Our life exists in death’s shadow. Investment in life is our resistance to the pull of death, but survival has its requisites and so to live is to have needs. Unfulfilled needs have a cost — potentially life itself. To have needs is to feel alive and to be vulnerable. Vulnerability inspires a drive to seek out or to protect; in this way vulnerability is the foundation of emotion. Emotion literally means “to set in motion,” “to stir” or “to disturb.” This is the function of our emotionally organized “executive operating systems” (EOSs)*; they each activate us to manage our vulnerability, our needs and life itself.
Our needs percolate through us to stimulate feelings, thoughts and impulses to action. Needs begin upon life’s arrival and our strategies to meet these needs develop in response to the circumstances confronting us. This personal disposition we try so actively to define and make sense of reflects the melding of what we have brought into the world with what we face during our life’s journey. Like a river carving a canyon, life shapes our personality.
Personality is a significant determinant of what draws us towards one and repels us from another. The pull of approach or push of avoid is felt in response to the process others engage in to satisfy their needs; we measure how that might facilitate or interfere with our own efforts. Difficulties with others are not because they have needs but in response to the path they take to assuage their needs. We are capable of having empathy for the needs of others because we too understand and experience need. Connecting around this insight might help lead us away from conflict and towards awareness and dialogue.
In the movie Captain Phillips, we are introduced to a Somali pirate named Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi), who with a small crew hijacks an American cargo ship and takes Captain Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) hostage. In this character’s introduction we see the context in which Muse must try to meet his needs. While we may denounce his actions, we can have empathy for satisfying needs in such difficult circumstances. Empathy also opens us up to see how his actions occur within a larger global framework that makes judgment more complicated. In the midst of violent conflict, seeing needs, accessing empathy and gaining awareness of the complex interrelationships between people and the larger systems in which they are embedded is our only hope of seeking peace in war’s shadow. This is as true at the micro level as it is on the macro level.
Our ability to see through behavior to the needs and vulnerability from which it springs helps to engage our capacity for empathy. Each of us is born vulnerable and in our struggle to live we are drawn to what meets our needs in our particular circumstance. Our unique story is embedded in a larger whole and seeing another’s need, as well as their strategy for meeting the need, allows us to see their story. These are the stories of life’s dance with death.