On Dreaming, Human Nature, and the Obsolescence of Greed
Every night, the dreaming mind unrolls cinematic dramas designed to help us re-connect with our genuine selves. Our dreams work hard to make us emotionally honest and, as a result, more creative, resilient, and engaged in life.
By tending to our dreams we pay attention, for example, to our genuine anger, our outrage at the injustice and abuses coming at us from the world. We experience those angry reactions in waking life, but we often ignore and bury them. We may be numb to them because we don’t think we can do anything to make a difference. We feel powerless and treat our anger like an annoying distraction that must be shoved aside. But the fact is, we are hard wired to care about our community, and our anger reflects our drive to protect it from the assaults of those who exploit and harm it. We dream about fire, killing, and destruction when our psyche is consumed with the anger we refuse to express in waking life.
As the psychologist James Hillman reminded us, Aristotle said that a human being is by nature a political animal. If we don’t live out our lives as citizens, as active participants in trying to make life-enhancing communities, we work against our true nature and get sick. Our dreams try to wake us up to our emotions and help us be more fully human. Being human means being concerned with others as well as ourselves—following Darwin’s thinking that human survival has depended on our social and empathetic instincts. As Dacher Keltner explains about Darwin’s message of survival of the kindest, “In our hominid predecessors, communities of more sympathetic individuals were more successful in raising healthier offspring to the age of viability and reproduction—the sine qua non of evolution.”
This contrasts with what he have been taught about natural selection. We learned—and are constantly reminded through our culture's obsession with self-interest—that we evolved successfully by developing a tooth-and-claw and aggressively competitive nature. But that is a misconstrued interpretation of Darwin’s thought. “Survival of the fittest” was not Darwin’s phrase, but the motto of those like Herbert Spencer who wanted to use evolutionary science to justify their racist ideas.
We have been misled about who we are. But science is changing that.
Biology, neurology, and other fields have proven that our greatest strength lies in our ability to empathize and cooperate. We are brilliant and adaptive and creative because we have nurtured ourselves in social groups based on kindness and connection. The concept of the cutthroat, rugged individualist as the heroic ideal is not based on human nature, but on human greed. And greed has been a powerful force in constructing all the pieces that make a society. But ours is not the only option of what a society can be.
We are creatures of the heart. Many aspects of our lives reflect this, even if much of our culture does not. But cultures change, and as scientific evidence about the dominance of our compassionate instinct becomes more mainstream, we will hear more about ideas like “conscious capitalism,” which is defined by a higher purpose than just making money and, according the Conscious Capitalism Institute’s Raj Sisodia, creating a business culture that embodies “trust, caring, compassion, and authenticity.”
People like Sisodia point to our more empathetic future with evidence found in businesses that fared better through the Great Recession by playing by compassionate rules such as not laying off employees. “There is a fundamental shift going on in the culture,” Sisodia said. “It’s not a drastic choice anymore between Communism and capitalism; everybody believes in free markets and free people. The question is how do we refine it? How do we create the best possible kind of free markets and free people?”
The best possible kind of free people are those healthy enough in body, mind, and spirit to enjoy their freedom. Who are willing to develop that well being through emotional honesty. Who value compassion and connection over crass self interest. We owe our survival to our drive to empathize and cultivate the common good. When we get sidetracked from that drive, we ignore our upsets over the exploitation, corruption, greed, oppression, crimes, and assaults that embattle our society in the name of progress and profit. Our dreams take up the fight until we own up to our emotional honesty and no longer need to dream of fire, but instead live out our dreams of a meaningful life.