A couple of weeks ago, I did a radio show to Virginia, and after that one in Minnesota, that was framed by these questions:
What are your feelings toward humanity, meaning toward people in general? That is, what do you feel when you look at, or think about, the mass of humankind? What has shaped your feelings? Have they ever changed, and if so what changed them? Are you glad about what you feel toward people generally, or do you wish you felt something different?
In general, my choice of topics for discussion on my radio shows is largely shaped by what issues are alive for me, and this one was no exception. For more than two years, I have struggled with a subtle but deep-seated shift in my underlying sense of people in general.
This was the result of two profound, evidently somewhat traumatic, experiences that came close together.
One was local, where a group of people –and an institution– whom I trusted and for whom I’d had very high regard shocked me by acting in a way that was altogether without integrity and honesty.
But the main cause was the other experience: watching as half my countrymen gave their support to this Bushite regime, well after the evil of these leaders –their dishonesty, their bullying, their arrogance, their utter disregard for any larger good than their own self-aggrandisement– had become starkly visible.
What kind of creatures are these humans, these experiences seem to have caused me to wonder, even below the level of consciousness, when those who seem to be among the best of people will act so dishonorably, and when so large a proportion of humanity can choose the evil and call it good?
I read a book review in the recent October 2 issue of THE NEW REPUBLIC. The book under review was FEAR: ANTI-SEMITISM IN POLAND AFTER AUSCHWITZ, and it tells the shocking story of how –even after the Nazis had been defeated, and the concentration camps liberated– a wave of killings, by ordinary Poles, of the remnant of the Jews still alive in Poland. The review quotes a contemporaneous statement by the Polish journalist, Wincenty Bednarczuk, made in the wake of this “bloodbath”:
“We hypothesized that the frightening tragedy of the Polish Jews would cure the Poles of anti-Semitism. It cannot be any other way, we thought, but that the sight of massacred children and old people must evoke a response of compassion and help…But we didn’t know human nature… It turned out that our notions about mankind were naive. The country surprised us.”
I understood Bednarczuk’s painful surprise.
Since the traumatic discovery of what my own countrymen were willing to embrace –and my subsequent discovery that there is plenty of ugly intolerance and viciousness on both sides of our divided country– I have found myself drawn to reading Jonathan Swift, whose cleverness I’d always appreciated, but whose misanthropic views of our species I’d found repugnant.
Earlier this month, sitting in an airport looking at the throngs of hundreds of people I don’t know, I found my subtly implicit feelings toward those strangers to have a different flavor from what I’ve been accustomed to having all the previous decades of my life. My accustomed feeling has always been fairly open-hearted, appreciative, embracing (albeit in a shy way). But now I found myself feeling more detached, untrusting, vaguely recoiling.
I missed my old feeling. It seemed like a light and warmth of great value had gone out of my life, out of the world. When I asked, on those radio shows, “Are you glad about what you feel toward people generally, or do you wish you felt something different?” I knew from inside what it meant to wish to see my fellow human beings and to feel toward them differently.
And I do believe that something like my old feelings are what I should still strive for. I do not believe that they were simply naive. In my view, the spiritually most enlightened place for a person to reach is one where the evils people do are not what define them in one’s eyes. Not that we are such perfect creatures by nature. But the world is a sick place and we humans are, in various ways, the carriers of the sickness. (My PARABLE OF THE TRIBES offers an explanation of that sickness that does not require any indictment of human nature.) I do believe that, if properly nurtured, people grow into something beautiful. But even if we are not so splendid, we are what we are, we are what we can be.
If I could choose, I would not turn away from knowing fully what is dark in human beings, but I would still regard my fellows with an open and compassionate heart. “Hate the sin but love the sinner.” That sounds to me like wisdom, and it is what I aspire to return to again.
It is likely my own hurt and fear that have pulled me away into my dimmer view of my kind.
That and my confusion. For I’ve been having trouble integrating in my heart what I have experienced of people. (An alternative framing for that radio show was from a different angle:
Has anyone ever surprised you greatly by acting either much better or much worse than the person you thought them to be would act? Have you ever had an important experience of someone you thought basically good did something surprisingly bad? Or an experience where someone you’d written off as a bad person did something unexpectedly fine?
Have you ever struggled to understand the ways that people are mixtures of the good and the not-good?
Living in this fallen world takes a toll on all of us.)
And so for now I will try to regard my own current attitude itself with some compassion and patience– even while I hope that I will heal enough to be able once again to become again more innocent in my heart, even without being naive.
Good will toward men. Not as an acquittal. More simply, as an act of love. For it is love, after all, that ultimately heals us and our world.