(These are thoughts weighing heavy on my mind lately. A bit of a departure from my usual posts.)
For all of history, the harm that human beings have done to each other is astounding. Some would say it is in our DNA and that is partly correct. The other part of our essential make up is that we crave connection above all else. We want to be cared for, recognized, listened to and loved.
Yet our history is littered with wars and genocides and lynching and slavery and all kinds of unimaginable damage to our fellow humans. If our most basic drive is to be connected to other beings why, then, is aggression, rejection and hatred so dominant?
Tribalism, yes. Confirmation bias, yes. Imagined threats, yes. But this is a description of outcomes rather than an explanation of what is at the core. I certainly don’t have all the answers but I have a couple observations.
We have always lived within hierarchies; in our villages, our families, our offices, our societies and our world. This means that some are at the top and some are in the middle and some are at the bottom. For those at the top, if the middles and bottoms stay in their places there is order. Not to mention that they receive the spoils from this arrangement. But if those in the lower rungs either break into the upper echelon or drop down in status, there are problems. Discontent surfaces if the ruling group gets infiltrated by “nouveau uppities” who don’t belong and the lowest class swells in size and protests their unexpected fate. The order has been upset and must be dealt with to get things back to the way they are supposed to be.
So, the Have’s look at those who succeeded against all odds with suspicion. What are you doing here? Who let you in? Did someone or some program show you undue favor? Whose seat are you taking up who belongs here? Oh, you must be an exception to the rule. And for those that break through, they never fit in. They always feel like “other” because they don’t have the right body parts or skin tone to be accepted into the club.
Resentment ensues on both sides.
Likewise, the Have Not’s (the longstanding ones and the new ones) find they cannot sustain themselves. The opportunities, education, open doors, programs and institutions don’t exist or are designed to keep them out. At best, the societal efforts to make systems fairer are underfunded and encounter extraordinary resistance. “Fair” is not something that motivates the ruling class. Maintaining the order as historically defined is their goal. The pie is small and there is not enough for everyone, they seem to imply.
Resentment ensues on both sides.
This resentment, born from the futility of working hard and the counter valence of protecting the gates, has generated cruel thoughts, words and deeds against humanity. Some on a large scale but most very mano-a-mano. And it’s not just threats to the natural order that fuels the hostility. Much is amplified by imagined fears, lies and the ability to deliver those messages anonymously. Thank you internet. In this hateful morass, people can’t even discern what is worth paying attention to because what matters most is not being shouted over the airwaves. If there is data or news about people being connected in caring ways, it gets lost in the nasty noise and lasts for a nanosecond.
We are encouraged to embrace each other with love and listen to those we disagree with. Not bad advice but it isn’t changing the ethos or the systems. We may have kind connections that sustain us in our small universes but it doesn’t allow us to move up the ladder or ignore the aggression at the office or feed our families. We used to say, “all we need is love” which the hippie in me still believes. But there is no “love-in movement” today. Instead there are horrible things being said and done to our fellow humans that are anything but loving.
It seems that every moment is pregnant with negative possibilities. Someone looks at you sideways. Someone ignores your presence. Someone votes differently than you do. Someone worships differently or not at all. These encounters can unleash vicious tirades that have only one resolution: see things my way or I will continue to attack and marginalize you. We can’t even have simple exchanges without them blowing up. We are anticipating an attack and our adrenal prepares us for the fight.
Then there is real and significant harm and human suffering. Rape, discrimination, gaslighting, poverty, war. In a humane world, there would be empathy for the victims and actions to right the wrongs. Instead, sufferers are abandoned or not believed or told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. When brave souls come forward to tell their stories there is an outpouring of hostility and defensiveness. It seems these horrors don’t match some narrative that is part of the “natural order”. Compassion is for sissies.
It feels like someone has thrown accelerant on petty grievances to ignite the battle of “who has it worst”. A bad, yet offensive, joke is a 10 on the scale of indignities worthy of expulsion from the human race. So, where does gun violence or a global financial crisis rank on the 10-point scale? And why hasn’t anyone been expelled? Lots of handwringing and op-ed pieces and everything stays according to the “natural order”. The top people are still in charge and the middles and bottoms feel further demoralized and invisible.
I keep searching for answers and deeper understanding. I have days when I hold tight to my optimism only to plunge into a week of hopelessness. I want to believe in our better angels. And I naively think there is some silver bullet answer that will pull us all out of this deteriorating mess.
But I’m not quite that naïve. In my work, I guide leaders to have more questions than answers. So here are my questions.
- Why are humans so frightened of each other?
- Why do humans hold onto stereotypes and caricatures of people who are different than our own tribe? Why do we substitute “stories” about others for actual real life experiences?
- Don’t humans understand that we are made of the same skin, bones, muscles and blood even if we look different? Why do we not see our similarities?
- Why do humans prefer the company of people who look, sound, act and earn the same?
- What is so awful or threatening about people who look, sound, act or earn differently? Aren’t we curious to learn about people and places beyond our life experiences?
- Why do those at the top want to control everyone and everything else? What do they fear would happen if there was more access to the top?
- Why do humans look at those with difficult circumstances and blame the people rather than the situation? Why don’t our hearts ache for all the injustices that cause suffering?
- Why don’t humans understand that where we are born and to whom is random?
- Why are humans in the public square (IRL or virtual) so vicious? What feels so good about making others feel so badly?
- Are all these nasty interactions because we fundamentally feel terrible about ourselves? If so, how did that happen during the self-esteem-Olympics decades?
- Why is being kind and assuming positive intention so much harder than being cruel and assuming the worst?
We have lost our humanity. That precious connective tissue that allows us to know with certainty that we are all in this together and that our similarities far outstrip our differences. We are all just one county away from poverty, one country away from a war zone, one neighborhood away from gun violence, one boss away from sexual harassment, one generation away from slavery, one brother away from PTSD, one cousin away from addiction, one friend away from rape, one paycheck away from homelessness. Not even the very top folks are protected from life’s dangers. And when those bad moments occur (and they will for all of us), it is the kindness of people we know and many we don’t know that helps us survive.
So, is our reliance on the decency of our fellow travelers only valid when we personally experience hard times? That doesn’t make sense. It seems we would carry within us the warmth of that generosity and act on that during the good times when our well beings are intact. Sadly, that is not where we are today.
As humans, we have the gift of consciousness; the ability to think things through and not just act on instinct. Cruelty and denigration are choices we make. The stories will tell ourselves about why our mistreatment is justified are simply that…stories. They are not based in the ability to see, hear and understand that person sitting across from us or speaking on the TV. We must reclaim our sense of humanity so we can see, hear and understand that when we treat others so poorly that we are doing harm to ourselves. Because, after all, we are all the same and we are in this together.