Cruel humans — How can people be this way?

Nine-eleven was al-Qa’eda’s deliberate humiliation of the West. Such a cruel thing to do. I remember saying ‘Evil begets evil’, and so I am not surprised that this act of barbarism was followed by what I consider to be disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other recent examples of being cruel

I would suggest that the brutality of some powerful people in the West can be heard in the voice of those politicians like US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld who said “There just aren’t enough targets in Afghanistan…We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around.”

torture at Guantanamo

Can human cruelty not also be seen in the action of President Bush who tossed aside the civilised principle of habeas corpus by setting up Guantanamo and other torture centres?

History of man’s inhumanity to man

These recent acts of human cruelty are part of a long history of man’s inhumanity to man. The massacres, looting and capturing of slaves by forces led by Attila the Hun in 5th century eastern Europe; the unrestricted bombing of civilians living in cities like Gunernica during the Spanish civil war; the starvation, brutal treatment and extermination of Jews, and other victims of persecution in the Nazi concentration camps.

Ordinary life is full of small acts of cruelty

Human cruelty of course goes on all the time perhaps in less dramatic ways and in a much smaller scale than these. Malicious gossip can destroy a personal reputation; spiteful actions can result in huge distress; nasty comments within close relationships can cause longstanding wounds.

We can all succumb to anger but why do some people feel contempt, or want revenge and act out their feelings in these ways?

Reasons for contempt and revenge

One answer that impresses me is to do with a common tendency towards self-orientation rather than concern for others and a materialistic rather than an ethical focus in our thinking. Depending on the way the individual chooses to live life, these two innocent inclinations can actually amount to self-centredness and preoccupation with bodily pleasures and possessions.

Prioritising number one means seeing things only from ones own selfish point of view rather than trying to understand the predicaments of others. Thinking in terms of physical things means neglecting the ethical dimension.

When people with this state of mind cannot get what they want, I would suggest they are likely to feel contempt towards those who do not favour them and revenge towards those who thwart their desires. Such hostility is the seed of cruel behaviour. When these feelings dominate and people believe they can get away with it, are they not more likely to do mischief, cause injury and act cruelly?

Not everyone thank goodness allows such ugly feelings to determine their actions. But some do. This is not to argue that people will not vary in their behaviour. Some are sometimes spontaneously cruel when experiencing strong feelings of scorn or wanting to get their own back on someone. Some people can make a deliberate plan to intentionally cause hurt. And yet others actually take sadistic pleasure in seeing inflicted pain.

Adolf Hitler is an example of the last of these who took great delight in repeatedly watching the film of the cruel deaths of those who had plotted to overthrow his regime. It’s all a matter of individual choice.

Danger of selfish anger

The main religions all warn against the dangers of this kind of selfish anger that can go wild like a forest fire. In his book Essential Spirituality Roger Walsh quotes a famous Zen story to dramatically makes this point.

A Japanese warrior approached a Zen master to request answers to some questions that had been troubling him. ‘What is it you want to know?’ queried the Zen master.

‘Tell me sir, do heaven and hell exist?’ ‘Ha! Snorted the Zen master in a tone that was half-laugh half-sneer. ‘What makes you think that you could understand such things? You are only an uneducated, brutish soldier. Don’t waste my time with your silly questions.’

For an instant the warrior froze in shock. No one, but no one ever speaks to a Japanese warrior like that. It meant instant death. ‘Are you too stupid to understand what I said?’ roared the Zen master. ‘Stop wasting my time and get out of here.’

The warrior exploded with rage. His hand flew like lightning to his sword and swept it aloft for the kill. But in the split second before the sword descended to crush the monk’s skull, he heard the words.

‘This is the gate to hell.’

Again the warrior froze in astonishment. His own rage brought hell to him and those he attacked. And the master had risked his life to make this fact inescapably clear. Breathing deeply, he slowly replaced his sword and bowed humbly in awe and respect.

‘And this,’ smiled the Zen master, ‘is the gate to heaven.’

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

What is wisdom?

I must have glared at the complete stranger and she sharply asked me why.

I was walking behind her and her male companion neither of whom had I seen before. We were going across the car park at my place of work ? a tidy new public building set near attractive woodland and playing fields. A place I suppose I was rather proud of. I happened to notice her popping something into her mouth and tossing aside a tiny piece of what I took to be a sweet wrapping paper. Although the car park was well swept, any litter she had made was so tiny it could be barely seen!

Being challenged, I voiced my indignation — not rudely — but admittedly with a strong note of irritation in my voice. Immediately her companion launched into a hostile volley of foul language at me. Not wanting to escalate the confrontation, I said nothing and walked away, steaming inside.

Thinking about the incident later, when I had calmed down, I started to wonder if I could have responded more wisely to what had been the most trivial of misdemeanours. I’m afraid I do tend to jump in where angels fear to tread. Or perhaps a bull in a china shop might be a better way of putting it. Clearly I had over-reacted and I could have spoken differently. But no, I had to respond on impulse without any thought.

In contrast, when an Asian friend found herself on a crowded train, she noticed some kids dropping litter on to the carriage floor. She felt anxious about saying anything but reflected that unless someone did the youngsters would never learn proper conduct. So she spoke in a reasonable tone of voice saying to the lads ‘You might not have noticed ? actually there is a litter bin here.’ And was pleased to see them pick up what they had dropped and place the bits into the bin.

Of course sometimes it’s wise to keep quiet. On another occasion she told me that on the rush hour train there was a group of college teenagers ‘effing and blinding’ and she looked at them and decided it would be futile to say something to them but when she got to work, as she had overheard what college they were at, she telephoned the principle to describe their inappropriate behaviour asking him to raise this with the students.

We all put our foot in it from time to time, some of us more than others. I’m thinking about social gaffs, ill-judged decisions, or reaching an unfair conclusion about someone. When we do unwise things, we usually have to pay the price. Our foolish mistakes often seem to bounce back at us.

I imagine wiser people are less likely to make such errors of judgement. So how can we acquire more wisdom?

Do we need to gain more knowledge? This is often what people assume. They may turn to scholars with academic learning for the right answers. Or seek understanding from professionals such as psychotherapists, personal skills coaches, or religious advisors who have psychological or spiritual knowledge. The British shadow chancellor of the exchequer got into hot water by joking about his ignorance of economics. Clearly appreciation of the working of banking, the business cycle and the tax system is important for wise political decisions regarding the economy. The same is true for all walks of life – you can’t expect wisdom from those who lack knowledge and understanding.

In these materialistic times, the world of commerce and government emphasise understanding about competitive performance and efficiency. Likewise the media emphasise information concerning the arts, science and technology. In this climate, wisdom tends to be dismissed as something ethereal. But I would suggest it is really needed if we are to solve our personal and social problems.

So what is this intangible thing we call wisdom? Foolishness is often associated with youth who lack knowledge of the world and its ways. But I would suggest wisdom involves something much more than mere knowledge, understanding or skill – important as these are.

In ancient cultures wisdom was often associated with old age, not just because older people have more experience of life, but because they have had the chance to learn from their mistakes and develop virtues of character. We only reach our potential by making a spiritual journey.

According to this view, true wisdom is not the same as intellectual reasoning. It is a spiritual gift that comes to those who are good at heart. How can we hope to be wise if we do not have sympathy for others and the humility that enables us to laugh at ourselves? I believe that when concern for oneself doesn’t come first, then there can be an opening up of a spiritual consciousness; a higher level of the human mind that can receive clearer light.

How could I hope to wisely respond to people who drop litter without giving offence, unless I have a friendly respectful attitude based on concern for them? If you really want to put your foot in it, not only point out the misconduct of others, but also be sure in your indignation to set yourself up in judgment over them.

“Wisdom ceases to be wisdom when it becomes too proud to weep, too grave to laugh, and too selfish to seek other than itself.” (Kahlil Gilbran)

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

First published as Putting your foot in it in January 2011 Edition of New Vision magazine.