I’ve been sitting by a beautiful lake on the Pacific coast in New South Wales watching the winter sun dance in the chilly palms outside. The occasional visit from some friendly kookaburras has punctuated the silence with their comical appearance and even more hilarious vocalizations. I spread some wholesome grain-filled cereal on the porch rail this morning and am intrigued by the fact that, while some of the bits were gobbled up by the local feathered visitors, other bits have been left untouched. The label on the gluten-free, vegan, raw container says that this is all good for me but apparently the birds know better! “Full of healing benefits,” and “assists with cellular repair” do not seem to convince the birds to gobble down these morsels. Can’t they read? Don’t they know what’s good for them?
Traffic stops, a therapist trying to calm disturbed patients, dads, sons, friends… hardly a day goes by without another highly publicized – often videoed – shooting or murder of black man in the United States by police officers. “I thought I saw a gun,” is now exoneration for murder. What black motorist in his or her right mind would solve this riddle: try to escape a Zion Illinois police officer and get shot through your car or, as has happened elsewhere, get pulled over, stop, reach for your driver’s license and get murdered in cold blood only to have a judge rule that the shooting was justified months later? Or the middle-aged woman who struggles to sleep peacefully with frequent ‘dreams’ of being unable to breathe. When she closes her eyes, she sees a man with his hand over her mouth. What’s he doing? Is it a stranger, a family member? Why can’t she remember any details? Or it’s the man who lives with a reflex to detach from all feelings – good or bad – whenever emotions elevate because he conditioned himself as a little boy to flee the pain of corporal punishment for not conforming. Or it’s the veteran who thought that enlisting would be the only way to pay for college. “What’s 4 years if the GI Bill can get me through school?” And that only way turned into killing, hiding from mortar rounds and RPGs. Now every snapping, cracking, or popping sound brings up the images of horror etched in the mind.
Clifford Brooks Stevens – more commonly known as Brooks – was born in Milwaukee in 1911 and as a child was one of the millions who suffered from polio. The famous designer of the Jeep, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and the Evinrude outboard motor, built a world that defines all of our modernity with his promotion of planned obsolescence. The notion that one would “instill in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than necessary,” has permeated all of culture. In a relationship that’s challenging – leave it. See your neighbor’s Tesla while you’re driving your 2013 Audi – trade up! Desire a minimum viable pathway to escape the illusionary mantra that “life is suffering” by surrounding yourself with confidants who will reinforce the righteous indignation for a life that’s not playing out the way your picture postcard looked? – hire a ‘friend’ and layer on the justification for why it’s everyone else’s fault that your life is the way it is. How is it that we can walk right past the most generous love, life, and abundance while we focus on the fraction of life that’s “not working”?
Have we become a society of self-centered, consumer-driven, masochists? Are we incapable of seeing sufficiency in what is right before our eyes? Is this a cultural phenomenon or is there something much deeper going on? And can just the right amount of positive thinking be the cure?
Hammurabi – known in the 18th century BCE to be the codifier of civil laws – legalized the public burning of women for promiscuity and men for incest. Senusret I in Egypt used humans as torches to celebrate military victories. Jewish law sets forth dozens of reasons – most of them having to do with sex – that justify public burnings. Christianity’s founder was a fan of public executions by fire or by “pouring molten lead down the throats” of those who committed transgressions. By the 7th century, if you were accused of performing magic, desecrating what was considered sacred, or labeled as a heretic, you could be burnt in a public execution or placed in a “leather sack with a rooster, a viper, a dog, and a monkey and thrown into the sea.” As a slave, you displease your master – public lynching. A heretic that defies the church’s authority – a millstone around your neck and a public drowning. Accused of witchcraft – burn her. Failing to conform to society’s expectations – be beaten.
A growing body of evidence is showing that humans and other mammals have a particularly alarming genetic response to the experience of, and the witnessing of, inhumane treatment. In the Journal of Translational Psychiatry, Dr. Eva Unternaehrer and her colleagues found alterations in DNA methylation (the addition of methyl groups to DNA which may repress gene transcription) in adult humans exposed to acute psychosocial stress (2012). Interestingly, they found significant alterations in oxytocin receptors (oxytocin is considered to play an important role in social bonding and sexual reproduction) and no effect on brain-derived neurotrophic factor (considered to play an important role in memory and higher order thinking). Work done by Dr. Roth and her colleagues showed that early-life adversity, in contrast, has a permanent and possible generationally transferrable impact on BDNF (Journal of Neuroscience, 2008). By publicly rendering humans obsolete – through early sexual and physical abuse, traumatic separation, public shootings, hate speech, and mass media disseminated violence – have we genetically modified ourselves into beings less capable of deep social bonding and collective memory and consciousness? Not to worry, we’ve got a therapist, a pill, a drug, a distraction, a virtual reality simulation-of-an-actual-life-worth-living experience for that! All you need to do is pay me $300 / hour and I’ll give you the high-fructose-corn-syrup-version-of-the-life-you-can’t-have long enough to get you addicted to whatever panacea I’m selling.
I think that the police shootings, the 24-hour CNN drumbeat of violence, the terrorist du jour publicity is to our society what the witch burnings were to Salem and what the lynchings were during slavery. I think that these acts are not sociopathic anomalies. Rather, I think they are mass-scale epigenetic modifications which are de-humanizing us into greater dependency on externalities – no matter how heinous they become. And I think that it’s time for a few of us to take the other road. I think that We The People – however few of us there may be – are at a moment where we’re called to proliferate conspicuous acts of love and kindness. And mind you, this is not just at a small scale. Remember that even our “good” stories – Martin Luther King, JFK, Gandhi, Sadat – end with public violence. We simply aren’t telling the stories of public goodness that don’t reinforce the epigenetic manipulation of our species.
We are 4 millennia into the sanctioned public violation of humanity. It’s time we step up and say, “Enough.” We are not meant for obsolescence. Our children are not the objects of gratification for subsequent shame. Our families are not safe-havens for violence and abuse. Our homes are not sanctuaries for silence. Our communities are not shooting ranges for those who have over-refined fear reflexes. Our countries are not agencies of militarization. We are not worthy of extinction. Today, in fact right now, make a public stand for goodness. Call a family member. Stop and help a stranger. Offer aid to someone who is struggling… and DO IT PUBLICLY. Show the world that there’s a humanity everywhere you go. And never tire of doing so. In so doing, we might find a way to heal our DNA and weave ourselves into a more perfect union.