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    Two Wolves in the Hearta

    tomThere is a strange duality in human nature. As a species, we’re capable of deep love, compassion, and inspiring acts of self-sacrifice. But, as events like the Holocaust show, we’re also capable of limitless cruelty. One of the things that makes this possible, I believe, is our capacity to “otherize.” History shows, and neuropsychological research confirms, that as soon as we place people outside of the circle of “us,” the brain automatically begins to devalue them and to justify bad treatment of them. Cruelty toward “them” becomes emotionally easier to tolerate, because we have less access to our empathy and compassion, and because we’re simultaneously more inclined to suspicion, fear, and anger toward them.

    Why do we do it? Since otherizing lies at the root of virtually all of humanity’s most intractable problems—racism, sexism, homophobia, chauvinistic nationalism, religious bigotry, etc.—we’d obviously be better off without it. How, then, did it ever arise in the first place? Anthropology offers some important insights into this question.

    For several million years, our ancestors lived in hunter-gatherer tribes that typically had fewer than 150 members. They were threatened by predators, starvation, and disease, and had to compete with other tribes for scarce resources. In these harsh conditions, those who cooperated with others in their tribe typically lived longer and had more offspring, so natural selection favored the evolution of love, cooperation, empathy, loyalty, and fairness within tribes.

    But those same evolutionary pressures also favored ruthless aggression toward members of competing tribes. Cooperation and aggression evolved synergistically: tribes that were more cooperative were also more successfully aggressive, and aggression toward other tribes demanded cooperation within tribes. Tribalism is alive and well in the structure of our brains.

    While the capacity for otherizing is deeply ingrained, it’s also true that the more lately evolved structures of the brain can alter the behavior of the more primitive ones. Our unique capacities for self-awareness, self-reflection, and deliberate intention give us a unique capacity for freedom of action.

    When we become aware that we are otherizing a person or a group, we can begin to activate self-reflection by remembering the truth expressed in these famous words from Longfellow: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

    When we otherize we turn off the neural pathways mediating compassion and empathy. That may be why, if you try to incline your mind toward empathy for a despised other, you may be aware of tremendous resistance, sometimes rationalized by thoughts about how they don’t deserve it, or by the strange belief that to feel empathy for “bad” people somehow allows them to get away with something. But if you can see the humanity in the other, the intensity of otherizing automatically begins to diminish. This has nothing to do with excusing bad behavior or condoning injustice. We can strongly condemn cruel actions while simultaneously remembering the humanity of the actor. Cultivating the habit of seeing “bad actors” as also “us” takes patience, but it can be done.

    It is ironic that so many of us tenaciously cling to our habit of otherizing, because the more we strengthen positive and inclusive emotions, the happier we tend to be. That’s because all of the emotions connected with otherizing—contempt, hatred, vengefulness, fear, etc.—are unpleasant, while those connected with empathy and compassion are soothing, peaceful, and even joyful.

    We cannot change our evolutionary history, but that same history has given us some capacity for choice. In his book Buddha’s Brain, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson tells the story of “…a Native American elder who was asked how she had become so wise, so happy, and so respected. She answered: ‘In my heart there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day.’”

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit