As someone who consistently touts the inherent goodness of human beings, I was particularly struck with the following statement that I recently encountered online: “Sometimes you need to stop seeing the good in people and start seeing what they show you.” I felt the anonymous author was speaking to me.
While I appreciate this advice — we blind ourselves to evil when we only see people’s goodness — I would express the sentiment somewhat differently: “Seeing the good in people, we must also recognize what they show us, and with both in mind, shape our response accordingly.” From my perspective, this is being real about our inherent goodness.
Most of us are inherently decent people. Whether we consistently act this way is, of course, another matter: behaving contrary to our intrinsic virtue is the confounding contradiction of “civilized” human beings.
Our goodness is especially evidenced during those moments when we rise to the occasion in the face of life and death circumstances. Catastrophes often bring out the best in humans, as seen during Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 terrorist attack, as well as the bombing of London during WWII, and Hanoi during the Vietnam conflict. A study conducted by the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware found that in nearly 700 field studies of disasters, people typically responded with “widespread altruism” and “massive giving and sharing of goods and services.”
There is also reason to believe that the negative view of humankind is not universally shared but, in fact, is largely the product of what Rebecca Solnit calls in her magnificent book, “A Paradise Built in Hell,” ”elite panic.” This arises from the powerful people of society who resort to force and violence to control the populace on the assumption that average citizens are dominated by the same selfishness and greed that rules them.
Rutger Bregman, in his equally fine work, “Humankind: A Hopeful History,” adds further that for the ruling class, “a hopeful view of human nature is downright threatening. It implies that we’re not the selfish beasts that need to be reined in, restrained and regulated.”
So what has gone wrong? If most of us are innately good, why is there so much evil in the world? Why, in fact, are we in the midst of a long emergency facing potential societal collapse because of human behavior over the years?
There is more here than can be dealt with in this brief column. Suffice it to say that civilized human beings believe that our self-designated status imbues us with a moral superiority viz the rest of nature. As a consequence, we go about life as self-righteous, rather than as the righteous beings that a truly civilized standing would entail. This has legitimized the god-like authority we exercise over other living beings, including members of our own species — men over women, white over black, rich over poor, adult over child, and, first and foremost, “civilized” humans over Mother — as well as the domination, control and violence we inflict upon others through power relationships. Put simply, this is the evil that characterizes our ”civilization.”
Rather than nurturing and promoting our inherent values through our daily practice, life under civilization has allowed our moral core to atrophy. Our spiritual nature does not developmentally mature and evolve from birth to adulthood as it is meant to do. The quest for meaning and purpose — the very essence of a spiritual existence — is sacrificed to mindlessly submitting to the one-up/one-down political hierarchy that characterizes civilization.
Hence, the issue for us is “how to maintain a sense of moral purpose in the absence of emergencies,” as Solnit nails it, “We are ordinarily sleepers, unaware of each other and of our true circumstances. Disaster shocks us out of slumber, but only skillful effort keeps us awake.” Only skillful effort can exercise a salutary influence on the bane of civilized existence, the indifference, laziness, routines, ignorance, confusion, half-heartedness, boredom, carelessness, conformity, and general mindlessness that gnaw away at our spiritual nature, conditioning us to be, however unintentional and unconscious in many instances, agencies for evil.
Having been habituated to a political culture, our essential goodness must therefore be cultivated through purposeful effort. We have to work at awakening our moral potential if it is to be everyday operational for us. Nothing less will be sufficient. Only through disciplined effort can we rouse ourselves from the torpor of our civilized existence, and be the liberated people we potentially are.
In so doing, we come to recognize ourselves as well as others for who we are. We become aware of our essential goodness as well as potential for “civilized” evil, not allowing our awareness of one to blind us to the existence of the other. We are real.
Hence, when we see evil, we respond appropriately to its anti-life expression, doing so with a practice that is intended to resist and obstruct while being grounded in the love we have for our fellow living beings. We dissolve the dichotomy of good vs. evil, which only perpetuates without transcending our situation, and act instead in ways that integrates this ancient duality into a unity of wholesome behavior.