Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Dark Side

Human beings like to pretend that they are mature, rational and in control. This is one of the myths that governs our society, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary. However, there is, always has been, and always will be a very dark side to human nature. Consider, for example, the capacity of human beings for cruelty. I am not immune to this. I know this capacity resides within me too. The cruelty may be physical or emotional; it may be expressed in blows or in words. It can arise in individuals, in groups or in nations.

When do I want to lash out to hurt someone? First, when I have been hurt or threatened. This is not merely self-defence; it is revenge, pay back. The difference is the emotion behind the act. When I defend myself I feel mostly fear. My response is largely defensive, although this might also involve striking back. It is after the immediate danger has passed that the cruelty sets in. Now any action I take to hurt the other person is not motivated simply by the need to defend myself, but to pay them back, to make them hurt too. There is no benefit in this other than the satisfaction I feel by causing such pain. Is it shocking to say this? Possibly. I think as human beings we are terrified to admit that hurting someone else can actually make us feel good. It gives us a sense of power. This may be unpalatable, but I fear that it is true.

Secondly, I feel like lashing out when I am angry. If someone is denying me something, standing in my way, it triggers the desire to hurt. In a strange way, this is also linked to a feeling of having been hurt by the other: they have prevented me from enjoying some pleasure, or taking advantage of an opportunity, and we perceive this as an injury. We have a very broad definition of injury, and it is rarely difficult to justify some kind of retaliation. This also has its roots in our extremely competitive nature: the desire to be top dog. I applaud the battle for everyone to have equal rights and opportunities in this world; but “rights” can so easily be co-opted into the service of selfishness and self-aggrandisement.

Thirdly, I might feel like lashing out when I am in pain. We recognise this in other animals too: an injured animal will often attack anyone who tries to help. Human beings have an enormous capacity for pain, both physical and psychological. If I am in pain my tolerance is low, my energy is being drained, and I am susceptible to lashing out. The target of our attack may or may not have any connection to the origin of our pain.

Human beings are very fragile. A cruel word directed at us by someone can give rise to a strong desire to either run away and hide or to strike back; sometimes both. There is much in the world today that either hurts us, or threatens to hurt us. There is intense competition for resources and for power. Many of us are in a fragile state, nursing wounds the origins of which are lost to us. Is it at all surprising that individuals, groups and nations frequently lash out at each other with cruelty?

I have tried to speak personally here. I am owning up to feelings that I suspect all of us have, although we try to pretend that it is not so. As in so many of these things, one of the keys to dealing with such unwelcome and oft-denied feelings is to acknowledge their presence. They are a part of us that we need to own. Only in doing so can we also distance ourselves from them and prevent them from controlling us.


For the price of a Big Mac, but won't clog your arteries: Maybe they'll remember me

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