Sunday, May 30, 2010

Human Nature

I've heard many times from authors or radio talk shows or random conversations with folks that human nature - each person's baseline or almost instinctual act - is pure and good: not selfish. Every time I hear it I'm forced to think about my own Paradigm. I've been conditioned, mainly by my Christian faith, to believe that humans, all of us, every single one, instinctively looks out for him or herself before the needs of others. So in other words, being selfish comes most naturally to everyone.

My heart and mind go out to both sides of this dichotomy. My first inclination is to believe that all people are at heart good. That in their inner-most being, they would first help others rather than themselves. That people would stop before acting to think, and then choose the option which would benefit the most people, even perhaps if that decision worsened their own position. 

But then I think about myself (ironic). I realize that I most often don't stop to think before I act. In those cases I almost always act on my behalf, doing first what is good for me, even if it does help others (or sometimes even if it doesn't). In the other minority of cases when I do actually think before I act, I am immediately thrown into a battle between the part of me which wishes I would have simply acted (therefore acting for myself), and the part which says I should change my behavior because it really would make the situation better for the most people possible (myself included or not).

I also think about the state of the world. Author Duane Elgin said that "The character of a society is the cumulative result of the countless small actions, day in and day out, of millions of people." I think this is profound. And, looking at history through the lens of this quote, I see nothing but validation. All the mess we're in. All the mess any person at any time in history was in, was the result not necessarily (although possibly so) of a single, deliberate and conscience choice by another to hurt someone. But instead, the messes of history are the cumulative result of small, usually selfish choices. Perhaps just 'business, not personal' choices, who knows exactly, but the trends support this theory. 

Now is the time in the conversation when you might say that this is an extremely cynical and negative viewpoint. However I would disagree wholeheartedly. Look at all other creatures on this beautiful planet. They all look out for themselves, they all put their own survival first. So whether you believe we're the Creation of an infinite God, or the result of evolution (or both or something else entirely), we're still animals, so why would we be different? Why would we instinctively choose others over ourselves when everything else doesn't? 

We do, however, have something other creatures don't. Actually we have many things others don't. 

We can reason. We can (sometimes) comprehend the consequences to our actions before we act. We can ponder the depths of the universe, create astounding technologies, and have faith. 

We can also choose.

Every time we act, we can put on the glasses of reality and see ourselves and those around us as we really are; incredible creatures yes, but also creatures who instinctively look out for 'number 1' first. Seeing this, understanding this, and acting with this knowledge, is, I believe, one of the most positive first steps we can take. How can we better this mess if we don't first realize who created it (any mirrors around?)? How can we leave the world a better place than we found it if we don't stop and think? 

Let's think. Let's cumulatively change the course of society toward creating a better future for our children than the today we're living in. Let's believe the best about humans, about ourselves. About our capabilities as individuals and as a society. But let's hold that belief in the palms of reality, not it the clouds of wishful thinking. 

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Understanding without Action

"Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
- Martin Luther King Jr.
I want to revisit a specific section of the Birmingham Jail Letter written by King in 1963 in response to harsh public criticism of his chosen methods of protest from certain prominent Catholic and Jewish leaders. Its fascinating, reading about King's life in a biography written by Godfrey Hodgson, to gain a more well-rounded picture of the national hero most of us only know by parts of his "I have a dream" speech. I have come to find out that he was a man deeply afflicted with himself and with many of those around him. Yes, he was passionate about liberating the Negro through direct, non-violent, action, but as his experience and work grew, his sight became set much higher. He believed wholeheartedly in social democracy, in true justice and equality for everyone. With this in mind, let me perhaps be so bold as to ponder the excerpt above in a wider light than just the civil rights movement which had put King in jail in the first place.

As you know if you know me, I'm passionate about a lot of things, and I think that explains my fascination with King's life, passions, actions, and pursuits. Three particular but overlapping arenas with which I've become passionate about over the last few years are unchecked corporate power (and therefore, abuses); environmental degradation which harms (read: kills) people all over the globe; and the atrocities of the food industry (closely linked to both). Together, these are symptoms of a deeper sickness in our global society: people seem unwilling at best, and hostile at worst, towards truly taking action on behalf of the majority of people who lack the resources to take action themselves. Corporations enslave and 'employ' people to turn largely toxic materials into profits. Those few of us 'fortunate' enough to have the money to consume said toxic materials then pollute the Earth and thereby kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. We then apply this same, profit-driven mentality to the food we eat and then wonder why we're all overweight, sick, and killing our lands through agribusinesses.

In the Jail Letter just before the above quote, King says that the greatest obstacle for the Negro was not the Klu Klux Klanner, nor the venomous Southern politicians and 'law enforcement' officers. Instead the greatest threat to the goals of the civil rights movement was the "white moderate"; the person who understands and perhaps empathizes with the Negro but yet is unwilling to take action on his or her behalf. Unwilling to make the Negro's problem their problem with the understanding that an ill against another is an ill against oneself, or that what they do for the 'least of these', they do for God. Understanding without action is no understanding at all.

I have recently been challenged on this myself. I was talking with my brother about the lax standards of the USDA's Organic label and he said "well have you written a letter?" I had to stop and realize that no, I had not. While I believe that spreading awareness is absolutely essential to solving today's ills, what good is awareness without action? Is it simply 'understanding'? Perhaps I should take a cue from King and write that letter. Perhaps we should collectively start taking action on behalf of others. On behalf of those who need to focus on their daily survival. On behalf of the Earth, whose beautiful voice of Creation seems to be being drowned out by the global call to growth for growth's sake.

What are you passionate about? Does is help others? Will it improve the lot of the majority? Let's stop being the greatest obstacle to change and instead become that change.