Human Nature and all that Jazz

Posted: June 14, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

I just re-watched the haunting movie, The Pianist, and came away with questions that won’t leave me alone.

The story is set in Poland of the second world war with the ghettoizing of all Jews and a corresponding attempt to exterminate them. No matter how many times and different ways that I engage this history the impact is always the same. I am led to reflect on the several thousands of years that our species has roamed the planet, dominated it, and contended with one another for the sake of power or possession. The review is not good. And here is the question, in one form or another: Can you think of any species that has done more harm than our own? And the second is liken unto it: Can we really continue to believe that human nature is “basically good,” that we are getting better every day in every day, that in the long trajectory of civilizations there is really such a thing as progress?

Let’s see, address this over a cup of coffee. Right.

I do think we are the most harmful, destructive species known to earth. Like no other we systematically destroy entire groups for a variety of reasons. We exploit whole planetary systems, wage intercontinental wars, and direct huge sums of resources doing so. Among all the species we know what we are doing as we do it. Animals kill for food or to protect themselves. Instinct takes over. But we are able to carefully plan our malice with deliberate forethought. We’re a menace.

And the history of our species in the world also includes compassion, creativity, gestures of love, sacrificial giving, selfless acts of bravery and kindness, and solidarity with the suffering of the other. Go figure.

Saints and sinners are we.

It is not as simple as attributing vice to primitives from the past or savages in the present. Very often their virtue far exceeds our own. There are monsters in the present day and saints in the past, and vice versa. Heinous acts take place close at hand and far away.

Some would say that the brain is evolving, and we are growing into enlarged and increasing consciousness. Well, in The Pianist, I was reminded that some of the most exceedingly intelligent and  “cultured” people of the time embodied the greatest evil. I have personally witnessed, on a smaller scale, people who were characterized as educated and civilized acting in ways much worse than any simple beast in the wilderness. So intelligence, as a measure alone, does not insure anything approaching moral life, wisdom or love. Sometimes rational intelligence enables exactly the opposite. Nuclear power can light cities or demolish them.

Is there a growing spiritual consciousness? Well, for some. But I think people of deep spirit are in a clear minority, certainly not confined to this particular historical moment. And they are not located in some places and not others. There is a scattering of these centers of spirit. And that’s why, I think, so many religions have ended up doing more harm than good; they were, in the end, not guided by some advanced spiritual awareness but rather by the same human nature that brought about all the suffering in the first place.

We are all these things, of course. And the future is not automatically insured by the development of technology. That may or may not insure progress. Without a clear moral compass, humble connection to the spiritual dimensions of life and some sense of life that transcends the self, the technology we create, in the end, may become our end. Unless guided by a moral hand it becomes an exceptionally efficient and effective tool of destruction. As Alfred said to Bruce Wayne in The Dark Night, “Some men just want to see it all burn.”

The difference will not be found in being either smart or dumb. Evil comes out of both. The difference will not be found in some cultures and not others – virtue and vice are found everywhere. Scratch the surface of respectable people and we are driven by a raw combination of instinctual drives, grasping after survival and a deep longing for something more than all that, what the apostle Paul referred to as our lower and higher natures.

Once upon a time, at the broad intersection of earth and sky, a cross was raised to destroy what God had sent to unite. It is there that we gaze upon an unmasked description of the dark underbelly of our humanity and the self-emptying nature of God’s love. In that vast contrast between the best of what God does and the worst of what we do there exists a latent, potential possibility. The inescapable questions haunt us: Which shall it be? Will higher spiritual consciousness overcome the reptile in each of us? In the end, can something as simple as faith triumph over evil and all its attendants?

These are the questions of the world. They have not gone away. We must answer them, individually or collectively, or else the reign of the worst will eclipse another kind of reign, the reign of love, peace and joy. Such a way may actually be foreign to our human nature, unnatural when compared to the track record of our species. In other ways not. However it turns I’m betting on resurrection. I’m believing that, in the end, a different kind of reign will overcome, even when the darkness seems impenetrable.

Hope.

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Comments
  1. Menina says:

    I am drawn to Anne Frank’s words when I fall into the despair that such overwhelming evidence of human failure brings with it:

    “I don’t believe that the big men, the politicians and the capitalists alone are guilty of the war. Oh, no, the little man is just as keen, otherwise the people of the world would have risen in revolt long ago! There is an urge and rage in people to destroy, to kill, to murder, and until all mankind, without exception, undergoes a great change, wars will be waged, everything that has been built up, cultivated and grown, will be destroyed and disfigured, after which mankind will have to begin all over again.”

    “And finally I twist my heart round again, so that the bad is on the outside and the good is on the inside, and keep on trying to find a way of becoming what I would so like to be, and could be, if there weren’t any other people living in the world.”

    “Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”

    “I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery and death… I think… peace and tranquillity will return again.”

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