It is our psychic needs and the feelings that accompany them that are at the root of human nature. (Mary E Clark)
My Gran is old and frail. For 90 years she has been tough and fiercely independent but today she finds herself in an old people’s hostel. She eats what she is fed, goes to bed and rises according to the routines of the institution and occasionally needs assistance to bathe and dress herself. Despite the pleasant and caring hostel environment, this has not been a happy or easy time for Gran, so her extended family makes the effort to support her as best we can. We visit Gran daily, provide her with little luxuries, and bust her out for a visit to the hairdresser or cafe.
Taking care of Gran in the midst of all our other responsibilities can be quite an effort. And yet we do it. I think it is a normal human activity to look after the elderly as best we can. If you disagree, think of the deep emotions – sadness and outrage – expressed by the community when elder neglect and abuse is reported. However, looking after the frail elderly contradicts accepted understandings of human nature as expressed by Richard Dawkins that is, that human nature is essentially selfish, that we are motivated to act only to further our own interests, to ensure the survival of our offspring at the expense of others. Our behaviour makes no sense according to the selfish gene.
So, are we human beings intrinsically selfish, competitive and even violent? Mary Clark argues no. We are in all likelihood evolved with more capacity for kindness, cooperation and reconciliation than for aggression. There is much hope for those interested in nonviolence in her book: In search of human nature.
Clark provides three categories of needs (beyond those of immediate physical survival) and argues that all human needs can be accommodated within these three categories. She also provides a role for emotion. Emotion alerts us to threats to our needs. Emotions should thus be acknowledged, not suppressed, denied, or managed. This aspect of Clark’s work is congruent with Marshall Rosenberg’s description of the relationship between feelings and needs.
To explore Clark’s ideas about human needs and emotions, I have attempted to map my lived experience of helping look after my Grandmother to Clarke’s theory.
Needs and emotions
We humans have a real and felt need to belong to a functioning group. My need for belonging is met when I visit Gran by my continued connection with her, and by being a part of a network of carers including other family members and also the hostel staff and other residents. Other needs I am meeting when I visit Gran that fall within the domain of belonging would include empathy, mutuality and nurturing.
The emotions that direct my attention to Gran include sadness and a little guilt when I think of Gran being lonely or of my Mum needing a break. During and after a visit I often feel content.
Human beings have a real and felt need to explore, to learn, to grow. To be honest, Gran’s dependence can occur as a threat to my autonomy. Do I really want to spend a whole morning of my precious weekend at the oldies home when I could be doing some other activity? The needs I meet when I avoid a visit to gran for reasons related to autonomy include choice, freedom, and spontaneity. And yet sometimes my choice is to visit Gran, in this case, my need related to autonomy is be a need for growth: I want to learn more about Gran’s early life and family in Ukraine. When I connect to this need, it is easy to visit Gran.
My emotions related to autonomy may include frustration and resentment when I anticipate a scheduled visit, and when a visit lasts longer than I would like. However, when my needs for autonomy are met, when I get to freely choose to visit Gran, to come and go as I please, and to discuss family history rather than politics – I feel content and fulfilled by this visit.
We humans also need to ask and consider questions, to make sense of the world. What meaning do I find in my current relationship with Gran? I am enjoying the process of becoming an elder, experiencing the unfolding of this ancient cycle after seeing Gran look after her elderly relatives when I was small girl. My needs for meaning include purpose and self-expression.
The emotions that tie me to my need for meaning related to meaning include a sense of satisfaction and pleasure in being partly responsible for Gran’s care. I also feel a deep regret when I imagine missing this experience.
What does this mean for my understanding of nonviolence?
The very normal and everyday act of caring for my elderly Grandmother illustrates that human life is may not be inherently selfish and violent. We don’t always require extrinsic, tangible rewards to perform kind deeds. We don’t need to be manipulated, coerced, persuaded, or threatened. Instead, searching to meet our universal human needs of belonging, autonomy and meaning can be the motivation for caring for others, for doing the ‘right’ thing. It could be that when people are connected to their needs, there is no need for violence.
Mary E Clark (2002). In search of human nature. London: Routledge.