To this day, a philosophical debate rages on as to the true nature of humanity. Is humanity at its core good or evil? Does the human species amount to no more than a parasite on the planet as Agent Smith says in The Matrix, “a cancer”, intent on devouring every last resource even at its own peril? Or do we have a natural tendency towards compassion and love, intent on creating beauty and with the desire to give our unique gifts to the world? While this topic invites what may seem like an endless and impossible debate, perhaps through our exploration, we may conclude that it is actually the wrong question to ask. More on that later. First, the debate!
Those that say human nature is evil certainly have many examples to back up their claim. History is littered with gruesome and horrifying human caused events from the Holocaust in Europe, the genocides in Africa, the annihilation of the Native Americans, the torturous factory farming techniques, and the list goes on. When focusing exclusively on these events, it is difficult to make the case that humanity has any good in it whatsoever. The atrocities are so sad, so horrifying, and so unthinkable that we might even label them inhumane. Hmm…That is an interesting term, isn’t it?
Inhumane: Without compassion for misery or suffering; cruel; brutal.
Inhumane: Without compassion for misery or suffering; cruel; brutal.
It is interesting that we would describe cruel and brutal human behavior as being the opposite of what it means to be human. What if all of the terrible events in human history – all of the wars, torture, rape, slavery – were only recorded in history as noteworthy because they were not typical human behavior? When we hear about a gunman going into schools to murder little children, we are appalled. We wonder, “How could anyone do such a thing?” Perhaps the reason why the news tends to report stories of crime and violence (and perhaps the reason we are more drawn to it) is because this kind of behavior is not what we expect from human beings. It is abnormal or not human. It is inhumane.
GWF Hagel said that happiness is the blank pages of history. The reason why history books record conflict is because conflict stands out as being abnormal, and thus noteworthy. If the most common human behavior really were acts of terror, then the history books would be littered with the few times human beings were actually kind to each other. The Truth is that every day, normal human interaction was and is motivated by kindness and compassion with an inherent desire to connect to one another. This is how some Native Americans treated the earliest European settlers, culminating in the tradition of Thanksgiving. This is why 65 million Americans volunteered at least once in 2012, an order of magnitude higher than the number of violent crimes. And this says nothing of the number of times everyone has offered small acts of kindness, from allowing someone to merge in traffic to treating a friend to lunch to keeping a lookout for your neighbor’s lost pet. We would not have survived and thrived on this planet had we not had an innate disposition towards kindness and empathy.
So then, what allows human beings to leave their normal default disposition of kindness to act in unkind ways towards one another and the planet? When we think about our individual capacities for causing harm, if we are not beholden to organizational institutions that promote violence, most of us have a very low threshold for causing harm intentionally. While the acts of Adolph Hitler, Ted Bundy, and Kim Jong Il are incomprehensible to nearly everyone, people only know their names because the things they did were so outrageous it made them famous for it. Other harmful acts such as stealing to support bad habits or to get food when hungry are more understandable, even though many others still feel they could never do it. However, flipping someone off on the freeway in a fit of road rage is probably something we have all done at one time or another. Unkindness comes in a variety of different forms and intensities.
How then can we make sense of the varying capacities people have for committing both good and evil acts? Why is it that an Amazonian headhunter had no qualms about decapitating a person while people today have a hard time even imagining doing such a thing? How did Adolph Hitler convince millions of Germans to support his inhumane quest? Why do some people feel compelled to buy their 30th pair of shoes? What motivates someone to give up all their possessions and devote their life helping to alleviate human suffering? In other words, what is the motivating force behind nearly all of our conscious decisions?
The answer is stories.
Stories are the tool that human beings use to make sense of the trillions of data our senses receive from the environment at any given moment. Stories help us to understand our environment and our role in it, what’s important, who we are, where we are going, and why we are here. Stories establish patterns of “normal behavior” that evolve into cultures. The story of weapons of mass destruction motivated the United States people to support attacking Iraq. The story of trending fashion is what motivates people to buy the latest trend. The entire advertising industry is basically a storytelling machine trying desperately to get people to believe in their story of their product or service.
Different cultures may have different answers to each of these fundamental questions. They have different stories about the world. If told a story that cutting off your enemy’s head was the only way to protect yourself from his revenge-seeking spirit, then people will become headhunters. If told a story that America is responsible for every terrible thing that happens to them and that Kim Jong Il is responsible for all the good, then people will live that story. If told a story that obtaining a good-paying job will lead to the highest social status even if it comes at the cost of the environment or innocent people’s lives, then people will pursue this goal.
These are all examples of societal stories, but we also have personal stories that relate to our family, job, background, etc. Many of the atrocities committed by what many deem to be “evil” people are committed because their story somehow justified their actions to them, even if their reasons are completely illogical to everyone else. Perhaps a mass murderer really believes the story that they are the devil incarnate and can justify their murders to themselves within its context. I’m sure we have all met people with odd stories or people who give “crazy” reasons for their actions. “I needed the blue pair of shoes because I couldn’t be caught dead wearing the red ones with this dress.”
The consequence of all of this is that many our decisions may not really be in alignment with what we truly desire for our lives. Instead, our decisions might just be the result of cultural forces that (in many ways) brainwashed us before we had the chance to decide for ourselves. We may have even realized some of this conditioning when we challenged our religious upbringing or analyzed the root cause of an irrational fear. A good test is to ask yourself why you like something, whether it is your local sports team, your political allegiance, your shopping habit, or your religion. If you can’t find a reason other than “because I just do”, there is probably a good chance you never actually decided to like it in the first place. The choice was made for you by the culture you live in.
Stories believed by individuals are not by themselves dangerous, at least at a societal level. It is only when others begin to believe that story and make it their own that the truly devastating acts can occur. After all, no one man can chop down an entire forest or enslave an entire people. It takes a compelling story believed by many others to do that.
It is not that stories are bad or not useful. They can be extremely useful. It is only when we are unconscious of the stories we are living that we mistake the story for reality. We believe things are the way they are because they simply are that way. Or we attribute our current reality to human nature. I believe this is what keeps us from realizing our true potential as a species. When we have to overcome evil – as defined as those who do not believe in my story of good – then we will be locked in an endless ideological war unable to see each other as the beautiful living beings we truly are. What if the whole notion of “good vs. evil” is just another story we tell ourselves? Most people I know are not completely good and no one is completely evil. So perhaps the question is not, “is humanity good or evil?” Maybe the appropriate question to ask is, “Are we telling both the personal and collective stories we wish to tell?”
Humanity is a storytelling species and we have the ability to tell bad stories or good ones. We can tell stories where certain types of people are better than others, where people are inherently untrustworthy, and you better get what you can before someone else does. Or we can tell stories about our natural desire to give and be of service to something greater than ourselves. We can become fully conscious of the stories we tell ourselves and each other and the intent or purpose they fulfill.
Never before in history has society been bombarded with so many stories filled with competition, hate, and fear, celebrating material wealth as the meaning of life. This story is dangerous because it truly is unsustainable. But each of us has a choice. We can continue living our cultural story that is enabling us to erode the capacity for life on this planet. Or we can choose to see and live a different story, an authentic and transparent story that is aligned with our own personal values for what we wish to create in the world. The choice is up to each of us.