depends on understanding the nature of normal behavior. Many of us, however, have a limited awareness of the normal human condition. It is my purpose here to enlarge that awareness.

Human beings are the products of genetic inheritance and of conditioning. We have no control over our genetic inheritance and relatively little over our conditioning. We have virtually no control over our conditioning during our early years of life.

All humans possess two innate tendencies that I will designate as the nurturing and the destructive. Perhaps the nurturing is what Friends have in mind when speaking of “that-of-God” in all people. I prefer a different term because to me the term “that-of God” implies “that-not-of God,” and also implies the ability to choose between them. For me, however, everything is of God, the dark as well as the light. Our only choice is to accept the presence of both and adapt to both. I recognize the presence of the destructive as innate, and I try to be tolerant of it.

As living creatures, we kill to live. We fit within a pattern of relationships which can be described, generally, as large eating small, small eating smaller, smaller eating smallest, and smallest surviving by eating the remains of the large and the largest. We can control what we eat, but without eating we die. The system is more complicated than this, of course. But overall, the general pattern is one in which each living creature serves as both eater and eaten. And each living creature both nurtures life and destroys it.

Even though we naturally carry both, I suggest we strive to diminish the destructive tendencies and maximize the nurturing tendencies in ourselves and in others. Our ability to do this will be improved if we recognize both tendencies as innate to our humanity. This means we live by the conviction that other people – and we, too – always hold the capacity to nurture, however hidden it may seem. This means that we live in a way that is free of blame or guilt for any deviance from what we consider “ideal behavior.” By relating to others in a way that demonstrates a sincere belief in their nurturing capacity, we often stimulate nurturing responses in them – even though this may take a long time and might not give us the results we desire. Compare this, however, with the way we relate to others when we see them as guilty of misbehavior. In this case, our own behavior will commonly place them on the defensive and may even stimulate destructive responses in them.

The acceptance and resultant tolerance of which I write is not the same as approval. I am not recommending that we should accept all behavior, but that we should accept the fact that all behavior is the result of genetic inheritance and conditioning over which the individual has no or relatively little control. To do nothing in response to unacceptable behavior has the practical effect of condoning it. But we have more options than doing nothing. What we do in response to any behavior can reinforce its nurturing component or its destructive one. Responding to the two-year old who hits me by speaking angrily and hitting back will reinforce the destructive component. Responding by gently brushing the child’s hand aside and then picking him or her up before twirling around in a dance step will reinforce the nurturing component.

Toleration and reconciliation are related, but they are not synonymous. Toleration is simply putting up with something (a person, a condition, a situation) that one finds essentially undesirable. Reconciliation is the active work of finding what is attractive in that difficult something (person, condition, or situation) and using that awareness to get along.

Here is an example that might clarify the distinction I seek to make. Years ago I was a guest in the home of an elderly couple in Japan. I slept in a room separated by a paper door from the sitting room where the owner of the home would come with his radio each night to listen to traditional Japanese music. That music was so foreign to my taste that it was extremely difficult for me to listen to it, but I was a guest, I had no option other than to suffer through it, to tolerate it. After several weeks my ear became adjusted, I noticed much more variation in the music, became intrigued by its composition, and ended up actually liking it. I went from toleration to reconciliation.

Some things, of course, we cannot tolerate; one such is extreme pain, which may drive a person to suicide. The repressive impact of an invading army may drive people to take refuge in another country.  A married couple may come to realize they are not suited to each other and may decide to separate.

It seems clear to me that reconciliation is not always possible or desirable. As one example, two people who were initially strongly attracted to each other may find after a time that a continued close relationship interferes with their ability to achieve much of what they desire in life; in such a case, separation would be beneficial. Another example is the apparently impossible task of reconciling our own internal nurturing tendency with our destructive tendency. Even if our destructive tendency is a natural aspect of being human, one that we should feel no guilt about, the only way out of this tendency at times appears to be suicide.

Ordinarily, we just avoid probing into such matters. Personally, I’m usually too busy being alive to have time for such abstract and possibly depressing considerations. When I do think about these matters, however, I find it helpful to look upon life as a game. I can’t control the hand I was dealt, with its destructive and nurturing components, but I can control how I play it. To play it so as to minimize the destructive and maximize the nurturing is a challenge that I find fascinating and that gives me considerable satisfaction.

As a Quaker who considers nonviolence to be a more effective method than militarism for achieving social justice, I believe we need not wait until society is engaged in warfare before undertaking our efforts to prevent it. Similarly, reconciliation should not wait until the differences among us or within us are so great that we find it hard to get along. We may well think that it is already too late for reconciliation. I cannot determine that, but I know that it is never too early. So I leave it to you to determine the right time to strive to minimize the destructive and to maximize the nurturing, and I encourage you to define that “right time” as now.  ~~~

Martin Cobin submitted this article to Western Friend in September 2015 with the following note: “To everyone’s surprise, I’m still alive, with my 94th birthday coming up in October. Whatever it’s worth, here’s an article for the January/February issue. You can ignore this if my attempt at an attachment fails. I enjoyed organizing my thoughts on the subject and trying to share them.” Martin died at his home in November 2015; his daughter was with him. He was a member of Boulder Friends Meeting, and he served for a time as clerk of Intermountain Yearly Meeting. Martin had been prepared for his death for more than a year, and so, he was ready.