Here we are again at that time of year when as a planet we collectively celebrate our orbital anniversary around the sun. It seems to be about the only thing upon which we are all able to agree. We offer tidings of peace and goodwill. We extol love and generosity. We gather with those we call our own and rejoice in our lives together. The last couple of years it also seems to be a time when I want to take stock of how we as a planet are living up to our own ideals and making progress on our wishes for peace on earth.
Two years ago at this time of year we were in a furor over the barbaric slaying of Jyoti Singh Pandey by 5 rapists on a bus in New Delhi. Last year the fervor for peace between men and women was still burning strong. This year many of us are outraged at the pattern of police brutality towards Black people in America. Worldwide we are protesting the inhumanity of the war on Gaza. We’ve been stunned by the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian girls, shocked by the disappearing of 43 Mexican students, and completely numbed and horrified by the massacre of Pakistani schoolchildren. We commemorated 30 years of suffering and injustice wrought by the Union Carbide Disaster in Bhopal, the world’s worst industrial disaster in history. And, sadly, the revelations that the USA has been sanctioning the practice of torture were not that surprising to many of us. All these events span a range, but not the entire spectrum, of the savagery of humans against our own kind. Even without global warming or the threat of nuclear catastrophe our behavior towards each other is enough to make one feel that the Great Human Party is coming to an end.
Brutality. The word came into usage in the 15th century. It comes from the Medieval Latin word brutalis, meaning savage or stupid, and the word brutus, meaning dull or dumb. It’s rather ironic that so much cruelty is executed so cleverly.
How does one, or how do groups of people, become crude, unfeeling, and incapable of empathy, an inherent congenital trait essential for survival? Empathy is not only an imperative between parents and children, but it is crucially fundamental for all of us. No human being lasts long without other dependable and sensitive people to care for and by whom to be nurtured, protected, loved, and respected.
We’ve known for decades about a newborn’s capacity to be distressed by the suffering of another peer. An infant’s brain, mind, and heart is completely attuned to those around it. For the first year of life these small beings react to the pain of others as if they themselves are experiencing the pain. Toddlers tend to mimic the display of the sufferer in their presence. By age 3 children know that someone else’s pain is not their own, and quite often know how to comfort them. By age 8 children can grasp the circumstances of another person and feel for them. In adulthood it is our own empathy that pilots our moral compass.
Even animals demonstrate empathy for each other. We have observed behaviors we interpret as empathic in elephants, ravens, mice, rats, gorillas, crows, orangutans, scrub jays, chimpanzees, dogs, cats, and of course dolphins. As we focus more attention on the matter we will find the list is perhaps endless. The animals that have been studied clearly demonstrate caring for other members of their own species, and quite often also love across species.
Brutish behavior has been described as resembling a beast, or lacking human sensibility. Brutality is not the correct word to use for the human behaviors that aren’t even typical of other creatures. We’ve transposed our terminology. Bestial nature is kind and considerate; humanity’s history has been cold-blooded and vicious. How dare we imagine Homo Sapiens at the top of some imaginary evolutionary pyramid while our manners are inconsistent with and undeserving of that post.
To move from our seemingly unrelenting harshness against each other towards a generous caring for each other we must examine who it is we consider as our own species. Clearly, the Israelis don’t consider the Palestinians as their own kind. Fundamentalists from each religion do not consider those of other faiths as their own sort. White supremacists feel people with more pigmented skin are not their own type. The police forget that all blood runs red, even their own. Given that rapists never consider their victim’s feelings while committing their violation, it would seem even the various genders of our species do not consider each other as their own.
How do we decide who is our own, and who is not? First we decide who we are. We construct our identities. We are not born with an idea of who we are. Identity is just an idea we create. We are born with a capacity for empathy towards anyone in our vicinity. Over time we create an identity for ourselves which distinguishes us from others. We learn that we are one gender, or another. We learn our skin has so much pigment by which we are thereby categorized. We learn our families believe certain things and have patterned ways of doing things, which we call our culture. We are indoctrinated with patriotism and filial fidelity. We pin every appropriate label we can claim on our lapels.
We then learn that a hierarchy has been developed for these various definitions of ourselves. Where there is no hierarchy, humans are intent on imposing one, lest we should all feel equally powerful and free. We insist on evaluating red as better than blue, oranges as better than apples, or melody as more important than rhythm? It’s silly. This silliness, my friends, is the beginning of brutality.
Our definitions of success, power, and happiness depend on this preposterous hierarchy paradigm. It’s the “Winner Wins”and the “Winner is on Top” and “The Top Cat is Happiest” mentality, which completely misses the entire convivial potential of playing the glorious game of life. Life can be fun, joyful, and cooperative. We could spend our lives enjoying our time on earth with each other. Instead, we spend our energy creating, maintaining, and defending our identities. We constantly compare ourselves with each other, knowing full well there are always plenty who are taller, prettier, stronger, faster, smarter, richer, wiser, or luckier than us, as well as so many who are also shorter, poorer, slower, dimmer, weaker, frailer, and unluckier than us. Nevertheless, we exert ourselves, sometimes with force, and too often with violence, to prove our place in the pecking order.
