Opinion columnist David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column recently entitled “How to Stay Sane in Brutalizing Times.”
He began by saying, “We’re living in brutalizing times: Scenes of mass savagery pervade the media. Americans have become vicious toward one another amid our disagreements. Everywhere I go, people are coping with an avalanche of negative emotions: shock, pain, contempt, anger, anxiety, fear… How do you stay mentally healthy and spiritually whole in brutalizing times?”
Brooks goes on to say that history teaches us that this is endemic to mankind and the way to deal with such malice is for those of us who recoil from these dehumanizing events is to embrace those virtues that keep humanity alive.
In dealing with this spiral of mankind breaking bad, my intention here is not to invoke the historically austere Calvinist creed of Puritan preacher Cotton Mather of the debauched character of man hanging by a thread over the abyss of hell, but rather to confess or give witness to the baseness that man has displayed over and over again in the course of history. Recent times have resurfaced these malicious tendencies, permissioned by disingenuous leadership, lying dormant (under the rocks, figuratively speaking) and remarkably easy to awaken.
The Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas terrorist attack on Israeli towns that resulted in the indiscriminate torturing and killing of hundreds of men, women and children was the latest example of these inhuman tendencies. Over 1,300 Israelis were killed in the ensuing massacre and more than 8,600 are still hospitalized from the attack. These numbers are eerily reminiscent of the attack on our World Trade Center in 2011.
Israeli’s desire for revenge for these atrocities is instinctively understandable. However, the subsequent civilian “collateral damage” from Israel’s retaliations is the death of over 14,000 Palestinian civilians, 67% of which, according to the United Nations, have been women and children. Trying to exterminate the Hamas terrorists was instinctively understandable, yet no matter how evil Hamas’s assault, the killing of over 5,500 innocent children (current estimate) is not an eye-for-an-eye equivalency. War can be malice and cruelty without rules, ethics or morality.
Antisemitism and racism have never been smothered because these visceral hatreds live in the minds of many human beings because of endemic weaknesses, insecurities and distorted psychological needs that seem to live in some form, weak or strong, in the emotional psyches Sigmund Freud once attempted to capture as the id, the ego and the superego. These psychological drives, whether dormant or awake in the moral consciousness of humankind, are secondary to its consequences.
Whatever the triggers — no pun intended — the devastating surge in mass killings is evidence of these consequences. The scourge of white nationalism, antisemitism and Islamophobia adds to the evidence. The list is long. Vladimir Putin’s brutal assault on Ukraine, the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide, the Ottoman genocides, Hitler’s genocide of Jews in WWII, slavery in the Americas, and it is estimated that European settlers killed 56 million indigenous people over about 100 years in South, Central and North America.
I spent years teaching Chinese history and the role that Confucian thought has played over thousands of years in Chinese culture. There is a general consensus, yet not unanimous, that Confucious and early disciples believed that man’s character is born neutral, neither of malice nor of righteousness, that man is conditioned by nurture, not nature. If you believe this to be true, then there is a growing sickness in the character and social order of humankind. The underlying causes could be attributed to the breakdown of the institution of the family, the consequences of social media, or maybe extreme politics, but whatever the causes, things appear to be getting worse.
If you take the contrary view, as some later Confucian scholars did, that mankind is inherently weak in character, born with inclinations of greed, envy, bigotry, selfishness, insecurity and malice, then societal rules, standards, moral and ethical principles, and spiritual teachings, the guardrails that normally keep our house in order are sliding inauspiciously into disarray. If so, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. This latter notion of fallen man has been eternally sermonized in Christian culture, and is well-known doctrine in many of the world’s religions.
The Washington Post in a series called “Terror on Repeat” was the topic of a PBS segment this past week in which the editorial board of the Post decided to show some graphic pictures of the carnage caused by military style semi-automatic weapons, questioning whether the news media was sanitizing the carnage with images of flowered memorials and interviews with grieving families, rather than showing what kind of real damage high-powered assault weapons deliver. Still careful not to show decapitated children or the bodies of unrecognizable teachers and young adolescents, the bloody aftermath in the classrooms of Uvalde elementary were horrifying, heretofore only seen by police, paramedics and coroner staff. The Post’s intentional decision was to be more realistic about the evilness of these shootings. It was hard to watch.
Given what we know can happen when leadership or societal memes give permission for these dormant character flaws to emerge from the depths of our souls, those who fail to remember and learn from these horrors of history are condemned to repeat them. What I am suggesting here is that sometimes social structures have turned dark in our country and elsewhere in the world and we wind up beyond the tipping point before we realize it’s too late. There is nothing complicated about this. All you have to do is look into history’s rear view mirror.
Brooks suggests that to maintain our sanity we must have contempt “for anything that dehumanizes, and to have compassion for the everyday people who pay the price for the designs of proud and evil people… compassion is the noble flame that keeps humanity alive, even in times of war and barbarism.”
My wife reminded me of her reading at my mother’s memorial service, Corinthians 13:13: “So now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
As a writer, I’ve always loved this literary lesson: “If I’d had more time, I’d have made this essay shorter.” Leonardo da Vinci was one of history’s greatest artists and humanitarians who managed to put this issue succinctly: “Let not rage or malice destroy life.”
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.