“God creates us free, free to be selfish, but He adds a mechanism that will penetrate our selfishness and wake us up to the presence of others in this world, and that mechanism is called suffering.”
Growing up, I was a selfish child. My parents set everything aside for me and worked towards my own interest, even as I was usually blissfully ungrateful for their herculean efforts. Even more, I resented my social circle for the material fortunes provided by their much-wealthier families. It was simply not fair to me — and where there is perceived injustice to oneself, there cannot be room for compassion for others.
In the middle of my nineteenth summer, my family and I were traveling home from a shopping trip. As we crested a rise in the two-lane country road, we were greeted by a horrific sight: two wrecked cars, smoking and hissing from a collision just seconds prior. My parents went to the closest car. It was clear from the looks on their faces that the driver wasn’t going to make it. They stayed with him, held his hand, and prayed with him as he passed.
I ran to the second car. Inside was a seriously-injured elderly woman. She was bleeding heavily from her left leg where the dashboard had collapsed and crushed it. Her right arm was also pulsing crimson. My limited medical training (several summers of first aid instruction as a lifeguard) told me the obvious: even with torniquets, packing the wounds, and pressure, she would likely die before first responders could get to this little spot in the middle of nowhere.
My parents and I did all we could to address the bleeding and managed to mostly slow it down. But she had already lost so much, and was fading by the second. I’d crawled through the broken glass in the car in my shorts, and my own legs were a canvas of red scratches. I prayed with her in that car, for relief from the pain and that God might grant her more days after this one. Her eyes were cloudy with death, though, and it hit me that my young face was the last one she’d probably see. The first responders arrived after what seemed like an eternity, but was really only ten minutes or so — a phenomenal response time given the circumstances.
They pulled her from the car just as the medevac helicopter arrived. While they loaded her up, my own hands began shaking as the adrenaline and hyper-focused mental clarity began to fade. The bird lifted off and I said another prayer for her. I found out later that she’d died halfway to the hospital.
That event marked a clear turning point in my life. All of my delusions of unfairness and self-pity were momentarily stripped away by the visceral reality of the previous hour. Who was I to feel resentment over my own crappy car (and my friends’ BMWs and Land Rovers), or be mad that I didn’t have the most recent game console?
I recognized two things in the days and months that followed:
- I was gifted a tremendous capacity to subsume panic and fear into beneficial action during chaos
- It is something bordering on evil to have the ability to mitigate the suffering of others, and choose not to
Unfortunately, it was many more years before I truly recognized that suffering is not always as visible (and visceral) as physical trauma.
The truth of the matter is that humans are prone to the “Bystander Effect”. We assume (or hope) that in moments of suffering to others, someone else will stand in the gap to alleviate the pain. And yet, too many of us demand that the whole world put itself aside and come to our aid in moments of crisis.
It is a curious thing, though. Most people are far more likely to rush into twisted, steaming steel than they are to simply tell someone to quit being cruel to another. We perform some absurd cost-benefit analysis — “Does speaking up for a victim increase social risk to myself? How can I resolve this with everyone being calm? How can we smooth the waters, even if not making things morally and ethically right?”
And I know, because I have done that exact thing.
I’ve been the guy to jump into dangerous fights, or the guy to throw himself into a car wreck or motorcycle accident to help save a life. And yet, I’ve watched as good people, who did nothing wrong, nonetheless caught the hostile attention of someone operating in bad faith…and did next to nothing about it.
With the distance of time, and honest introspection, I have come to only spite myself harder for that betrayal of principle. Perhaps because it might even be better to call it a betrayal of my own humanity, but more importantly, that of the victims too. And if that is true, then what kind of monster am I — are WE — capable of being?
The question of “Are humans inherently selfish or altrustic” has been with us since the very beginnings of our self-awareness as species. Numerous studies have shown that the answer is…a little bit of both. Religion, in the main, is about offering incentives and guidance in taming our bestial, grasping selves. Teachers, parents, and other guiding authorities encourage cooperation from our youngest ages. We are born at once to defend our own interest, while also engaging in prosocial behaviors.
This is because humans can be best described as eusocial. In order to maintain stability and cohesion of our perceived “tribe”, we sacrifice a measure of self-interest in order to preserve the collective. This works very well in groups with high homogeneity, cohesion, and common interest, or when the collective is threatened by a known external force.
