by Susan Rosenthal
Consider the challenge of three blind men who encounter an elephant. One man swings the elephant’s trunk and proclaims that the creature must be some kind of snake. Another man pats the elephant’s ear and insists that the creature is wide and flat, not at all like a snake. A third man feels his way around the elephant’s leg and announces that the other two are deluded; the creature is obviously a tree.
The point of the story is that no one can understand the world in isolation. Each of us can know only a fragment of life. We can be like the three blind men and argue over who has the right interpretation, or we can pool our experiences to create a clearer picture.
Capitalism prevents such collective problem-solving. To stay in power, the ruling class must keep the rest of us divided and unsure of what we know.
The first cut is the deepest – the horizontal class divide between the few who rule and the many who labor to serve them. Hundreds of vertical cuts slice humanity into nations that compete economically and militarily. Within each nation, the class-divided population is also chopped vertically into multiple segments based on race, sex, age, language, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, politics, geographic location, abilities – virtually any characteristic you can think of. A range of ideologies re-enforce these divisions: racism, nationalism, sexism, homophobia, etc.
These divisions violate human nature. The human brain evolved to function in connection with other brains. The infant mind depends on the adult mind to teach it how to manage thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Cooperation has always been the key to human survival and development, with each generation passing its experience to the next. By blocking cooperation, capitalism keeps us less-than-human and endangers our survival.
While we all live alienated, fragmented lives, some people’s jobs provide close contact with the experiences of others, enabling them to develop a broader perspective. Health workers, in particular, gain intimate access to human suffering.
As a psychotherapist, I have spent over 30,000 hours listening to thousands of people tell me what they think and feel, behind their every-day masks. More than that, we have struggled to uncover the meaning of their experience.
This collective experience has taught me to distinguish what is unique and personal from what is universal and social. My patients benefit from this understanding, because they mistakenly believe that their problems are unique and their own fault. They are neither.
I have learned that most people are in the same boat. They want and need the same things and are being held back by the same social forces. Only a tiny minority benefit from the way things are. The vast majority do not benefit; they suffer.
By emphasizing what we have in common, we can not only gain a better understanding of the world, we can discover our power to change it – together.