September 5, 2021

The Truth About Human Nature

Portraits in care and my hope for humanity.

By Damien Foord

I’m going to ask you to consider an uncomfortable possibility. We’ve been sold a story about ourselves that just doesn’t fit reality. What’s worse, you may not have even realized it and likely still whole-heartedly believe it. So what is this pernicious lie? We’ve been told a story that humanity is inherently selfish.

In this alternate reality, survival of the fittest means we each individually do what we must, and only the strong survive. We idolize figures like John Wayne, the characters of Clint Eastwood, or other lone brooding outlaws, making it on their own by their grit. Even Batman shares the last name of John Wayne, making explicit the connection to this archetype in a modern character.

Millennials are often characterized as selfish and called the “me” generation despite being the most likely to give charitable donations while having less wealth than other generations.

And there’s no shortage of literature to choose from to support the story. Like Richard Dawkins’s book, The Selfish Gene, which suggests that we are all just basically robots piloted by our genes only concerned with their own survival.

When you bring these points together, you get the impression of a culture desperate to convince itself that this is normal. That it’s natural to never need anyone, to face the struggles of life without help or support, and the only way to make it is on your own.

Portraits in Care

Yet, somehow, my life has been utterly defined by the service and sacrifice of others. The majority of people that I know and that I’ve met aren’t much this way at all.

I think of my parents and the sacrifices they’ve made for me. They weren’t perfect, but they gave me a lot and still do. My friend’s parents didn’t have much more than we did, but they were always there to provide me with a place to stay or a warm meal. They fed me and clothed me, and it was one of my friend’s parents that paid for me to get my GED so I could join the Air Force.

While I was in the Air Force, I noticed more of the same. Even the lazy people who were just phoning it in and cashing a check ultimately were there to serve. Whether you agree or disagree with what our military does, somewhere along the line, the individual service-members each decided to sacrifice their personal freedom for a life of serving others.

On my second tour in Iraq, there was a young lieutenant that was set to go home. He was worried that our unit wasn’t adequately prepared to take on the mission handed over to us, so he chose to stay behind to help us transition in. He stayed to ensure we were safe and was killed by a roadside bomb just shy of his 25th birthday. He literally gave his life to ensure our safety.

But my favorite, and probably most definitive, portrait of care in my life is my sister Celine. I would call her almost every day to get business tips, hear about what book was blowing her mind, and get life and relationship advice. When she was diagnosed with colon cancer in June of 2018 I watched my family set aside their busy lives to come together and create a circle of care around her. But most unexpectedly, while we were all focused on caring for her, her instinct to care never wavered. She was still giving me life and relationship advice until the day she passed in November of 2019.

Caring by Design

At my sister’s memorial service, I didn’t sit with my family. I chose to sit surrounded by dear friends. You can’t see it in the photos, but they put their hands on me, they crushed my hand in theirs, and I could feel the pain being lifted from me.

That’s when I got it.

Community is an innovation. In fact, it may have been the first innovation. An innovation is something that allows you to do more work with less effort. You might think of the wheel or an iPhone. A community certainly will enable us to do survival work more efficiently — gathering grain, building shelter, etc. — and this alone meets the criteria of an innovation. But that’s not the only type of work community helps us to accomplish. Community is a tool that also allows us to do more emotional work with less effort. That day at my sister’s memorial service, we were doing more emotional work as a community than I could have accomplished on my own.

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So where are these selfish people? I look around, and I don’t see the selfish people that media and pop culture are always talking about. In actuality, evolution long ago determined we are most fit for survival when we work together.

The moment we settled into villages survival of the fittest no longer meant the strongest or the fastest survived. It wasn’t the one that overpowered or outran the saber-toothed tiger that survived, but the one most connected to the community. The person whom the community chose to rally around to protect and defend.

And this is still true to this day. People with strong community ties are more likely to attend college, less likely to become addicted to serious drugs, less likely to be the victim of a violent crime, they are more likely to have health insurance and even recover from surgery faster. By any metric you choose, people have better lives when they are connected to others. For all our technological advancements, our survival is still deeply dependent upon community.

My Hope for Humanity

Everywhere I look, I see caring people that want desperately to do right by each other. It’s true. Sometimes, when we are scared or hurting, we struggle to allow that care to shine through our fear and pain. But that’s not our true nature. We are all caring people, even if we are sometimes acting out in selfish ways.

If we believe stories like John Wayne, Josey Wales, and the Lone Ranger, we end up thinking that we are supposed to be that way. We shame ourselves and those around us for needing others, for not being tough or independent enough.

But those people aren’t real, and emulating their antisocial behavior encourages dysfunction in humanity. As was made plain when we all quarantined in 2020, the best among us aren’t the lone outlaws on the fringe of society. The best among us are the everyday workers within society willing to put their lives on the line to deliver the best possible care for others. It’s genuinely the noblest of our nature to support one another in our time of need. We are meant to be cooperative members of a tribe. It’s in our genes and by design that we do. Once we realize this, we can forgive ourselves and those around us for our fleeting moments of selfishness and remember who we’re truly meant to be. That we are designed for care.