We have the option to rise above our animal instincts

Humans and other primates have what are called “opposable thumbs.” The thumbs on our hands allow us to grasp things that would otherwise elude our ability to possess them. By pinching our thumb against our other fingers, we can take hold of something instead of only touching or feeling it.

Humans also have what business professor Roger Martin has called “opposable minds.” We can hold two or more opposing ideas in our mind at the same time. That ability separates us from animals, which operate in a stimulus-response/red-tooth-and-claw/survival-of-the-fittest mode all the time.

Humans feel but also think. We can stand over against our pain or sense of being threatened and ask what we might do with that instead of only reacting to preserve and protect ourselves.

We can love. We can sacrifice ourselves for others. We can put ourselves in harm’s way on purpose for a higher purpose.

Yet, too often we don’t. We devolve to our animal instincts in our greed (“I’ll get mine even at the expense of yours”), in our nationalism (“My country is exceptional and can be trusted to act righteously against your country”), in our politics (“My view of the world is right and yours is dangerous”), and in our religion (“My faith is better than your faith”).

We could go on and on. And we do. This polarization destroys our communities and our communities of faith. It divides us into camps that should be exposed and opposed. It focuses on how we are unsafe in the presence of difference. But there is no end to it because there is no perfect security in this life.

As we begin a new calendar year and realize the challenges we face together in the world, we need to claim our capacity to hold opposing ideas in our mind in order that we may understand others and not merely oppose them. We may not be able to convince Islamic terrorists to do what we are asking, but that does not excuse us from ascending to the highest level of our humanity and not descending to their inhumanity. We may not be able to convince an opposing party in our election cycle to think like we do, but we can practice thinking like they do before we dismiss them altogether.

Martin calls this “integrative thinking.” He suggests that only when we grapple in a uniquely human way with opposing ideas will the possibility of a leap to new thinking take place. This is not a compromise he advocates; it’s a third way that can only emerge from the sympathy that derives from our grasping differences with our opposable minds.

The great faith traditions show us the way. Moses learns that God hears the cries of the weak, and that weak and strong alike should be subject to the same Law and not to the laws of the powerful. Jesus embodies the unity of the seemingly opposing realms of divine and human, and he teaches that loving God and loving neighbor are one thing, not two. The Qur’an teaches that the murder of one human being amounts to the murder of all humanity, and that the saving of one human being is like the saving of all.

As Benjamin Franklin put it, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”


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