Michael Spezio, Ph.D. (co-PI)
Associate Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience
Scripps College, Claremont, CA
Robert Roberts, Ph.D. (co-PI)
Distinguished Professor of Ethics, Emeritus
Baylor University, Waco, TX
The project’s primary motivation was to identify elements of a psychology and an ontology of the self that illuminate the possibility and actuality of a sustained formation of authentic self in humility, compassion, forgiveness, celebration, belonging, vulnerability, friendship, and love. We sought an understanding of the self’s formation that overcomes seemingly insurmountable valuational barriers between people and groups. Valuational barriers prevent persons and groups from seeing one another authentically, from moving into spaces of engagement that lead to acceptance and mutual recognition and vulnerability, and that have the promise of a revitalized reconstitution of both person and new community.
To progress in this aim we chose to focus primarily on two stable, dynamic, long-term communities whose leaders and members have demonstrated evidence of virtuous formation over years and in contexts that elicit a mixture of awe and inspiration. We believe that philosophical, psychological, neuroscientific, and theological inquiry into such formation can really best proceed by engaging such communities. Our focus entailed risk because it depended on the availability of the communities and on our ability to work with them in developing bonds of trust. We believe the risk was worth the extra effort and time because of the value and insight these communities can bring.
First, the focus on these atypical, exceedingly rare, communities – communities defined by belonging – freed us from the limits of the moral subjectivism and individualism that ignores the importance of and promise of exceptional, morally intentional communities of belonging in shaping moral lives. We successfully avoided typical strategies in the sciences of moral narrative, cognition, and action, such as convenience sampling from online or undergraduate populations, both prevalent in from psychology and neuroscience. Second, the focus on persons with stable commitments to communities of belonging, and on the narratives and ritual practices of those communities, freed us from an overemphasis on atomistic-self-determination in the psychology, epistemology, and/or ontology of the formation of the self. We successfully began our philosophical and psychological inquiries by avoiding Western atomistic individualism in framing the self, an individualism often prominent in utilitarian, contractarian, and neo-Kantian moral philosophies of both constructivist and realist commitments.
Our partners in this effort were the communities of l’Arche USA and International and of Homeboy Industries. L’Arche (from the French word for Ark, as in Noah’s Ark of rescue) is a worldwide, intercultural organization in over 35 countries, with over 140 communities, co-founded by Jean Vanier (who was awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize). L’Arche’s primary calling is to welcome adults with and without profound intellectual disabilities into small houses of friendship, of openness and vulnerability and celebration. Each house is home to three to five persons with disabilities – the Core Members – and a similar number of persons without such disabilities – the Assistants. The experience of rescue is real. On the one hand, the Core Members generally come from circumstances of deep challenge, sometimes from abusive institutions. Once in l’Arche, they can begin to inhabit their own rooms with their own special touches of decoration and ownership, supported and celebrated by a close group of persons whom they will be able to call and to count on as friends. On the other, the Assistants generally come from a dynamic that occupies so much of typical life. Vanier calls this typical experience “the tyranny of the Normal.” By this phrase, he means the incessant cycle and drive for admiration, competition, self-justification that is often self-masking, dominance over others, and distrust of or discrimination against those who are different. Once in l’Arche, Assistants can begin to inhabit their own authenticity in vulnerability, to experience the beauty of simplicity in sharing life with others who only seem different, and to discover a calling to accompaniment.
Accompaniment is also a central theme of Homeboy Industries, an organization based in Chinatown, in Los Angeles, California. Homeboy was co-founded by Father Gregory Boyle (who was awarded the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame in March, 2017) and welcomes into friendship and kinship women and men who have survived violence – both as victims and perpetrators – of gang life and prison. Homeboy’s typical program is 18 months long and involves substance abuse recovery programs certified by the state of California, together with classes in parenting, anger management, meditation, recovery from domestic violence, and literacy. Homeboy provides jobs and job-training for the people in its programs, ranging from silk-screening to food industry positions to solar panel installation to leadership in the transformation of the self-in-community. At any one time, around forty members of Homeboy who have completed the programs – all former gang members and prison inmates – serve others as Navigators, Senior Navigators, and directors of programs of recovery and healing. The community joins together women and men who, in their activities in the gangs, were aiming to kill one another, quite literally. Former members of violently rival gangs are invited each day to talk with one another, open up to one another, work together, laugh at one another’s jokes, and rediscovery the authentic humanity in others and in themselves. Nearly 10,000 people each year take part.
The contexts from which l’Arche and Homeboy emerged and the communities they embody could not be more different, at least on the surface. Yet the same narratives of hope and possibilities of authentic formation of the self, in humility, compassion, forgiveness, celebration, belonging, vulnerability, friendship, and love, became evident to us over our time spent with them during the project. We are deeply grateful to have been welcomed by both.
