“As far as possible without surrender/ be on good terms with all persons.”
– Max Ehrmann, Desiderata
Our kids were home on Wednesday last week, as our school district observed Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Judaism. I’m not a theologian and can’t claim to have anything beyond a superficial understanding of Yom Kippur, but as we walked past the local synagogue in our neighborhood, surrounded by parked cars, I speculated about how and why such a tradition might have arisen.
From my understanding, Yom Kippur is primarily concerned with seeking forgiveness from God for any transgressions accrued in the last year. However, I was more curious about another related aspect of the holiday, which is that – prior to the day itself – people are also encouraged to seek forgiveness from others they have harmed.
I can see parallels here to my own Roman Catholic childhood and the sacrament of Penance. Of course, as a boy I was just doing what the adults told me to do, going through the motions – perfunctorily confessing to a priest about fighting with my siblings. But I never contemplated why something like Penance might exist, aside from the obvious one of avoiding Hell (that fear seems a lifetime ago).
Most religious traditions and societies probably have concepts like forgiveness, reconciliation, and atonement built into them to some degree. These likely have deep roots, and we can even find some of the basic building blocks of these among other species of primates. Most primate species are highly social, group-living animals, which has a list of pros and cons. The benefits of being social include having more eyes and ears to detect predators, the ‘selfish herd’ idea (less chance for me to be eaten), defense (against conspecifics for territory, against predators), more models of adult behavior (socialization), easier to find mates and food, and (in some species) reaping the benefits of specialized division of labor.
However, all things in biology have tradeoffs. If you’re going to live in a group, chances are next to nil that there will not be at least some internal conflict. It’s certainly not all-conflict-all-the-time, but the degree of internal conflict depends on circumstances. Two individuals may want similar things most of the time, but they cannot maintain perfectly overlapping interests indefinitely.
Among baboons, social life is rife with conflict as individuals vie for status. In an interview with Robert Sapolsky, he described the impact social stress can have on baboon life, while drawing a comparison to humans: