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Best Possible Selves 26

Friday, April 7, 2017

The human brain has allowed our species to thrive in a biologically competitive environment where physical conditions are often harsh and unforgiving. A quick scan of the evening news will reveal that our accomplishments are marked both by extraordinary kindness and unimaginable cruelty. How can the same DNA give rise to such discrepant behavior? What does it mean to acknowledge that we are capable of such mutually incompatible beliefs.

Thanks to a career in education and an interest in the nature of human nature, I have come increasingly to believe that our very survival depends on an ability to make discernments between things that are different. For example, a young child trying to learn about new foods will wrestle with sweet versus sour. Similarly, the pre-adolescent trying to negotiate new social relationships will struggle with conformity versus nonconformity. And, as every sensible adult will attest, the dilemma of career inevitably raises the question of happiness versus success.

It is paradoxical that this ability to discern difference is both what elevates our humanity and also what gives rise to our inhumanity. To put it in another way, if we think of ourselves as discernment machines, we may better understand the convoluted mechanism by which we so often disagree. In seeking to become our best possible selves, we must learn first how to discern and how to disagree. This is a sloppy process and, while it does not lead to humane results in all instances, it does guarantee that human nature will be expressed and sustained in a multitude of forms and cultures.