“The science of Separation offers another explanation of what it calls “altruistic behavior.” Maybe it is a kind of mating display, which demonstrates one’s “phenotypic quality” to prospective mates (i.e., it shows that one is so “fit” that he can afford to squander resources on others). But this explanation takes as an unexamined premise another assumption of the worldview of Separation: a scarcity of mating opportunities and a competition for mates. As anthropology, reviewed in books like Sex at Dawn, has discovered though, this view of primitive life is more a projection of our own social experience onto the past than it is an accurate description of hunter-gatherer life, which was communal. A more sophisticated explanation draws on game theoretic calculations of the relative advantages of being a strong reciprocator, weak reciprocator, etc., in situations of mutual dependency. Such theories are actually a step closer to an evolutionary biology of interbeing, as they break down the idea that “self-interest” can ever exist independently of the interest of others.
Our society runs in large part on the denial of that truth. Only by interposing ideological and systemic blinders between ourselves and the victims of industrial civilization can we bear to carry on. Few of us would personally rob a hungry three-year-old of his last crust or abduct his mother at gunpoint to work in a textile factory, but simply through our consumption habits and our participation in the economy, we do the equivalent every day. And everything that is happening to the world is happening to ourselves. Distanced from the dying forests, the destitute workers, the hungry children, we do not know the source of our pain, but make no mistake—just because we don’t know the source doesn’t mean we don’t feel the pain. One who commits a direct act of violence will, if and when she realizes what she has done, feel remorse, a word that literally means “biting back.” Even to witness such an act is painful. But most of us cannot feel remorse for, say, the ecological harm that the mining of rare earth minerals for our cell phones does in Brazil. The pain from that, and from all the invisible violence of the Machine of industrial civilization, is more diffuse. It pervades our lives so completely that we barely know what it is like to feel good. Occasionally, we get a brief respite from it, maybe by grace, or through drugs, or being in love, and we believe in those moments that this is what it is supposed to feel like to be alive. Rarely, though, do we stay there for very long, immersed as we are in a sea of pain.
How much of our dysfunctional, consumptive behavior is simply a futile attempt to run away from a pain that is in fact everywhere? Running from one purchase to another, one addictive fix to the next, a new car, a new cause, a new spiritual idea, a new self-help book, a bigger number in the bank account, the next news story, we gain each time a brief respite from feeling pain. The wound at its source never vanishes though. In the absence of distraction—those moments of what we call “boredom”—we can feel its discomfort.
Of course, any behavior that alleviates pain without healing its source can become addictive. We should therefore hesitate to cast judgment on anyone exhibiting addictive behavior (a category that probably includes nearly all of us). What we see as greed or weakness might merely be fumbling attempts to meet a need, when the true object of that need is unavailable. In that case the usual prescriptions for more discipline, self-control, or responsibility are counterproductive.
t what we perceive as greed might be an attempt to expand the separate self in compensation for the lost connections that compose the self of interbeing; that the objects of our selfish desires are but substitutes for what we really want. Advertisers play on this all the time, selling sports cars as a substitute for freedom, junk food and soda as a substitute for excitement, “brands” as a substitute for social identity, and pretty much everything as a substitute for sex, itself a proxy for the intimacy that is so lacking in modern life. We might also see sports hero worship as a substitute for the expression of one’s own greatness, amusement parks as a substitute for the transcending of boundaries, pornography as a substitute for self-love, and overeating as a substitute for connection or the feeling of being present. What we really need is nearly unavailable in the lives that society offers us. You see, even the behaviors that seem to exemplify selfishness may also be interpreted as our striving to regain our interbeingness.
Another nonscientific indication of our true nature is visible in yet another apparent manifestation of greed: the endless pursuit of wealth and power. What are we to make of the fact that for many of the very rich, no amount of money is enough? Nor can any amount of power satisfy the ambitious. Perhaps what is happening is that the desire to serve the common good is being channeled toward a substitute, and of course, no amount of the substitute can equal the authentic article.”