For as long as I can remember contemplating the idea, I have been under the impression that humans are born with a natural predisposition to behave in a way that constitutes the idea of “bad”, at least according to the value system I hold.
Personally, I believe we are born bad and learn to be good. Not the other way around.
My guess is that I reached this conclusion as a byproduct of being subjected to quite a bit of bullying during formative years of my childhood. Nevertheless, had this conclusion not been reinforced throughout the years of my adult life, through lessons in history as well as ongoing global current affairs, I might have outgrown this outlook.
This leads to the next meaningful question: can we learn to be good as a species? Can we redesign our “operating system” in such a way that overwrites our natural predisposition?
My conclusion is a resounding yes (perhaps that’s why I chose to be a teacher and teaching as my core identity).
This conclusion stands in spite of the endless and relentless negative news that we are bombarded with and drowned in by the mainstream media outlets.
Before it dawned on me that the world is not as it is portrayed by mainstream media outlets, I struggled to make sense of the overwhelming senseless and tragic behaviors of so many people on this planet.
And then an idea hit me: what if I stopped looking at them as the behaviors of many different individuals and started seeing them rather as the behavior of one collective entity: humanity?
I decided to try and look at humanity as one, single being. Like a person. What if all of humanity was compared to a single individual? What if the total historical course of humanity was looked upon at as a progression of a single individual’s lifetime? How old would we then say humanity is right now?
My own intuitive answer was “early teenage years”. Maybe 14 or 15 years old. This idea clarified the issue for me.
How many times have you seen children misbehave towards one another? How many times were you bothered, even disgusted, by the petty, ego-driven, jealously fueled cruelty, inconsideration and complete lack of empathy of children towards one-another? And when this happened, did you condemn them as “bad”? Did you conclude that they are inherently evil?
For a long while I did. They reminded me of the merciless bullies from my own childhood and my response was visceral.
But once I had adopted this concept of humanity being equivalent to a single human being, I began looking at these kids differently. I took a longer view and considered how they turned out as adults (including some of my bullies).
In most cases, there was no memory of their “bad” childhood behavior.
They had grown up.
They had matured.
They had become kind, considerate and intelligent individuals.
When we see children misbehave, we know it’s a function of their age and natural development and not necessarily a reflection of their parent’s education or of their own intrinsic nature. We look at them – in the midst of their bad behavior – and though we don’t like or approve of it, we know they are just children and we understand that this will pass as they grow up.
So why not look upon humanity in the same way? I do and it gives me tremendous hope.
If we think about humanity as being in it’s early teenage years, and we consider our growth and maturity over the course of our history – there is much room for optimism.
Yes, we – humanity – are still teenagers and have a good while before we become full on, well rounded and “good” adults. But we are on the right track.
If you look at the past 5,000 years, you see a consistent positive trend in humanity’s conduct. It’s hard to see when we are faced with high definition images and 24/7 news cycles of genocide and terrorist attacks and threats of annihilation from countries like Iran and North Korea. But from a bird’s eye view, the data seems to indicate that we are in fact “growing up” (for a much more substantiated body of knowledge supporting this argument, read “The Better Angles of our Nature” by Steven Pinker).
This whole notion came back to me yesterday, when I read the news and followed the endless feeds of people’s comments on Facebook:
- Petty politicians that will say and do anything for tactical gains, at the expense of foundational values that are at the core of our identity as a country and a people.
- Shallow and misleading media reporters that seem to have forgotten (if they ever really knew to begin with) what the true purpose and role of the media is.
- Displays of ignorance, hate and mob mentality from strangers as well as some people within my social network, that are so reminiscent of previous eras in modern history that we now call “dark” .
- Tragic, hopeless posts by frustrated and heartbroken people who see what I see and think “The world is going to shit”.
It takes tremendous discipline to not be fooled by the illusion of “now” and its disconnection from the broader historical context and timeline. It takes even more awareness and discipline to remind ourselves that what we see on the news is only a fraction of a fraction of whats actually happening around the world and that the frequency of bad news does not accurately represent the ratio of good to bad events taking place every day. It’s a very tough thing to do given how our brain works and how our internal operating system has evolved over the past several hundreds of thousands of years.
For all of the time I spend learning about how our cognitive and emotional operating systems work – I am still struggling to maintain perspective and not be completely defeated by the news.
It is important to remember that although developing such discipline is much like developing “muscles” and positive habits, it’s not enough on its own. I have found that controling the environment we immerse ourselves in is equally important (much like it is wise for a recovering alcoholic to avoid bars). That’s why I have stopped watching the news. I have dramatically reduced the time I spend reading politically charged and aggressive Facebook exchanges (with one exception: an inspired site called The Perspective). I focus on the positive, enlightened and inspiring things that happen every day in the world. And they do happen EVERY DAY, by many millions of people.
Instead of blaming our political leaders, or the media, I have concluded that it is up to me to simply refuse to consume their shallow, ignorant and overall “bad” behaviors.
Think about it as a boycott. If a product is boycotted long enough, by enough people, it will be taken off the shelves and production will slow down and ultimately stop.
- Choose to be more proactive in controlling the flow of information into my head (and heart) and am trying to be a strict curator of my own mind.
- Spend more time reading, watching TED talks, volunteering and engaging with entrepreneurs.
Just wanted to share this with you – in case you too are feeling overwhelmed by the amount of shit that seems to be flying around.
It’s not an illusion – there is a lot of bad stuff. But it is a much smaller part of reality than we think. And that’s a great thing. We just have to look in the right directions.