David Sloan Wilson shares some of Teilhard de Chardin’s (1881 – 1955) ideas on how we have come to be who we currently are. Even though the Catholic Church forbid this priest, paleontologist and mystic from publishing his work, friends did so after his death. David Sloan Wilson writes, “For Teilhard, the vital spark that transformed us from a mere species to a new evolutionary process is the capacity for reflection…the power acquired by a consciousness to turn in upon itself, to take possession of itself as an object endowed with its own particular consistency and value…to know oneself…to know that one knows. … For Teilhard, there had to be an atmosphere of trust for reflection to get started in the first place.”
Sloan attributes modern dysfunctional social life to a lack of trust in one another—think bitter political disputes for which the only goal is to beat one’s opponent. He states, “Left unattended, cultural evolution will take us where we don’t want to go.” Small groups, with trustworthy social partners are seen as essential to counteract dysfunction. He uses the metaphor of the human immune system for it is profoundly cooperative requiring a team of agents performing different functions that are in constant communication with one another. Alternatively, a dysfunctional immune system eventually destroys its host. He says what’s needed is a meaning system that respects factual knowledge as scientists and scholars do, and then use that knowledge to implement values. To sustain a functional social life we must listen, reflect and give meaning to our goals.
One of the factual studies Wilson cites is of a transformational first grade teacher who taught school for thirty-four years in a poor neighborhood. As her former students became adults they were measured for grade of education completed, occupational attainment, and condition of their home. Sixty-four percent of her students scored in the highest category, compared with only 29 percent for students of the other teachers. When the other teachers were asked how this first grade teacher taught they said with a lot of love by expressing confidence in her children, vowing that no child would leave her class without being able to read, staying after school to help struggling children, and sharing her lunch with students who forgot theirs. Sloan says gardeners would understand these stunning results since they “…know that a small difference in how the seedlings are tended can make a huge difference in their yield at the end of the season.”
Looking back over my 70 years I can see how small groups of people helped me evolve and overcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But I believe my greatest assist came when I reflected and wrote each evening for three years as I struggled with my aging parents care needs. And Teilhard was definitely with me during that difficult time for when life got especially tough I would stumble across his prayer, “Above All Trust in the Slow Work of God.”