Humanity’s Gom Jabbar
When I was a kid, my father gave me the “don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes” speech. I imagined donning different-sized shoes of myriad colors, tripping over my feet, and struggling to walk an entire mile in shoes either too big or too small for me. Just as we can try on others’ shoes, we can slip out of our own skins in a way by seeing others’ points of view. This allows us to create common ground as we strive to understand our fellow humans.
Neuroscientists theorize that this ability to empathize links intrinsically to human biology. Specifically, both the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and left temporo-parietal junction allow us to understand others simply with an act of creative imagination. Our brains act as tools for interpreting our world, learning new skills, and creating social realities. These are inventions, then, that can be altered and manipulated so long as we are aware of this possibility. We examine our friends, family, and even our enemies for nonverbal clues, but truly, many believe we are always mostly guessing.
While science has just begun exploring this phenomenon, religion has been approaching these issues for millennia. According to the Dalai Lama, as we recognize the innate sameness of ourselves and fellow humans, we “automatically feel empathy and closeness for them.” This emotion, he says, is a kind of “universal altruism” that he terms “true compassion.” Recent scientific discoveries suggest that compassion can be trained by mental exercises Buddhists and Hindus have practiced for centuries. From Buddhists meditating beneath waterfalls to Catholic nuns in prayer before altars, humans strive to “rise above” ourselves and touch something bigger and more powerful. Even the staunchest atheist might have a moment of inspiration or feelings of “connection” with others, the earth, or humanity as a whole. Though scientists have clues linking spirituality to the right parietal lobe as well, we still have yet to implement any real mental training into secular experience through usable curricula.
In a world where humans have evolved the capacity to understand each other, so often we still argue, fight, and kill because the vast majority of the human population has not learned, or chooses not to use, logic, critical thinking skills, and compassion. Though most people can feel compassion to varying degrees, unused, the emotion can rarely be evoked. As an organism, the human race has little more collective consciousness than a bacterium, but we have the potential to understand each other. Mastering the art of compassionate behavior requires a multilayered and broad approach to understanding the world about us, and this can be an uncomfortable awareness, especially when humans are communicating with the speed now available via Internet. Our thoughts collide, and we struggle against each other instead of working collectively because we do not consciously practice compassion.
Instead of learning how to deal with our increasing interconnection and resolve our conflicts, many of us become emotional isolatos and search for an escape. As our lifestyles grow ever more complicated, addiction runs rampant through society. Addiction to anything creates escape from reality, and people who have no mental training fall easily into the trap. We have shopaholics, alcoholics, Facebook addicts, and World of Warcraft junkies, yet in many or most cases, addiction can be battled with a disciplined, logical approach that requires active analysis of one’s own mental workings. This requires willingness, patience, and introspection, but once someone has chosen to return to a more productive way of being, it’s possible.
This act is much easier for an adult than it would be for a child or teenager. Because our society is changing so rapidly, the youth will need support and instruction regarding the diverging perspectives present in society and online. As teachers and adults, we have to challenge the young to think independently, critically, and with discipline. Through a nonspecific curriculum where the students largely choose their own studies, self-understanding and the mass development of compassion could be accomplished large-scale. However, such learning methods would require a higher teacher-student ratio and a personalized learning plan for each student that would be subject to change when needed. This approach would take time, patience, and lots of work, and it would be nearly impossible to systematize learning because each individual would have a different plan.
Unfortunately, our present education system remains limited in a number of ways, and such a massive change in the system would require educational deregulation, which wouldn’t be possible except over time. However, as our technology improves, teachers will be challenged to communicate meaning in more organic movements for better comprehension and understanding. Right now, 93% of students say that they turn to the Internet when teachers assign research, and most often, students turn to Wikipedia, whose content is audience-generated. This type of instruction will naturally integrate the human race both online and in the physical world. The ties between mind space and physical space will become more visible to students, and through a multilayered approach spanning various media, teachers might facilitate and guide their pupils more effectively.
True, the Internet provides a place for more interaction and, therefore, possibly more compassionate behavior, but humans in such an environment still need to have mental discipline to avoid becoming slaves to desire. In a world where one can print anything one imagines, those without self-discipline will become a hazard to our species. In essence, before our mind space can be shared effectively, humans need to learn how to generate and experience true compassion. If we don’t think on a species level, we won’t survive on one, and only compassion can help us face our differences and find common ground. We will destroy our planet, our resources, our intellects, our potential, and our species through negligence, waste, and misconduct unless we can begin thinking of ourselves as members of an interdependent collective species.
In Frank Herbert’s visionary novel Dune, young Paul Atredes joins humanity through the test of the Gom Jabbar. The Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim places his hand in a box, and though Paul cannot actually see it, he feels the skin of his hand burning. She tells him that he cannot remove his hand or she will kill him with the poisoned needle, the Gom Jabbar. In the Dune universe, this is the ultimate test of one’s humanity. Paul the acolyte can choose to endure the pain for the greater reward of life, or he can choose to remove himself from bodily harm and suffer death. The human chooses life. The animal chooses to end the pain. Like a Gom Jabbar, the Internet has become a test of sorts for the entire human race, and the outcome remains to be seen. Will we react from fear or other emotion, jerking from the pain of our collective disagreement and conflict? Or will we choose to embrace our brothers and sisters as fellow humans, bearing the pain as we end our conflicts and enter into a new stage of conscious growth?