Thoughts After the Solstice on Instinct and Harm

On the summer solstice two years ago, there was a big, beautiful supermoon. It was 2016 – pre-election, pre-Trump. That night, I woke up for no obvious reason, and downstairs I noticed a strange light coming through the glass doors. The moon was up, honey colored, clouds passing in long fingers across its face. I had a very sudden, eerie feeling that Trump was going to win.

I don’t believe in a sixth sense, but I do like the idea that when we have strong feelings (like I did that night), it’s intuition or instinct. Not a whimsical idea of intuition, but a result of certain biological processes. When I was teaching a course on detective fiction and empathy, I read up about the science of intuition: how human beings have two processing systems in the brain. Kelly Turner explains it in an article about how cancer patients use instinct to correctly guide their treatment:

System 1 is our quick, instinctual, and often subconsciousway of operating – it is controlled by our right brain and by other parts of our brain that have been around since prehistoric times, known as the “limbic” and reptilian” parts of our brain.  System 2 is our slower, more analytical, and conscious way of operating – it is controlled by our left brain and by newer parts of our brain that have only developed since prehistoric times (also known as the “neocortex”).

The point of the article is that very often intuition might seem like magic, when in fact it is just our brains processing information in a rapid, expedited way. Moments of instinct might simply be a result of a subconscious that under the legerdemain of the brain looks like magic.

This summer solstice night (2018), I am driving back from dinner with friends, one kid asleep, the other one awake but very quiet, and in front of us appears a deer and fawn crossing the road. The fawn stops on the embankment though, and starts back towards the road. There is no way the oncoming car can see it, so I honk the horn, shout through the open window. It stops, looks straight at me, and runs back to its mother.

It’s probably silly, but I feel absolutely elated that I stopped the fawn from running into the road. Instinct saw what was about to happen, and instinct told me what to do, and for a moment it seemed like magic. I felt too in that minute or so that we *can* make a small difference in the world.

I have had moments with people where this instinct has kicked in too. Lost children. An argument on the street that looked like domestic abuse. Challenging a bully. There is power in the small things we do, the interventions we make. It doesn’t always feel that way but it’s true.

Maybe feeling helpless stops many people from listening to their instincts about harm to others. Because who could honestly say that they do not sense harm in children being separated from their parents at the US border? Who would not sense harm in children being kept in cages, or being kept as prisoners at all? Most people sense and recognize harm or the potential for harm in a very physical, rapid way – in the gut.

But why are large swathes of people seemingly oblivious to the harm coming to others? Are people born with this instinct for recognizing potential harm? I doubt it. Do people lose this instinct when they are not taught it? Probably, or instincts can grow towards more selfish processing of the world, and so we need to teach it. Is recognition of potential harm always attended by compassion too? Not according to the literature, because, unfortunately, some people enjoy or ignore the suffering of others, a provocative thought in relation to the immigrant children still separated from their parents. No doubt this callousness on the part of white people links to what Judith Butler writes about in Precarious Life: how the lives of black and brown people are not valued in the Western media and culture in the same way as the lives of white people.

How might we re-center the instinct that recognises potential harm to others, and ensure that it is applied not just to white normative people? One answer of course is reading. The literature on empathy tells us again and again that reading can hugely influence feeling for others. Education is key here, and most of all, education in literature and the humanities.

I’m going to take this thought with me into the classes I teach this year. I want to ask my students to take the time to listen to and read stories that will help them understand the harms that come to folks on the margins, and in minorities, to recognise the lived inequalities that people face in small and large ways every day. Because preventing harm to other people, especially those in vulnerable groups, could not be more important.

Links on How to Help Separated Families