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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On loving humanity

Palden Gyatso.
(cc) Megan Garner,
It's common to go through a period from our teens to early adulthood where we become very disenchanted with the world and with humanity. After first looking beyond the home of our young childhood to the rest of the world, the utter stupidity of our own species is so revolting to the young person that hatred inevitably ensues, in some more than others, but almost always present to some degree. I've long since left behind the intensity of that stage, but the residual remains in most everyone I think, and it's brought out at certain times of frustration with those around us.

However, after some momentary lapses in the ever-present cynicism, disgust, and shame regarding my fellow human being - after a few imperfect glimpses of true love for fellow man and its corresponding touch of liberation - I had an intense feeling recently that I'm really ready to discard hate and endeavor to love humanity more. No, not trust humanity more, but love. Love without condition or expectation, not synonymous with naivety, and not dependent upon it being returned.

I had the feeling in rush hour traffic of all things.

In his Meditations, a journal written to himself, the Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius reminded himself to love his fellow man sincerely; even those that transgress against him. He also admonished himself because, although he had endeavored to do so in deed, he knew that he had not yet fully internalized it "from the heart".

I've referenced other scenes in this film before, but one of my favorite scenes comes near the end of the 1996 John Travolta film, Phenomenon. It's the story of George Malley who, through a highly unusual turn of events, acquires the ability to do all kinds of things with his mind such as speed read, memorize, notice things, be highly creative, and some telepathy. While people are obsessed with his inventions and his 'powers' the real power was in his insights about the world, our connection to one another, and how we view life. Through an unlikely twisting of neurons George had achieved a kind of sudden enlightenment and perspective. In this scene, a lot of people had recently fallen short of the potential he had tried to inspire them to. They had disappointed him by missing the point, being hostile and suspicious, and acting against him.

Sitting under a tree later, George Malley and his lover Lace Pennamin (Kyra Sedgwick) knew something bad was going to be happening soon. She asked him if he was scared; he wasn't; and she said to him, "I wish I knew what you feel." He told her she does and always has. George asked her how she held her children when they were babies. She placed her arms in a cradling position. Then he asked, "and if they had a hard time sleeping and you had to rock them to sleep how did you do it?" She closed her eyes, made a rocking motion, and smiled silently.

In another example, the Buddhist monk Palden Gyatso was held and tortured as a political prisoner in China for 33 years. He'd been beaten, starved, burned, shocked, and put into forced labor. Released in 1992, Palden does not hate his captors. When asked what his greatest fear had been, he said that what he most feared was losing compassion for his torturers. Such strength and compassion is almost incomprehensible, but this man is of the same species as you and I.

Yet, if you were to look up the Objectivist view on "compassion" in the Ayn Rand lexicon, you would find the following:

"I regard compassion as proper only toward those who are innocent victims, but not toward those who are morally guilty. If one feels compassion for the victims of a concentration camp, one cannot feel it for the torturers. If one does feel compassion for the torturers, it is an act of moral treason toward the victims."
-- Ayn Rand, 1964 Playboy interview

As far as my experiences can tell me, this is philosophical poison. It is also technically and logically misguided on several levels. On the most cursory level, it presents a false dichotomy of either having compassion for the victim or for the torturer. Secondly, it confuses compassion with 'letting evildoers off the hook', not reacting appropriately, being naive, becoming a dupe, allowing continuation of the acts, or perhaps even condoning them.

More to the root of its error, the quote above ignores or seems unconscious of the fact that who the torturers are and what they do, like all things, are contingent upon multiple other causes and effects. And that when we do evil, for a number of subtle reasons, we inherently and inevitably harm ourselves. Thus, the evil doer is trapped in an ignorance in which he tragically harms himself as well as those around him.

If we do not acknowledge that evil is harming ourselves, we begin to think that there is some benefit to evil when we can get away with it. This mistake has two effects: (1) it makes us more tempted to 'get away' with things, and ironically, it (2) makes us hateful and consumed by wrongdoers because we falsely believe that if we falter in our responsibility to punish the wrongdoer then no other consequence will follow and chaos will ensue. Thus, by failing to understand that virtue and wisdom really are synonymous, and evil and folly likewise synonymous, we become highly retributive. If you talk on a number of issues with the Objectivists and their cousins, the Libertarians, you will detect a strong streak of retributive thinking and talk of what people allegedly "deserve". These are all misguided and unfortunate understandings of good, evil, and the healthy basis of ethical behavior.

Also ironic, Objectivism preaches against faith, supernaturalism, religion, and Christianity. Yet, with it's: (a) belief in the utility of evil for the evildoer, (b) the resulting need for active retribution, and (c) its enshrinement of a magically non-causal form of free will, it is still hopelessly imprisoned within the Abrahamic worldview - which has lead to so many seemingly inescapable cycles of hatred and violence. But in one more ironic twist, it is in Jesus' instruction to love our neighbor and enemies that we find Christianity's greatest and wisest contribution. As the story goes, even as he is hanging on the cross, Jesus is written to have cried out to God, "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

While, as a Humanist, I advocate an empirical approach to knowledge and a naturalistic worldview, the concept of a personal God is at least useful as a thought experiment which allows us to imagine how an all-loving, all-knowing father of our species might view us; with all our imperfections. Thus, through the transplanting of our nurturing and loving instincts from offspring to all mankind, we are inspired to be 'godlike'. We are inspired to try and see every human being in the world as their mothers might have seen them - to feel pride when they succeed, sad when they fail, shame and admonishment when they do wrong, to seek to protect them from one another, and through all of it, to love them. Indeed, that was the function of the George Malley character, who explained how he felt by asking Lace how she felt about her children.

These are not mere sentiments. They are strategies for living. They are truths about what kind of mindsets, priorities, and value systems are most natural and healthy for the human mind and human well being. They are proved by countless experiments over the course of human history and the course of each of our lives, and they are as literally and technically true as any conclusion of engineering, biology, or physical science. This because human beings are objective in their qualities, and the effects of their thoughts and behaviors are likewise objective.

And so it was that, somehow, in the middle of a frustratingly slow traffic jam I was inspired to remind myself that each driver is someone's lover, sibling, child, or parent. I felt the urge, like Marcus Aurelius, not to simply think it but to at last discard hatred and try to have compassion for humanity from the heart. I don't know if he ever achieved that state, and I have a long way to go, but I've felt that desire to get there. Maybe that urge was enhanced at just the right time with a song on the radio by Shawn Mullins called Shimmer:

Sharing with us what he knows
shining eyes are big and blue
and all around him water flows
this world to him is new

he's born to shimmer
he's born to radiate
he's born to live
he's born to love

but we will teach him how to hate

and this thing we call our time
I heard a brilliant women say
She said, you know it's crazy
how I want to try and capture mine

I think I love this woman's
way she shimmers
the way she shines
the way she radiates
the way she lives
the way she loves
the way she never hates

sometimes I think of all this that surrounds me
and I know it all as being mine
but she kisses me and she wraps herself around me
she gives me love
she gives me time
I feel fine

But time I cannot change
so here's to looking back
You know I'd drink a whole bottle of my pride
and I'd toast to change
to keep these demons off my back

just get these demons off my back
'cause I

want to shimmer
want to shine
want to radiate
I want to live
I want to love
I want to try and learn how not hate

we're born to shimmer
we're born to shine
we're born to radiate
we're born to live
we're born to love
we're born to never hate

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