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Interview with Dr. Mary Catherine Bateson
July 18, 2011

[The following is taken from an interview with Dr. Mary Catherine Bateson, writer and cultural anthropologist, conducted by Masao Yokota, advisor to the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue]

Masao Yokota: I would like to discuss with you your understanding of what it means to be fully human, particularly in light of your new book, "Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom."

Mary Catherine Bateson: The human life span has increased to almost 80 years. That’s almost like saying we are a new species. A unique characteristic of the human species is the long childhood that we have. If you think of a horse--it’s racing when it’s one year old. Most mammals can reproduce within a year or two. Mice are reproducing within weeks. How long does is take for a human to become an adult? In fact it’s taking longer every year. We are a species that adapts by learning rather than by fixed instincts. In childhood we develop the capacity to trust. We develop will, conscience. All these things are developed in this long human childhood.

We talk about the evolutionary importance of developing a larger brain or the opposable thumb or bilateral gait, but a very critical change is this long, dependent childhood. It is rarely talked about but it’s important. This dependent childhood--whether it’s 15, 20 or 30 years--is getting longer and longer because there is more to be learned.

The development of an extended, post-reproductive old age, is like a mirror image of that extended childhood, another era of development. It’s another evolutionary change. Because it’s new, we are still learning how to use it.

Throughout human evolution people have valued the oldest members of the community. In Japan, older people are still respected. In the United States, there is disrespect for older people. People don’t want to be reminded of aging. There are two sides to this problem. With constant social change, respect for elders will only survive if the elders continue to learn constantly. So you can’t say, “Well now I’m a grandfather. I know everything,” because we are beginners all our lives. We are still having to learn at every stage.

People have these extra years they didn’t know they were going to have. They have to think about what they want to do, what they believe in, what they care about, how they want to spend that time. And they have to go on learning, growing and developing--and society needs to support that and encourage that.

Yokota: How do we encourage, provide for this life-long learning?

Bateson: Well, in the United States and I suspect in Japan also, we need to look at our educational systems. Both countries rely very heavily on exams. Exams are based on the concept that you’ve got to get some information into everyone’s heads. Then when it’s in there, it is supposed to last them for a lifetime. We “stuff” in information and we don’t have to enjoy the process. But if we are to go on learning, we should learn to enjoy the process of learning and learn how to learn--learn to be addicted to learning; be curious, analytical, reflective. Everybody says, “Experience is the best teacher.” But only if you do your homework, and the homework is reflection.

So if we look at the educational system and we ask, “Will these children be prepared for jobs when they graduate?” we will behave one way. But if we say, “These children are going to live in a world where we don’t know what the jobs will be. We don’t know what the world will be like, it will keep changing,” then we have to insure that the children we raise can continue to learn and be willing to learn, have open minds and keep on growing. We will emphasize the love of learning rather than passing exams.

There are so many things that we have not thought through for the new shape of our lives. Some old people have said to me, “I don’t care about climate change. I won’t be here.” But our grandchildren will be here. We need to care. It’s very important to make people aware of these years they will have and to support and encourage them to think about what they want to do. And I don’t mean just go on holiday cruises. These people have a gift of maybe twenty years of health they didn’t know they were going to have. They should become like trustees, protecting the future. They should vote and insist on the long view--there is a chapter in my recent book, Composing a Further Life, about a group I started, called the Granny Voters, to get grandparents politically active on behalf of the future. [This project is now part of Generations United.]

I know that in his 2011 Peace Proposal, Daisaku Ikeda addresses nuclear weapons abolition and he is working very hard on that front, yet all warfare tends to lead to future warfare, so, for example, when a decision is being made about whether the United States should fight in Iraq, we should think about children who are five and six years old and their attitudes 30 years from now. Will they be more war-like or more peaceful?

Another peace-related issue is environmental degradation, climate change and so on. When human beings think that their share of the wealth is going to get smaller, that they will have to cut back and will have less, they tend to go after their neighbors for oil or whatever will be in short supply. They will compete instead of cooperating to extend the resources.

So to me, when I look at these issues all together, I am most concerned about the state of the planet, about figuring out how we are going to reduce the use of fossil fuels, which are the cause of global warming, as the sea rises, storms become more fierce, tsunamis cause greater damage, and whole areas of land in the Pacific--whole nations--are lost.

Also in his Peace Proposal, Mr. Ikeda emphasizes the roles of civil society, of communities and the United Nations. But he also addresses each issue in terms of the individual, which is critical. I find that the hardest thing to do is motivating individuals, because there are so many people and we are all doing things that lead to destruction such that people tend to say “What I do doesn’t make a difference.” It’s very important every time we talk about these issues to say “they will only be solved by individuals.” The individuals have to work together, true, but it’s all made up of individual people understanding, deciding, making commitments, working hard together.

Yokota: In that sense it’s important that individuals develop an open mind and bigger vision, to become, as you say, fully human.

Bateson: Many older people say, “The young people won’t listen to me. They don’t want my advice.” The suggestion that I make to them is, before you tell your grandson or your son what he should do, ask him to teach you. Ask him to tell you about the circumstances he is facing. We need to learn from the young and then they will listen and learn from their elders as well. We need the young in order to keep our minds young, to keep us learning and curious. In the process we can have a reciprocal learning relationship, instead of a one-way relationship.

Yokota: In almost every Peace Proposal, Mr. Ikeda talks about the importance of dialogue. But we have to ask what is meant by “dialogue?” It’s not just talking at each other. Listening is a very important part of dialogue. This year (2011), Mr. Ikeda emphasized the importance of revitalizing “the devalued, degraded language that dominates today’s world.”

Bateson: Yes. This year, the theme for the annual conference of the American Society for Cybernetics is “listening.” A cybernetic system is a system where there is feedback. It is a circular pattern that is interdependent. Therefore, listening is as important as speaking. Both sides have to listen and speak.

Yokota: Also, you mentioned the importance of self-reflection. In other words, after we engage in dialogue and listen to others, we need to listen to ourselves.

Bateson: Yes, absolutely there is the internal dialogue. I discovered something while writing a book a while ago called Our Own Metaphor. I was to edit the proceedings and papers from a conference about the environment, which included contributions from anthropologists, psychologists, cyberneticians, biologists and so on. To edit it, I had to read a lot because I didn’t know all those fields. I had to really think about how each person thought and saw the world. I worked on it for two years. But afterwards, I could say to myself, well what would this person say about this? And I could hear their voice. And what would that person say about this question? And I could hear their voice. So, when you really listen to another person, you can begin to build on what they actually said and apply it to new contexts. I do that with my parents too. It’s good to have them in my head, telling me what to do. They were very smart people! In so much of Western culture, people talk about communication going in one direction, rather than circularly and reciprocally.

Dr. Ikeda is involved in so many international efforts for education, for peace, for building the human being. He is really a doer, someone who, when he believes in something, will make every effort possible to achieve it. That is why he is recognized. We don’t recognize people that only give speeches. Speaking doesn’t involve much sometimes. It just indicates that someone is good at speaking.

Yokota: Speaking of applying wisdom, what are your thoughts on the relevance of Buddhist concepts and wisdom in modern society?

Bateson: I have no real expertise but the whole notion of interdependence, dependent co-arising, is very useful. Also, I find myself thinking a lot at present about the nature of compassion, compassion that is based on recognition of what we have in common. You can recognize in any other sentient being a kinship, a similarity. Because of the similarities of all living systems, you can also have compassion for a lake, because a lake is a living system, or for any living community of organisms.

Yokota: One concern is how much can I have compassion for people I don’t see right in front of me? In the global age, it’s important that we can expand a sense of compassion for those people we don’t see. In 1996 at Columbia Teachers College in New York, Pres. Ikeda spoke about three conditions for a global citizen. Even if one doesn’t necessarily travel and stays in one local area, the global citizen he described lives based on the wisdom of interconnectedness, has the courage to appreciate differences, and has compassion for those not seen or far removed from oneself. If we develop those capacities, we can be global citizens. How can we expand compassion?

