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The Human Capacity for Transformation

We know that, given the right conditions, it is possible for small groups of people to live together routinely in community, in love and a spirit of peace. This realisation is not the end of a search, it is the beginning. It opens up new possibilities. If small groups, why not larger groups, entire towns, cities or even states. If states, why not a nation? If a nation, why not the nations of the world?

It seems difficult to imagine a world in which all differences are transcended, a contemplative world in which realistic decisions are reached by consensus. How could such a world be possible? Ours is a civilisation in which racial, cultural and political differences have driven us apart, a world of action and reaction, of leaders and followers. It is human nature. To take any significant steps in the direction of world community, we presume that human nature would somehow have to change or be changed. Somehow we would all have to become the same and that is impossible. Yet in community, on a small scale, that assumption has been proved to be false. Individual differences are accepted and celebrated. Perhaps the first step towards community on a grander scale lies in the acceptance of the fact that we are not, nor can we ever be, all the same.

Community is the solution. It is a state of being together in which people, instead of hiding behind their defences, learn to lower them, in which instead of attempting to obliterate their differences, people learn not only to accept them, but rejoice in them. It is not a place for "rugged individualism". As a place for "soft individualism", however, it actually encourages pluralism. Through community, the problem of pluralism ceases to be a problem.

To understand more deeply how this happens, it is necessary to understand at the most radical level, just why we are so different and, at the same time, just what it is that we have in common. We can do this by answering the question, "What is human nature?"

The illusion of human nature is that people are the same. Even so, to state that human beings of a different background or culture share absolutely no similarities is another over simplification. The dynamics of the spiritual journey are the same the world over. They are a given of human nature and one of the complex features that we all have in common. We must face the same mortality and struggle with the same issues of what it means to be human. Thus the answer to that all-important question, "What is human nature?" must be a paradoxical one. Human beings are profoundly different and profoundly similar. But, perhaps because it would be much simpler if we were all alike, it is a tendency of human beings in all cultures to err dreadfully on the side of severely underestimating our differences.

Where cultural differences are recognised and it is accepted that they are capable of being changed, it is almost always assumed that it is the other culture that should change to meet our culture and our reality. We assume that ours is both good and superior and it is the people with other cultures who should change. But, that again is an expression of the illusion of human nature carried to an even more dangerous extreme. Not only does it postulate that we are all essentially alike, it assumes that we should be alike. Those who cannot, will not or do not want to change - to be just like us - are marked as enemies. This happens whether the others are the people living next door or they are another nation or culture whose life style is different from ours.

The reality of human nature is that we are and always will be profoundly different, for the most salient feature of human nature lies in our capacity to be moulded by experience and culture in extremely variable ways. Human nature is flexible and it is capable of change. But that does not say enough. Far better to say that human nature has the capacity for transformation. It is the capacity for transformation that is most characteristic of human nature.

Human nature is so subtle and many-faceted, it cannot be captured in a single definition. What distinguishes us from most other creatures is not our opposing thumb or our magnificent larynx or our huge cerebral cortex, it is our dramatic relative lack of instincts - inherited, pre-formed patterns of behaviour that give other creatures a much more fixed and predetermined nature than we have as humans.

Nowhere is our capacity for transformation more evident than through the successive stages of psychological growth from infancy, through adolescence to adulthood. Thereafter, however, our willingness, if not our capacity, to change is far less evident as we become older and more set in our ways, more convinced of the rightness of our opinions, more rigid and less interested in new things.

The good news is that we do not have to grow old mentally. Physically, we may age, but mentally and spiritually, no. It is an interesting paradox that the most psychologically and spiritually mature adults are those who are least likely to grow old mentally. Conversely, much of what we call senility is a fatal end-stage form of psychological and spiritual immaturity. We have a common expression for the senile, that they have "entered a second childhood". The become whiny, demanding, manipulative and self-centred. But usually, this is not because they have entered their second childhood, it is because they have never left their first. It is just that the veneer of adulthood has worn thin.

True adults are those of us who have learned to continually develop and exercise our capacity for transformation. Because of this exercise, progress along the journey of growth often becomes faster and faster the further we proceed on it. For the more we grow, the greater becomes our capacity to be empty - to empty ourselves of the old so that the new may enter and we may thereby be transformed.

So, it is our capacity for transformation that makes us, in part, such different people. Lacking a fixed, set nature and possessing the freedom to do the new, the different and the unnatural, it is inevitable that we should be moulded into or choose multiple paths. What most characterises the human species, therefore, is variability. By virtue of different genes, different childhood, different cultures, different life experiences and, perhaps above all, different choices, we have become transformed or have transformed ourselves in different ways. It is these profound differences of temperament, character and culture that make it so difficult for us to live together harmoniously. Yet, by exercising this same capacity for transformation, it is possible for us to transcend our own childhood, our cultures and our past experiences and hence, without obliterating them, to transcend our differences.

It isn’t easy, but it is possible. The reason it isn’t easy is because of the preference for consistency that exists in the make up of most of our personalities. Consistency has both its dark side and its light side, its good and its bad. We need a certain amount of consistency so that we can function as trustworthy people. The dark side, however, is that we inherently resist change. We resist change, even though we want change, because that change shines a light of truth through us. So it is not easy for us to change, but it is possible and it is precisely this capacity for transformation which is the characteristic that is responsible for the evolution and survival of the human species.