Monday, November 6, 2023

Can mankind be kind? Can humans be humane? (reprise)

I was very cruel to animals and insects as a kid. But I was smart enough to justify my brutal treatment of cockroaches, grasshoppers, lizards, ants – whatever had the misfortune to land in my clutches – as scientific research.

In my mind, I was going to be a famous scientist someday and – in the interest of extending the frontiers of knowledge – it was all right for me to drop tiny, helpless creatures like lizards and beetles into glass jars filled with noxious concoctions and watch them die. It gave me massive delight to stick firecrackers into red ants’ nests and watch them blow apart; observing the survivors’ panic and distress made me feel diabolically godlike.

The turning point came when I was around nine. One day I found a puppy, mangy and maggot-ridden, by the roadside. It looked at me with pleading eyes, but it seemed to me the pup was too far gone to be nursed back to health. Indeed, it looked quite hideous and I was unable to bear the thought of bathing it, treating its suppurating sores, and taking care of it. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to walk away from it. I found myself in a dilemma. Finally, I decided that putting it out of its misery was the kindest thing I could do… but how?

In front of my house was a monsoon drain that flowed all the way into a river. I noticed there was a fair amount of water that day and it seemed the neatest solution to simply drown the wretched pup. However, I couldn’t bear to handle the sorry-looking creature with my bare hands, so I picked it up with some old newspapers and said a short prayer before tossing it into the drain.

That’s when the nightmare began. The pup, instead of sinking like a stone and drowning, struggled to clamber up one bank of the monsoon drain. By now there was no turning back. It was covered in greasy sewage and the look of panic in its eyes was infectious. In a frenzy of my own panic, I grabbed a long-handled rake and pushed the pup back into the water. I never knew until then how strong the survival instinct can be in any living thing. The battle between the yelping pup and its would-be “mercy killer” went on for what felt like an eternity – but I suppose it was only a few minutes before the poor pup ceased its struggling and was carried away by the current.

The horror of what I had done haunted me for weeks. Every night I prayed for forgiveness and offered all manner of excuses for my wicked act. More than five decades after the event, I still feel traumatized by my own capacity for evil. However, that single horrifying incident marked the beginning of an entirely different evolutionary path for me.

I became an empath and an animal lover. And when one can empathize with and love animals, it isn’t too difficult to include other humans. If I have indeed acquired a deeply ingrained sense of compassion, I have that sacrificial puppy to thank.

This long preamble, I feel, is necessary to show that humans are rarely born kind, even though we’re part of a species called “mankind.” Sometimes it requires an experience like the one I had at age nine to activate the heart chakra and to be able to feel others’ pain.

So when I read or hear about the hellish cruelty humans are capable of inflicting on those they perceive as their enemies – or simply as weaker – I’m inclined to feel sadder on behalf of the tormentors than for their victims. The ones on the receiving end of cruel treatment become spiritually stronger if it doesn’t kill them – or, if it does, at least they attain freedom from all mortal pain – whereas the oppressor will have to live with the hideous memory of his or her own transgressions for the rest of their lives, if not forever.

When you consider that the word “kind” is related to “kin” it becomes clearer why it requires a breakthrough in our genetic and cultural formatting to genuinely become compassionate.

In tribal cultures, the extended family or clan is regarded as “kin.” Anyone outside this narrow definition is NOT kin – and therefore undeserving of kindness. This planet has undoubtedly been experienced as a hostile environment for countless generations. For the sake of survival, we were programmed to care only for those closely related to us and thereby form a united front against “the outsider” – the alien whose agenda may be antagonistic to our own.

I saw this program at work within my own blood family. When both my parents were alive and well, their children would gather twice a year at Christmas and Chinese New Year. Much as I enjoyed the feasting and vegging out in front of the TV set, I sometimes found these visits to the homestead unstimulating and took to inviting friends to participate in these ritual gatherings. My sister viewed these events as exclusive to the blood family and resented my bringing strangers into the circle. Heated arguments were the result. She saw some of my guests as “unsavory backpackers” – specimens of humanity she would never deign to hobnob with. Even a perfectly “respectable” guest from a somewhat aristocratic background was regarded with suspicion – just because she happened to be Chilean and romantically involved with me.

My father was always extremely hospitable and open to befriending whomsoever I brought home; my mother never outwardly displayed hostility, even if she found it difficult to open her heart completely to anyone who wasn’t “part of the family.” It didn’t take me long to realize that among my siblings, my brother Lanny and I took after our dad in terms of being more sociable; while my brother Mike and sister Mae were more like my mum. Even within a single nuclear family, such psychological and emotional divides can occur – what more in an entire nation?

These thoughts have been percolating for years and invariably surface whenever I read about cruel treatment of refugees and domestic help. When we call upon governments to amend the immigration laws and align them with humanitarian values, we must remember that the kind of people we elect to office ultimately reflect our own greatest weaknesses and fears.

If we have ever looked upon the proliferation of foreigners in our neighborhoods with resentment, suspicion and hostility, then it’s quite likely we would support the political campaigns of xenophobic candidates like Pauline Hanson or Ibrahim Ali.

Similarly, if we have been raised to view people of a different race or religion as somehow inferior or dangerous, it’s unlikely that we would be overjoyed when our beloved daughter comes home one day with a bearded, swarthy boyfriend. This sort of misplaced pride in our own culture and prejudice against others slumbers deep in our collective unconscious, contrary to whatever politically correct notions of liberality and compassion we may publicly espouse.

In effect, if we genuinely desire the benefit of enlightened governance, we must first become enlightened ourselves. There is no short cut – and no amount of petition signing will make us “civilized.” Even the word “civilized” doesn’t quite convey the essence of compassion and humaneness without which we would condemn ourselves and our progeny to endless cycles of intertribal conflict and internecine warfare.

Civilization is derived from the Latin civilis, meaning “citizen” or member of an urban community, which infers that we are “cultured” or “genteel” in our behavior.

Gentility (being well-mannered and refined) is no guarantee of a kind heart. Most times it is merely a social fa├žade, a mask that conceals rather than reveals what feelings we have learnt to repress.

What is called for, ultimately, is a cleansing of our neural circuitry of all outmoded beliefs and programs. Behavioral patterns that may have served our remote ancestors who faced tremendous dangers tend to become counter-survival when circumstances and conditions change, as they inevitably do. When one is no longer in the battlefield, heavy armor becomes a distinct liability. In a cosmopolitan reality, tribal traditions handed down multiple generations no longer serve – except as cultural artefacts of interest only to the archivist and historian in us.

Indeed, as we evolve towards greater inclusivity and away from exclusivity, words like “foreign” and “alien” quickly become meaningless and irrelevant. To be called a “bastard” – someone born “out of wedlock” – no longer carries much insult, if only because a good number of us were premaritally or extramaritally conceived. Archaic notions that one can indulge in sex “against the natural order” are today no more than laughable, even if they still carry enough legal charge to imprison political rivals.

Butterfly Woman by Rahima Warren
And so we witness human evolution at a crossroads where some cling desperately, even violently, to the past – even as others dream of a future wherein we can transcend our individual and tribal ego cocoons and consciously, empathically merge with ever increasing networks of intelligence, feeling and experience - until we become an integral aspect of Goddess/God, Source, All That Is & Isn't, Great Spirit, Prime Creator, the Great Mother - whatever label you attempt to stick on what is essentially unlabelable.


[First posted 6 November 2011, reposted 20 November 2013 & 3 June 2017]