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October, 2016

Wind vs. Sun

by Larry

Probably most of us have heard or read the Aesop's Fables story of a little contest between the North Wind and the Sun, to see which was stronger. The wind blows his cold force strongly at a man in a cloak or coat to impel him to remove it, but he just holds it closer to him. The sun then basks him in radiant warmth, and he promptly responds by taking it off. The moral of that short tale: being supportive, gentle, and positive toward others is a more powerful way of exerting influence than coercion, force, or strong-armed tactics. This message has come down to us from ancient times and is still being played out today. Will fear and resentment win or kindness and a nurturing, loving attitude?

I suspect that this question is not such an easy one for our species to answer, because both tendencies have been hard-wired into our DNA and have as well been strongly a part of the human cultural heritage. Among complex creatures, we came to dominate partly as a result of our tendencies to tell one another fearful stories and act on them, for example about the dangers of any we considered other than ourselves, whether that other were a tiger, a hyena, a poisonous snake, a person of another race, a different tribe, an unusual religion, or came from another country, political outlook, etc.

Yet a nurturing attitude, for instance toward children or others whom we love and care about, has also been key to our kind's survival. We have learned that assisting others pays great dividends. Indeed, it may be that being able to identify in a cooperative, compassionate way with larger than merely blood relational groupings sets us apart from other relatively intelligent social animals, such as dogs, whales, and lions. This too gave humanoid creatures big advantages. And so we are ardently competitive, yet strongly loyal not merely to kith and kin but also to our school or regional football teams, our military servicemen, our language speakers, our allies in an international conflict, etc.

In a book about how we wield authority, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, Dacher Keltner has written about these two sides of the Homo sapiens evolutionary survival coin, one that is more prone to fighting, bullying, and acting out our fears and angers, and one that is more empathic, cooperative, ready to serve others' needs, and willing to compromise to get done things that offer part of what everyone wants, even if in the process we do not receive everything we might otherwise each demand in a standoff.

There is a paradox because having power is often thought of as the ability to ram our side's wishes down others' throats, or else, yet exercising this type of influence almost inevitably enhances others' desires to defeat us, to resist us at all costs, to double-down on maintaining their stances against ours, just as the man assaulted by the wind merely holds his cloak more tightly around him.

By contrast, true, lasting power and influence seem to derive from being of service to others, being able to laugh even at ourselves, being cooperative, seeing that at least some of everyone's needs are met, and demonstrating gentleness or kindness.

Who really had more power in the 20th Century, for instance, Adolf Hitler, with all his armies, submarines, bombs, and tanks, or Mother Theresa, with her steadfast commitment to doing the next right thing and being kind, loving, and helpful toward others?

Keltner points out that in a schoolyard one can quickly see in a group of 13-year-old boys who has the greater power and influence. It is not the recess bully. It is the boy who with diplomatic humor, intelligence, playfulness, and appreciation for others' ideas and contributions can readily get buddies willing to work with him as a team. The latter can accomplish much, even if at any given moment the steps taken might seem slight, not as impressive as the other kid's threats and showing off of big muscles.

This essay is not about drawing distinctions between America's two main candidates for President, for neither seems without flaws. In fact, we are all imperfect. Who has the right to cast the first stone? In a way, we are all culpable and responsible for the unfortunate predicament in which our great nation finds itself. Our political contests mirror the divisions within ourselves. The media and major parties would not have served up this kind of fare if not for our relishing the taste of more and more frequent binging on extreme views from diverse sides over the past several decades.

The solution is not going to be a dramatic one, in my opinion, and certainly will not be easy. If Keltner is correct, we are better served if we focus on ourselves, reducing the flaws within, being gentle and kind even in the face of all that is wrong and worthy of our disdain. If 100 million of us each made personal choices to daily be nicer toward others and do something constructive, might that not make a difference? The world might not become ideal, and incremental changes might not even be noticeable in an hour, a month, a year, or a decade, but would there not be an improvement over business as usual in our nation of late? We might at least have a bit more light and warmth shining on the scene.

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