Bateson: Think of the times when you’ve seen a picture [in the media] of the face of someone on the other side of the planet, and the image stays in your memory and becomes a representation of a much larger situation. You see a human face and recognize an emotion that you have some experience of and you say, “This person is starving. This person has no home. This person is terrified of genocidal attackers.” Then you imagine. Part of the issue is to train the imagination, as a means of opening a door to compassion. We read stories and we imagine. For example, children read stories about animals that talk like human beings, and think, “Oh, a puppy dog could be lost as well as a child. A child from another race or culture can also be lost, and now I know what that feels like.”

I want to go beyond sentient beings. This is something that my father [Gregory Bateson] talked about--the pattern that connects. It doesn’t just connect different animals. We have to learn to empathize with a lake, with the oceans. Look how we are abusing the oceans! Or with a forest--of course each tree is a separate organism, as is every chipmunk, every woodpecker and every insect, but together they are a living system, similar to an organism, and like an organism the forest or a lake can die.

Yokota: Becoming fully human means developing compassion, and I believe another aspect of it is to look at death and not simply ignore the fact of death.

Bateson: Of course. Our empathy for other living systems, including organisms and including other people, includes their death. And we have to include our own death. We have to know ourselves as mortal in order to recognize the fragility and preciousness of everything around us.

Yokota: Often we don’t want to talk about death but we can learn something profound from it.

Bateson: Oh yes. When I started this book about aging, I intended to write about later old age and dying as well. But then I realized how inadequate people’s consciousness of later adulthood is. Their worries are: “Are my savings enough?” “Maybe I should exercise a little more so my health will hold up.” So first we need to understand the possibility of human development after 60, 70, 80 years. People grow. They grow spiritually. They look at the world differently. So I became very interested in that. Perhaps the next stages will be part of the next book. You start one book and it turns into a different book!

Yokota: Historically, Japan has a rich culture of living in harmony with the environment, but in a way this has been covered up by materialism. The 2011 March 11 tsunami and nuclear disaster has in a way opened an opportunity for the Japanese to go back to the roots of their culture.

Bateson: Well, it’s not easy to persuade millions of people to change their ways. So one of the things I keep saying is for each individual to take the opportunity for reflection that comes as we live longer, to begin searching, reflecting, meditating now.

There are many different things that people can do after they retire from their careers if they are relatively healthy. They may start a new business or go back to school, start a service project, learn to paint, whatever it is. I talked about this to a group of psychotherapists. Several of them remarked that people come into their office and say, “I’m retired from my job and I don’t know what I care about and what I’m interested in. There isn’t anything I know I want to do”--because they haven’t been thinking about what they want to do. We need to do that. We need to dream. We need to reflect, looking backwards: what worked, what didn’t work, what was satisfying, what were the moments in life when you felt most creative, when you’ve been able to offer something to others? Maybe you can do that some more. What are the things you’ve longed to do? Not just longing to sleep late in the morning, but longed to try, to challenge, to learn.

So when you said you want to talk about what it means to be really human, I looked at these people who are living longer than they would have lived if they were born a century before, and I thought, that’s part of becoming human. We need to claim it. Hey, maybe I will be fully human, as human beings are meant to become, by the time I die. The people whom I have written about in this book are all doing different things. But in each person I see growth continuing.

I hope people will read my book a lot earlier than retirement age, because I think it makes you think about everything differently. Psalm 90:10 in the Bible says the days of a man’s life are 70 years. The psalms were written at a time when life expectancy at birth was under 40. There were a few people who lived to age 70, but very few. So that was an aspiration but people quote it as if it were a norm. Well, it wasn’t then but it is now.

In fact, people have behaved as if dying earlier was abnormal. But we really have changed the human condition. It shouldn’t surprise us that this is a moment for discovering potential and maybe discovering this potential is what is most needed at this time in history.

Mary Catherine Bateson is a writer and cultural anthropologist and former president of the Institute for Intercultural Studies in New York City. Having retired from teaching, she continues to lecture internationally and is Visiting Scholar at Boston College’s Sloan Centre on Aging and Work. She has authored many books. Her most recent, Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom (2010), explores the possibilities of a new stage in the life cycle, a second period of active adulthood before old age. Mary Catherine Bateson is the daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.