Youth and the Three Dimensions of Social Space
Young Muslims from North America and Europe leaving home to join ISIS, much to their parents’ alarm. Several years ago, college students joining the Occupy movement in large numbers. Urban youth joining street gangs with strict codes of honor and loyalty.
Do these phenomena have anything in common?
Recently I’ve been investigating the work of Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist. Haidt posits what he calls the “three dimensions of social cognition or social space”: the dimension of closeness or solidarity (how close we feel to others, and how much mutual obligation we feel), the dimension of status or hierarchy, and the dimension of divinity or elevation. This third dimension involves moving up or down a scale with behavior we find disgusting and degrading at the bottom, and behavior we find inspiring, uplifting, or elevating at the top. Haidt says that we move up on the scale of divinity by activities that invoke the self-transcendent emotions of elevation (the good feeling we get when we witness acts of virtue done by others), awe, and wonder.
People we admire as great saints or great moral examples, people like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and His Holiness the Dalai Lama would be at the top of the scale, and inspire the emotion of elevation in us.
Many world religions have codified this last dimension into their ethics, rituals, and belief systems. Haidt posits that this third dimension is innate in humans; we seek elevation or self-transcendence, and avoid that which is degrading or debasing.
So what happens when you live in a world, like modern secular North America, where the social space is flattened into two, or even one, dimension? What happens to your innate wish for self-transcendence, for inspiration, elevation, and wonder?
I remember growing up as a hippie teenager, in a time when we were rejecting the materialistic world of our parents, the post-war world of consumerism and consumption. We were finding our need for self-transcendence fulfilled in social and political protest, Eastern spirituality, and mind-altering substances. During this time period, we see in retrospect that these activities were relatively benign, even virtuous.
What are young people turning to these days to fulfill this need, in the flattened, one-dimensional world that we live in? Are their choices as benign as ours were in the ‘60s and ‘70s, or is there much more risk involved in their exploration and experimentation? Is there anything that we can do to provide the moral compass, fulfill the deep spiritual needs that are common to all human beings, when they are not being provided by the culture at large? Or will we continue to act as if a flattened world is normal and turn our backs on the desperation of our youth, who are seeking to fulfill these needs with whatever arises?
For over 20 years, Vajrapani Institute has been providing programs for children, youth, and now young adults. It started with Kids Camp (later known as Family Camp) in 1994 which later generated an offshoot as the kids grew up, Teen Camp. The latest addition to the program is the Young Adult Retreat. Many of the young people involved in these programs have been coming back year after year, from the time they were small children, as they find these programs provide them with the guidance, community, experiences, and ethical framework that are missing in their experiences at school and in their communities. Perhaps the staff at Vajrapani hasn’t thought explicitly in terms of the third dimension of social space, and the self-transcendent needs of these kids, but is fulfilling this mandate nevertheless in a world so desperately in need of these alternatives.