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Self-Knowledge • Behaviours

Where Are Humanity’s Problems Really Located?

In many moods, under the urging of politicians and the media, it becomes tempting to look at the world as if its fundamental problems were all economic and political.

Clearly such problems exist and can be extremely grave – but we if we’re looking to understand what’s properly wrong with our species, we may have to look far further upstream. Economic and political problems are for the most part the consequence of other things: of emotional issues, more particularly, of deficits of love in childhood which make human beings grow up into damaged, aggressive creatures impelled to avenge themselves and discharge their rage and disappointment onto others, frequently usually their very own children. It’s to our emotional functioning that we need to look, at both an individual and collective level, if we are to understand, let alone address, the central share of the world’s strife and chaos.

We typically insist – instead – on a material interpretation of our needs. We focus on matters of housing, shelter and income, but neglect the extent to which we also need to be brought up in an atmosphere of love, of kindness, attunement, generosity, sympathy, resilience and sanity. Our problems boil down not just to material shortfalls and misalignments, but to appallingly consequential absences of tenderness. We are all undone by cruelty.

To bolster our sense of what is at play, consider the phenomenon of kleptomania. We know all about what drives its twin, robbery: poverty, deprivation and low educational standards. But kleptomania is – through the standard lens – a far harder puzzle to untie. Why on earth would people – often quite rich and comfortable people, who might have gone to very good schools and be living in quite substantial houses – decide to steal things from others? Why – on a relatively large scale – would people who have no financial worries go into shops and, when the guards are looking away and the cameras are distracted, pilfer items of clothing, or make off with the wallets of their friends in the changing rooms of the tennis club?

The standard material explanations run out. The only way to understand kleptomania is in psychological terms: as a response to emotional deprivation. People will steal when they feel robbed. The impulse to take from others is the outcome of an unconscious and unprocessed sense of having been somewhere in the past looted and ignored by those on who we depend.

The factors that are fully apparent in kleptomania are constantly at work in less obvious ways in other areas of daily life: in the nastiness seen in offices, in feuds that blow up between friends, in the sadism of people in authority. In certain mood, we might even read capitalism as an institutionalised form of kleptomania; an extraction of resources that, after a certain limit, has little to do with material need and is bound up with compensation for emotional poverty. To understand why we are such an unkind race, the answer is always the same: because someone did to us what we then opt to do to others, using people as what psychotherapists call ‘projection buckets’, receptacles into which to discharge waste emotions of anger, sadness, loneliness and pain. 

What then is the human animal? A creature desperately susceptible to what happens in its early years, a creature who needs, in order to become somewhat equitable and kind, to be treated very well, to be able thereby to like itself and from such a base, to grow tolerant and good natured to others. It only sounds simple.

Naturally we need clean water, laws, peace, schools and universities…. But if we get all of these and leave the supply of love unattended, we will have sociopaths in expensive clothes, so-called ‘successful’ characters silently itching to tear everything down, cruelty beneath the suburban peace and quiet – and powerful people who keep stealing even though they have no possible material need for what they are making off with. It will be a good world only in name.

We know that every kleptomaniac is a deprived person in need of love. Which affords us a vantage point from where we can look at the bigger question: what will rescue civilisation? Early love… Everything else can wait.

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