However, when intragroup incentives are added to the mix— particularly sexual, financial, or power — the complexities of inherent selfishness arise. Humans co-evolved philosophical notions such as honor and nobility to help address this dynamic, but there too we find weaknesses. What happens when a conflict arises, and the participants measure all of these factors differently? When what is fundamentally a pragmatic disagreement to one person carries enormous psychological or financial weight to another?
The ugly truth is simply that sometimes, we fail (or refuse) to accept that someone has been victimized by another. Out of a desire to avoid further conflict and stabilize the tribe or group (eusociality), we introduce the immorality of inaction, or worse, victim blaming. This is especially common in groups that have a high profit motive, though it occurs many times a day around the world in every setting.
And it is that passive sort of evil that most undermines friendships, families, and interpersonal relationships. Humans are not a thing to be reduced down to Game Theory calculations of risk/reward. I have watched as single mothers are blamed online for the whole host of society’s problems, watched as men are blamed for violence in the world, watched as Muslims are insulted because of the horrific actions of a fractional minority. Our greatest challenge in the coming years is not COVID-19, or economic uncertainty, or geopolitical strife.
The war to come is how all of these things will influence us to become indecent and cruel to one another.
The thing about emotions is that they are physiological — anger, fear, uncertainty, happiness, arousal. They are all chemically induced states of being that occur mostly below our consciousness and bubble up to the surface during triggering events. Many people use this simple fact as an excuse to serve their own interest. “He made me angry” becomes the justification to harm the other person.
This, however, is a frankly silly frame in which to operate. We evolved eusociality, cooperative behaviors, stabilizing philosophies, and social institutions to offer us a deep arsenal of tools with which to mitigate and govern our base emotions. Refusing to pick up those tools — or worse, repurposing them towards avarice and anger — is a fundamental betrayal of the higher order humans we must aspire to be.
When we are aggrieved in some way, particularly by those closest to us, our instinct is to find any justification possible to address that emotional pain. Often, we reach for a narrative that makes ourselves feel better by rallying all of the observers to our side. We hope to draw strength in their acquiescence to our frame of the issue. This isolates the opponent and opens them up to retributive behavior that is now ethically blessed by the group. In this manner, one party is able to take their personal anger and weaponize the group against the in-group opponent.
And watching all of this from the sidelines are those making their own calculations about intervention. But the reality is this — there’s only one calculation that truly matters:
Which party is observably acting maliciously against the other? Who is the actual victim, and what steps must be taken to act fully in their defense?
Eusociality and group cohesion disintegrates when the group members engage in, and tolerate, the Bystander Effect. The immoral, indecent failure to act worsens the emotional state of the victim, and eventually, fully dissolves the bonds between the members. The very real impact to the target is not dispersed, but radiates outwards in a series of nth-order consequences to the individual and group alike.
Failure to operate in this frame of defending FIRST the needs, wants, and feelings of each person is tantamount to the gravest betrayal of both the individual and the group. The strength of the wolf is the pack, yes, but the strength of the pack is the individual effort and devotion of each wolf. It is not chicken and egg — the pack relies on cohesion, and cohesion only comes from implicit mutual trust by and between all of the members individually.
This is important to understand for the dark days ahead. In times of massive upheaval to old orders, new orders always coalesce. During that transition phase, a few heroic types will emerge who tackle the big challenges and operate from an intuitive sense of altruism. So too will charlatans and false prophets emerge, proclaiming to have the answers if you will only fall in line with their value systems (and maybe line their pockets too).
Groups will form variously around all of these leader archetypes, leading individuals to subsume some of their identity to the tribes. It is for this reason I am writing. The future belongs to those groups and institutions that are able to hold their moral center of decency towards each individual member, even if it is at the pragmatic expense of the group as a collective. The suffering of one must matter to all, a lesson I first learned as another human was dying in my arms, yet have failed time and time to remember.
We are wired for both self-interest and eusociality. Thus, we always have a choice on how we manage our emotions and actions. If we do not operate within a frame of self-control and compassion, it will be a pandemic of indecency and betrayal that will ultimately sink the ship of civilization, and carry all us — victimizers, victims, and bystanders — down with it.
I will end with this, a prophetic warning issued a century ago, at the conclusion of the first World War:
“The Second Coming” — W.B. Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?