This weekend, I attended the new Tom Stoppard play, the Hard Problem, that ponders the nature of what it means, in the contemporary world, to be human – what is consciousness, and are goodness and morality an essential part of human nature? What motivates goodness or acts of kindness? It is difficult to consider these questions without concluding that there are complex factors that influence “good” behavior, including genetics and evolutionary pressures (we can be generous because it ultimately helps to propagate the gene pool), self-expression (it helps us define who we are), self-interest (we share so others share with us), and enjoying the approval from others for doing something good. It is this last cause of helpful, kind action that has stuck with me. In the end, there is nothing wrong with doing the right thing because others (parents, colleagues, partners) approve of it.
Shaping positive social behavior by giving approval has stuck in my head because one of the most disturbing elements of our current society is that we appear, more and more, to encourage selfishness, dishonesty, greed, bigotry, bullying and violence. We flock to reality shows or social media sites that celebrate negative, hurtful, and divisive behavior. This type of behavior appears to be as natural to humans as generosity and altruism. We have been taught the ugliness within us was something shameful, not something that we boasted about. We were taught to cheer when people committed selfless acts of bravery, not when people exhorted crowds to beat up on weaker people. Now, it seems, we, as a crowd are encouraging and making more likely destructive acts.
The most recent shocking act of violence, the mass shooting in Pittsburgh, is just the latest horror. Our hearts go out to the peaceful victims and their families at the Tree of Life Synagogue, and for all those who’ve been victims of mass shootings, individual shootings, and other senseless acts of violence because of their religion, color of their skin, immigration status, or gender identification. This act was senseless, and the uncommon act of an uncommonly disturbed person, and I am reluctant to even try to make sense of it. But, as we at Forestdale work to help children heal from violence, we wish we could have a world that was safe for everyone – for children, for the elderly, for all people. How do we build this world? While we struggle to elevate the finer parts of our nature, can’t we start by being a society in which bigotry, aggression, greed, and dishonesty are shunned, and the act of helping others is celebrated?