Emotional Infrastructure

So about 200,000 years ago, the species home sapiens– that is, us– became established.

While there weren’t as many of us back then, still, statistically speaking, it stands to reason that at some point in that 195,000 years of unwritten human history, there had to be a few Einsteins, one or two Da Vincis, and maybe even a Mozart or two.

So why haven’t we heard of them? Why are there no cave drawings of Mona Lisa?

The point I will immediately get to is, the Mozart we all know could not have existed, or at least, he would not have manifested as anything much beyond a primitive creature, seeking to merely survive from day to day, if he had not been surrounded by the infrastructure of violin makers, cello players, opera singers, architects who built concert halls, and so on . . . not to mention the whole system of music notation which, if it had not been widely established in the 200 years prior to, he would still hear his symphonies in his head, but would have no way to write them down, much less share them with anyone else.

It is quite possible that something similar is happening in our here and now. Perhaps there are people who have the same genius and capability of a 75,000-BC Mozart living among us, but there is no cultural/mechanical/industrial infrastructure allowing them to employ their gift, and they walk around confused and frustrated, just seeking to survive day to day.

Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates are all very clever, and would likely have done well in life no matter what, but it was the creation of the Internet infrastructure (not to mention roads and electricity and UPS) that made their high achievements possible. Without it . . . They would all just be another guy in the marketing department with personal idiosyncracies.

With all the emphasis on rugged individualism, there is a constant tendency to take our massive dependence on infrastructure for granted. We like to blame individuals rather than our collective failures to maintain infrastructure. The focus on individual failings distracts us from the real causes of our woes.

So, along with the infrastructure of roads, the electrical grid, metallurgy, copyright protections, and the internet, there is another kind of infrastructure that, like many of our roads and bridges and pipes, is crumbling away before our very eyes, and that is . . . emotional infrastructure.

The folks in Finland have figured out that emotional infrastructure is a sine qua non of a best-in-the-world educational system. They understand that the emotional health, that is, feeling safe and secure within their families, institutions, and peer groups, is the starting point for superior learning.

Here in the United States we always seem to be ignoring the need for emotional infrastructure. Just as bridges fall down and water mains break at inopportune moments, causing everyone all kinds of aggravation, by ignoring the need to maintain emotional infrastructure, we are seeing society, and our nation, crumble as well.

When I see a fellow citizen expressing bile and vitriol towards one political figure or another on a faebook comment, I do not see this as a logical face value argument about a given political theory.  They never hold up under scrutiny.  What I am seeing, and what I think we are all experiencing, are the symptoms of a disease, which is the loss of emotional infrastructure. The statements we hear are, more often than not, nonsensical, and yet they seem to get repeated endlessly. These are not issues of lack of individual logical ability, nor can the problem be fixed by shaming this or that individual. It is a symptom of the decay of emotional infrastructure, which is required in order to have logical thought, just as as electricity requires utility poles.

When we do not feel safe, when the norms of manners and politeness are cast aside, we lose the capacity to think calmly and objectively, just as losing the bridge makes us lose the ability to cross the river. It’s not our own individual failing, it is the loss of infrastructure that is making us all wet.  Without the collectively created infrastructure in place, we become limited in what we can do, both with our physical bodies driving across the river, and with our minds traveling to new realms of consciousness.

I don’t think we can overcome the divisiveness of our current political climate without seeing past the expressions of vitriol that are designed to destroy the emotional infrastructure that would normally not allow fanaticism to fester.  We must step back, rise above our emotional responses, and realize that the pithy condemnations of this party or that are really just symptoms of a disease. It is the loss of the underlying emotional infrastructure, of a loss of and desperate need for mutual respect, as well fear of being assaulted, that manifests as symptoms at all other areas of social discourse.

It is very hard to study for a test when you are hungry or you are afraid that you will be abandoned or beaten at any moment.  If our core sense of emotional infrastructure is lost, civilization is soon to fall as well.

Sadly, there are those who seek greater power for themselves, who know how easy it is to exploit the poor judgement caused by a lack of emotional infrastructure, and so as part of a broader scheme of oppressing those weaker than themselves, they seek to corrode and weaken emotional infrastructure, just as bacteria are thrilled by the vulnerability of bruised fruit. By ridiculing and flouting conventions of simple things like good manners, this makes them more able to subvert society for their own nefarious purposes.

It often said that at the beginning of every new war, the generals start by using the tactics of the last war. This is the case today. Just as Blitzkrieg warfare was totally new to the French in 1940, the kinds of emotional and economic warfare being waged upon us today are just as unfamiliar, harder to even comprehend, and we have no defense because we did not know we needed one.   These are not wars of physical territory.  We must recognize our vulnerability, we must recognize the threat, we must accept the presence of evil, and we must open our eyes and accept the responsibility that falls upon us as individuals and society to address the problem, or accept the horrific consequences of inaction.


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