Now, bear with me as I offer a metaphor that may or may not get us closer to the root of our violence towards one another. There’s string theory in physics. Here’s my balloon theory of life. In case I offend your faith or belief system, please activate your preemptive forgiveness panel now.
Imagine for a moment a party in which balloons of different colors, shapes, and sizes are stuffed into a spacious room. They bounce about bumping into each other and the walls. It’s quite a delightful affair. Occasionally there are a few bumped skins, but it’s all just a part and parcel of being in the midst of the jubilee. In time, some balloons pop. After all, every balloon eventually must deflate. It’s one of the inviolable rules of participating. But, for every flat balloon, another one or few arise to take its place. Now imagine the balloons start ranking each other based on color, shape, size, and location in the dimensions of the room. The “best” balloons boss around the other balloons. The “better” balloons are in control. The festivities are no longer merry. Some members resist. Eventually the bossing turns harsh and soon we’ve got a spacious room full of busted balloons. The party is over. The hierarchy paradigm is absurd, dumb, stupid, and um, brutal.
That was the easy part. Ms. Jane Elliot’s 1970 blue eyes/brown eyes classroom experiment was a particularly poignant real life demonstration of the ugliness of prejudicial hierarchy and privilege. The next bit may not be as small a pill to swallow. Please recognize it as simply a series of questions without any answers. But perhaps the answers to our cruelty lie within the asking of the questions.
While we are here, in a spacious room full of limp balloons, please take a moment to reflect on what it is that animates a balloon, and where that vitalizing force goes once the rubber bubble has burst. Is there any difference in what invigorates each balloon? Is the energy that enlivens a balloon any different based on the air bladder’s color, shape, size, or location in the room? Is there a balloon “soul” that migrates to another one after the original host’s life is over? Or does the balloon’s “soul” travel to a better or worse place depending on how it or its host behaved? Or could it be that what gives a balloon life exists everywhere at all times? Could it be that it is the same inside the balloon as outside the balloon?
Could it be that thing that makes you and me alive doesn’t come in a packet that can be removed, inserted, or transported anywhere? Could it be that the life force within us doesn’t dissipate or migrate, but is simply constantly present, everywhere, in everything? Could it be that this life force is unchanged, whether it is inside or outside of the body of a living being? Could it even be present in the unknown dark matter that makes up most of the universe? If this life force remains unchanged and goes nowhere then is there any point to killing? If it is present everywhere, could we simply be sampling and sharing this vitality among us? Could mirror neurons be a manifestation of how intimately our lives are rooted in a shared consciousness? In the same way the cells of our own bodies are inhabited by our own life force, is it possible we each are indeed actually simply “cells” of a much larger organism with a unified consciousness? As all our minds contribute to the collective consciousness, if a criminal’s mind has not been changed, do those intentions persist in our shared mind even after the criminal has been destroyed? Is there any point in destroying a criminal then? Or anyone who we don’t appreciate? How is it that we have come to fantasize that the life force that inspires each and every living being, humans and non-humans alike, should be any different based on color, shape, size, or location? How did we get there?
When we ask ourselves who we are, as all the great masters have urged us to, we will discover what gives life to our bodies. It is not the identity tags we have caged ourselves in. If we want to terminate the stupidity of brutality, then we must stop clinging to the names we have given ourselves, whether they be based on physical characteristics, gender, ethnicity, faith, preferences, orientations, practices, affiliations, professions, locations, or whatever. I recognize this is completely counter to identity based advocacy work, which has its valid and vital place in the current political sphere. Yet, we will never feel each other clearly as our own until we realize who we each are ourselves.
We must also simultaneously step off the ladders of hierarchy upon which our current political, and spiritual, corruption is based. This is more difficult than it sounds, because ever since our conception we are programmed to be “better” than the next, even “better” than ourselves. We “climb the ladder of success”, don’t we? We never just “float off down the river of success.” Maybe we ought to. I’m in complete favor of progressing, practicing, refining, evolving as humans and societies. However, I eschew the idea that those who are more developed are “better” and should post themselves at the top of the evolutionary pyramid. We must keep learning, growing, discovering, clarifying, polishing, maturing, all the while civilizing ourselves and the world. We must recognize the instability inherent in the ordering of power, love, and freedom. We must remember every living being, including those we don’t like, or even judge as evil, deserves to be alive, safe, healthy, happy, respected, loved, and free. Then we will begin to see the end of brutality.
May the Great Human Party carry on! Happy Peaceful 2015!