In our church’s recent Palm Sunday passion reading, I read aloud as the Narrator the section before the crucifixion when Judas kisses Jesus: “Then the crowd laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.” Modern day etiquette for heroes would call for Jesus to tend first to the gushing ear wound of the high priest’s sacrificial slave before addressing the crowd. Instead, Jesus chastised the crowd for treating Jesus like a common bandit. But those were the days when slaves donated more than an ear to their masters.
If your faith in human nature, like mine, needs a little resurrecting, read with me Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2010) [link]. Try snuggling down at bedtime to his detailed reminders that those were the days when, not only did high priests keep slaves, whose duties included occasionally taking a sword for their masters, but also those were the days of public torture—prolonged and painful and humiliating torture. Common custom both sanctioned and sanctified brutality as a show of high authority in action and a form of entertainment. In the Roman coliseum humans and animals were regularly ripped to shreds to the glee of the audience. Two thousand years ago a stroll up Calvary Hill could promise you the groans of souls and odors of corpses, one after another, nailed to the timbers. In later times saints were publicly martyred on the rack and in the fire. And just four hundred years ago Shakespeare and his fellow Londoners strolled across a London Bridge that was often adorned with the decapitated and rotting heads of the most recently executed, these acceptable and possibly reassuring reminders that an authority, however brutal, was in charge.
If you don’t yet feel resurrected hope for our race, read on. Your nightmares will eventually be rewarded. The subtitle of Pinker’s fascinating 696-page book is Why Violence Has Declined. This book offers the best antidote I’ve found against the popular and gloomy perception that the human race is on a path to self-destruction. What intrigues me most about Pinker is that he’s a psychologist tackling an enormous historical task to answer a compelling question: is violence an essential part of human nature? You might think Yes! after reading about the incessant patterns in almost every culture over thousands of years of warfare, slavery, institutionalized public torture, and massacres in the name of God. But on page after page Pinker makes a persuasive case that we have become dramatically less violent than our ancestors by every measure, and for good reasons.
One aspect of the psychology of violence, one of the “inner demons” that has been outdone by our “better angels” over the millennia, is our capacity to deny another person. If we bother to think at all about that specific other person, we fabricate a fantasy: that scum has no feelings, no story, no loved ones, deserves no respect, and will never mean anything to me. This empathy block is a trick that soldiers in hand-to-hand combat must learn: dehumanize the enemy. Masters do this to their slaves, jailers to their prisoners, natives to their foreigners, dominants to their submissives, perpetrators to their victims. This denial trick allows us to disconnect, dissociate, and remove ourselves from the experience of that other person. If this denial trick seems primitive or callous, think of how we deal with the experiences of animals we don’t know or love, or with that bearded opiate addict who haunts the exit ramp with his cardboard sign, squatting on a milk crate. This capacity to deny and disconnect would not be such an enduring and universal part of human nature if it were not so adaptive.
Two weeks ago I attended a conference in Louisville on the theme of stress and resilience (the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society). This meeting got me thinking about the polar opposite of our capacity to disconnect. Two presenters referred to studies of heart rate variability among couples as the couples talk about tough stuff. What happens to our hearts when we are intimately connected? Heart rate variability is a measure of how much the rhythms of one heart vary with changes, such as breathing in and out, exercise, and psychological stress. Safe intimacy usually improves heart rate variability. Good health requires lots of heart rate variability. And as we age or get sick, our heart rate variability declines.
Imagine what happens to the heart rates of two lovers whispering on a park bench. Or a duet singing harmony. Or a mother and her nursing newborn. Or four old friends sitting around a card table. When the heart rates of two or more people adjust to roughly match their rates and their variations in rates, it’s called entrainment, a concept borrowed from the physics of two systems operating in synchrony. Two hearts beating in synchrony is a harmony of physiologies that may last a few precious moments, or longer. If a hundred members of an army can march in step, could their hearts could march in step too?
How could one heart communicate with another? A recent review of this topic by Rollin McCraty proposes that our hearts communicate through their magnetic fields. If that seems surreal or new agey, consider how herds move and flocks fly in exquisite synchrony. Is the exchange of magnetic heart fields a part of this miracle? Long before we developed words, our ancestors had to sense the states of their human companions. The magnetic fields of our hearts can communicate not just their beats and their variability, but the signature imprints of our feeling states. Patterns of heart rate variability differ from one emotional state to another. My state of gratitude or appreciation traces a different pattern than my anger. And your heart might be able to sense that pattern, if we’re close enough, both physically and emotionally. “Social coherence” is the term for this level of physiologic entrainment.
The company HeartMath, for whom McCraty works, is investing in this science, hoping that with the help of biofeedback about our heart rate variability, we could learn to find each other better in the board room and in the bed room. Whether HeartMath makes a bundle on it or not, the good news is that there’s lots of science out there telling us that we humans have come a long way toward understanding how to connect with people who are not like us. And now we can measure what we have always known, that one heart can magnetically attract and entrain another. And over the millennia our habits of brutality have diminished, while the better angels of our empathy have grown stronger. We still have that capacity to deny and to violate, but we’ve come a long way from slave’s ears and crucifying. “Peace on Earth” sounds to me now less like a line from a Christmas carol and more like a feat of human nature.