We live in a dangerous world, as Wayne LaPierre, president of the NRA, would be happy to affirm. I use “happy” deliberately, because he thrives on telling the world how dangerous it is. Well, more frankly, how dangerous we humans are, and how essential is it that we all arm ourselves against one another.
He has some reason for his fears. Our current history is replete with wars, crimes against humanity, mass killings and one-on-one murders. When given the chance to harm one another in a variety of ways, a significant number of us will do exactly that.
Again, the word “fears” is deliberately chosen. From where else can LaPierre’s position come but fear? He has acknowledged his fear and has decided to cash in on it. His life’s goal seems to be to spread fear. He knows exactly how to strike the chord of fear inside each of us.
Both his fears and his message platform emerge from the part of the human brain that formed early on in evolution to make survival possible in a world that was full of unknown dangers — erupting volcanoes, earthquakes, violent storms, and a full range of predators wanting a meal, or rivals wanting territory.
All those dangers remain with us today. The reptilian brain that knew how to respond to those dangers remains alive and well within us.
Although no longer needed as the primary means of survival, the reptile’s long-snout sharp-tooth-and-smashing-tail response to fear remains easily roused in the human psyche. We see it in the rapid-response to difficulties between nations by those who instantly cry for war. We see it in our justice system when victims are encouraged to seek maximum revenge for an injustice, are given to understand they can ease their own pain by inflicting the maximum legal pain on their assailants. We see it on city streets where gangs and mobs stake out territories, whether of space or power or profit. We see it in corporations where the fear-drive pushes them to use any method needed to gain control of resources and markets. We see it in religious or political ideological wars where fear causes true believers to strike out at any competing idea or value. We see it where some attempt to build walls (religious divisions or national boundaries or political districts) against competing people or ideas.
The reptilian brain is alive and well. Not only in what I call the National Reptilian-Brain Association, but within our military, our Congress, our neighborhoods.
But evolution has moved on. At a certain level, we remain reptilian, but we have developed other areas of the brain that some are ignoring, or perhaps have not fully accessed within themselves.
Humans developed — over a period of time that is no doubt still ongoing — the capacity for relationships, emotions, values. Even later we developed language, abstract thought, imagination, consciousness. We developed — and on this level we are no doubt still in an early stage of maturation — culture, community, loyalty, and the ability to understand the possibility of improving the conditions of life.
Underlying all those advanced layers of brain development remains the reptilian brain.
Yes, we can use that reptilian brain to meet life and deal with problems. We can escalate enmities, declare wars, snap our long jaws and tails, show our sharp teeth. Everyone innately understands those behaviors. In LaPierre’s thinking, perhaps when couples apply to marry, they ought to be issued a gun and trained in using it, because you never know when the person you most trust is going to turn on you. After all, domestic violence is a major source of injury and death in our country. We can arm everyone, including children, with weapons; we can continue to develop increasingly destructive weapons of mass destruction, we can continue to seek world domination (whether by governments or corporations or drug cartels) that keeps everyone else afraid. It’s a world we are extremely capable of replicating endlessly.
But at this point in time, it is absolutely essential, to realize that we can deliberately choose to use our capacity for conscious and compassionate behavior; that we can develop our ability to choose values that enhance compassionate living; that we can turn from reliance on weapons and instead develop tools that allow us to live peacefully; that we can look with respect upon one another as members of one family with equal rights and shared responsibilities. We are co-evolvers of human community, we can learn from each other, and together accomplish great things. It is that new world — in the best sense a Courageous New World — that is capable of putting aside the fear, the defensiveness, the mistrust, the enmity, the walls and barriers and living as one extended family on this small, beautiful, fragile planet.
We need to find ways to reach out to those who are afraid, to those we fear, to those who have caused us harm, to those who have been harmed by us. We can, if we want, build bridges rather than walls. We can, if we want, create trust; we can, if we want, become trustworthy; we can, if we want, learn to forgive and ask for forgiveness. Even those we see as enemies are human, flawed like ourselves, who seek meaning and safety and dignity.
Let little children lead us. If we need motivation for turning to our more evolved brain centers when considering options for the future, look upon the 30,000 children of these United States already killed by guns in the short 15 years of the 21st century. Look at the lost promise; the broken dreams; the broken hearts. They deserved better. They didn’t deserve to be victims of reptilian-brain behavior.
Those today living in bombed-out cities, those around the world fleeing reptilian assaults on their simple lives deserve better. They deserve the best of the fully alive, fully aware and fully functioning human brains of a compassionate world.
It is impossible to accumulate enough money or build enough weapons to make the Wayne Lapierre’s in the world feel safe. We must confront our reptilian-brain fear-response to life; we must acknowledge, face, and overcome our fears of each other.