Freud writes in Civilization and its Discontents that when we're first born, we recognize little separation between our egos and our surroundings. However, we soon learn -- unless we have certain psychological pathologies -- that we're distinct entities. We notice that we desire things that aren't contained within our bodies, so we adopt the reality principle and sever our egos from our environment.
"Maturity" isolates and shrinks our egos, but not irrevocably. The act of sharing re-awakens our more interconnected selves. It blurs the boundaries between what is mine and thine, as philosopher Win-chiat Lee so eloquently explains; and it brings us together in the process.
This blurring is beautiful; but it's not necessarily easy, even with the people that we love the most.
My birthday, Alison's birthday, and our son Ozzie's birthday are all within a few days of each other. While we attempt to honor our individual birthdays separately, the realities of the calendar don't really allow us to do so. Ozzie made his second birthday explicitly communal by singing birthday songs for Alison and me. He sang one for his big brother Zeke as well, even though his birthday was three months away. It made both Alison and I want to cry, but it upset Zeke. He was happy to celebrate his brother's birthday, but he didn't want to lose the autonomy of his own special day in the process.
I encountered similar feelings when we invited some friends over that weekend. We sang birthday songs for Ozzie and Alison, but no one did so for me. I felt jealous and hurt, even as I worked to suppress those feelings. I found sharing my birthday to be both difficult and joyful, and I tried to make sense of my layered and conflicting emotions.
Philosopher Christian Miller talks about psychological studies that indicate that we have mixed characters. We're neither purely compassionate nor purely selfish, and we tend to act more generously in particular contexts. If we feel especially happy, unhappy, or guilty; we are more likely to act altruistically.
When Zeke is happy, he shares so that he can perpetuate those feelings. When I'm unhappy or feel guilty, I share so that I can replace those feelings by better ones.
If we feel empathy, we are much more likely to share. Daniel Batson has done extensive research that demonstrates that people who are particularly empathic are more likely to be altruistic and that we are more likely to be altruistic towards people we know.
Batson's research makes me optimistic. We can increase our capacities for altruism and sharing, once we allow ourselves to become more empathic people -- a process that we can begin remarkably early in life.
Jessica Sommerville has discovered that we're capable of acting altruistically as early as infancy, despite what Piaget and others once believed. 9-month olds give things to their parents and siblings of their own volition, and 12-month olds share toys with strangers.
There are plenty of individual differences amongst the infants in Sommerville's studies. Some of them share quickly and generously, some share less generously, and some don't share at all. As they get older, they tend to share more often, or at least up to a certain point. At the same time, they tend to become more discerning with their sharing, as many of them desire to share only with those they view as fair.
Zeke's fort is sacred to him, and he only shares it with those he fully trusts. He shares it with his family. He also shares it with his close friend Connor, who is the only one of his peers who is "always nice to him." Zeke lets Connor into his fort because he feels that he can share his problems with him and work together with him to solve them.
Zeke's fort is both a refuge and a cure for bullying and other cruel behavior that causes him grief. He's secure in his fort with his most beloved things. He uses his special tools and super hero powers to place the people who are hurting him into "jail." He then "fixes" them by turning them into "good guys."
At one level, Zeke understands that he's pretending. At another level, it's very much a conscious act. I see it as a personal and imaginative prayer or ritual aimed at fixing the universe -- his particular version of the Kabbalistic concept, Tikkun Olam.
When Zeke shares his fort, it's an act of extreme intimacy. I'm deeply moved whenever I enter Zeke's fort. I feel the boundaries between us blurring; and I'm filled with awe at the profound level of sharing that Zeke is capable of achieving.
Joel Tauber is an artist and filmmaker who teaches experimental film and orchestrates the video art program at Wake Forest University. His current undertaking - "The Sharing Project" - will be presented as both a sculptural video installation and a feature film.