"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Monday, March 16, 2015

Letter from the Editor of The Compassion Project: Beyond the Dragons of Eden: How Art Makes Us Human

Letter from the Editor

Reading and witnessing works of art can open our minds to our global community in both space and time. They allow us to act as fully functioning humans, not reptiles that want to kill each other.

We are all hard-wired for both selfishness and compassion, for ruthless fighting and enduring love. We all have that ancient reptilian brain embedded in the hypothalamus, designed to implement what scientists call the 4 Fs: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and… sex. When your testosterone and adrenaline are pumping during an argument, you can thank your distant cousin the T-Rex. If you’re born into poverty with few resources, survival becomes paramount, and you’re more vulnerable to the reptilian instincts.

As we moved up the evolutionary ladder, some reptiles evolved into mammals, and the limbic or mammalian brain that developed enabled them to nurture. This wasn’t out of love, per se, but preservation of the species. Unlike reptiles that laid eggs and split, mammals gave birth to their young and had to care for them until their bigger brains matured. They had to feed, protect, and shelter their babies. For humans, it is through the mammalian brain that we learn to put another individual first, that we can exercise our compassionate tendencies.

 The evolution of the neo-cortex or “over-seeing” brain in human beings made it mandatory that an infant be born “prematurely,” that is, before the bigger brain fully matured so that it could fit through the birth canal. Thus, infants were born totally helpless and entirely dependent on their parents. “Parental affection ensured the survival of the species,” writes Karen Armstrong in her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Infants now “needed the support, care, and protection not only of their parents but an entire community.” Through evolution, this type of compassion became more entrenched and widespread. It eventually evolved into altruism.

 With the adaptation of the neo-cortex, humans became capable of reasoning, reflection and creativity. We began to seek meaning in our lives. This is where art and science factored in; we began to experiment and explore the world around us. We documented and classified. We expressed our emotions through creations. We realized that art, as well as science, could lead to knowledge. Most importantly, we learned that art and science allowed for us to abolish wrongly preconceived ideas and notions.

 Art establishes understanding and empathy, and it does this with finesse and originality. It employs beauty and sophistication. I think I can speak for most of us when I say I would much rather read a novel that showcases the full range of human emotion than delve into the tenets, theories, and accounts in a textbook.

 Here are some examples of art that promoted large-scale understanding, empathy, and disproved wrongly preconceived ideas:

 ·      Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. This elegantly written autobiography proved to nineteenth century Americans that blacks were not inferior to whites intellectually; they too had fully functioning neo-cortexes.
 ·      The plays A Doll House, by Henrik Ibsen, Trifles by Susan Glaspell and the paintings of Frida Kahlo. These works prove that women are not “dolls” nor do they have trivial inner and outer lives.

 ·      Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and A Passage to India by E.M. Forster. These works portray the imperialistic attitudes and emotional complexity inherent in colonialism. They aim to show that what some deem an “inferior society” is just a different take on being human, and often a more spiritual one.

·      The poetry of Rumi. Poet and translator Coleman Barks says that the “love” in Rumi’s poems is “nakedly exposed and restless like a mountain creek, like sunlight moving around a winter room.” Rumi’s poetry is a portal to mysticism through which Non-Muslims can freely enter and learn that true Islam is not fanatical and hostile, but compassionate, ecstatic and reverent.

When our belief systems are altered through experiencing artistic works, it translates to our behavior and enables us to act compassionately.

At North Shore Community College, a female faculty member claims the poetry of Bruce Weigl helps her relate to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.  She writes, “Every time I encountered a veteran, I thought of this Weigl poem, ‘The Snowy Egret.’ It made me approach these students with a respect and gentleness that I didn't think I had in me…it clearly made me treat veterans differently than I expected I would and which my political beliefs on paper would dictate.” 

Tam Martin Fowles, founder of Hope in the Heart, an organization that guides individuals to triumph over adversity and understand their place in the global community, cites the novel Notes from an Exhibition and specifically the character Anthony, a Quaker who “lives his life by a set of values that aroused great empathy and inspiration” in Martin Fowles.  After reading the book, Martin Fowles began to attend Quaker meetings herself, ultimately discovered a faith that suited her, and a community of people that embodied “ an ethos of peace and social action.”

We tend to see art/literature as a means for empathy only, but empathy is only the starting point. Readers can empathize with the plight of characters they love; people can be captivated by works of art for very personal reasons. Yet, when we say art matters, we say it because we have been moved beyond personal illumination to act more compassionately in the world. 

We at The Compassion Project seek to do just that. The fundraiser we are sponsoring this spring will benefit the children of ChildHelp Sierra Leone, a child rights organization that bore the brunt of the Ebola virus—not only physically, but emotionally and financially—this past fall. I have been in contact with director Kaprie Thoronka since August and his heart-wrenching letters of devastation in Sierra Leone have moved me to do what I can to help. Moreover, Africa got the short end of the stick with respect to world aid for a calamity. People weren’t rushing to Africa to lend a hand like they did for Haiti and Japan. I remember scrolling through all of the Indiegogo Ebola campaigns; many of them had no funding at all and remained that way until they closed.

Please read the Call for Submissions on our home page to learn how you can contribute and help foster our community of compassion through creativity. To quote Armstrong again, "We have a duty to get to know one another and to cultivate a concern and responsibility for all our neighbors in the global village."

Regards and happy spring,

 Laurette Folk, Editor of The Compassion Project: An Anthology



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