We can point to several concrete advances in the project, thanks to the generosity of l’Arche and Homeboy Industries. First, communities of belonging matter and intentional communities of forgiveness, empathy, compassion, celebration, friendship, and accompaniment matter in the extreme. The communities from which the members of l’Arche and Homeboy came (prior to their belonging in either l’Arche or Homeboy) tended to overwhelm any sense of authentic self. The intentional communities of l’Arche and Homeboy seeded hope by providing authentic belonging, making it possible for people to live authentically in mutual vulnerability and to leave the ruling motivations of their “old selves” – some even said their “ugly selves” – behind, for good. Thoroughgoing transformation and formation of the self was not only possible, but was realized and stable over years, all within the dynamics of the intentional communities we studied.
Second, our analyses of narrative texts and interviews from the members of the communities led to a novel understanding of humility. Humility in these communities is a novel combination of openness to and empathy for others. We identify this humility as interpersonal, valuational openness to others, as a kind of kenotic empathy. Humility has nothing to do with self-denigration, self-denial, or self-abasement. Rather, to strive in humility means to strive to be free of the vices of pride and to open oneself to another: to value that person mindfully and heartily enough to listen, to ask, to strive to authentically see them and affirm their value to the community and to humanity. Striving in humility leaves aside any attempt to look on what a person says or at how they say it with any sense of superiority, dominance, and judgment.
Third, cognitive models of self and other that hold the value of the other together with the value of the self facilitate choices that benefit others even when those choices present risks to the self. This set of findings contradicts prominent views that the only way to value the self is to separate it from the value of others. We saw that typical models of human beings as homo economicus – emerging from economics and political science and which constrain self and other to a zero-sum game of competition and dominance – failed to capture the ways that our participants held self and other together. Fourth, evidence from neural signals suggested that emotionally valuing others overlaps with an openness to taking their perspective. These findings appear to contradict moral theories that depend on deep divisions between reason and emotion, between cognition and affect, between thinking and feeling.
We proposed in our grant submission to interview 40 members from l’Arche and 20 members from Homeboy Industries using long-form interviews that specifically targeted moral concepts as understood and used in the communities. We completed interviews with over 60 members from l’Arche, including over 15 Core Members, from 4 communities in l’Arche USA (Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Erie) and 3 communities in l’Arche International, all based in or around the spiritual center of l’Arche at La Ferme in Trosly, France (Trosly, Cuise, Pierrefonds). We also completed over 3 hours of in-person interviews with Jean Vanier in his home at La Ferme. Those interviews provided direct confirmation of the novel understanding of humility in l’Arche. We completed interviews of 14 senior members of Homeboy Industries, all of whom were former gang members, had been incarcerated, and who were now and had been living radically humble and loving lives for many years. These leaders included the Director of the Substance Abuse Recovery Program and the Artist in Residence, the Director of the Domestic Violence Recovery Program, and the Director of Special Job Training (a Homeboy leader for over 10 years), and the Director of Outreach to African American Communities (himself a former leader of one of the most violent gangs in Los Angeles). The stories that the Homeboy cohort shared with us are nothing short of remarkable and will continue to yield insights and publications in the next few years.
When we looked at narrative texts and interviews from the members of the communities, we found a radically new understanding of humility. Humility in these communities has nothing to do with feeling bad about oneself or making oneself out to be bad or unworthy. Instead, humility is a combination of openness to and empathy for others. Humility is interpersonal, valuational openness to others, an empathy that authentically sees another human being. To strive in humility means to strive to be free of the vices of pride and to open oneself to another: to value that person mindfully and heartily enough to listen, to ask, to strive to authentically see them, welcome them, and affirm their value to the community and to humanity.
When we looked at mathematical models of how the mind represents self and other, we saw that the value of the other can be held together with the value of the self, and that holding these together promoted choices that benefitted others even when those choices presented risks to the self. This discovery is very different from views that say that the only healthy way to value the self is to separate it from the value of others. We saw that typical models of human beings as homo economicus – emerging from economics and political science and which limit self and other to a zero-sum game of competition and dominance – failed to capture the ways that our participants held self and other together. Evidence from neural signals suggested that emotionally valuing others overlaps with an openness to taking their perspective. These findings appear to contradict moral theories that depend on deep divisions between reason and emotion, between cognition and affect, between thinking and feeling.
We achieved our goal of a special event highlighting our work, held at the Claremont Colleges. On 30 November, 2017, we hosted four women in leadership at Homeboy Industries at Scripps College, for a conversation entitled “Women Leading Transformation.” We received overwhelmingly positive evaluations of the event and we made a high-resolution video recording of the event.
We achieved our goal of beginning a service learning project around our work at Scripps College. Plans are developing for such a project during August, 2018, with the incoming first year students at Scripps, so that they can engage in experiential and service learning with Homeboy Industries. Our program will emphasize the formation of the self in intentional moral communities and will stress the leadership style of accompaniment. The program is being conducted in cooperation with the Scripps College Laspa Center for Leadership.