When asked what surprised him most about humanity, the Dalai Lama said, “Man, because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices his money to recapture his health. Then he is so anxious about the future that he doesn’t enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future. He lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
The Dalai Lama’s words, though poignant, imply that humanity is inherently flawed. Yet many accounts of the ways of life of cooperative cultures around the world indicate that it is possible for humans to live healthy, abundant, and joy-filled lives. Might the beliefs and values of our culture have led us here?
Each of the following beliefs are merely possibilities. Which one brings harmony?
We are fundamentally flawed and cannot change. It is natural for us to destroy ourselves. We are naturally selfish.
Each person is perfectly in their changing path. It is natural for us to struggle with identity, internal and external, and this can take many forms.
We are taught from an early age that it is in our basic nature to destroy ourselves. War, starvation, imprisonment, and poverty are inevitable manifestations of suffering resulting from humanity being inherently violent and brutish and there is nothing we can really do to stop it. In everyday life, this sentiment occurs regularly in many forms. When a homicide or bombing happens, people shake their heads and say, “Humans” or “People are evil.” Or a friend says in passing, “Relationships are hell. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em,” as if we inevitably suffer through love. Even news reports and opinion articles on environmental catastrophe attribute these problems to humans’ inherently destructive impact on creation. We interpret the Holocaust and other massive violent events as evidence of our inherent evil and aggressive tendencies. The message is: the level of suffering we experience is natural, and is the result of the fact that humans are by nature flawed.
This defeatist message comforts us by suggesting that the disharmony we experience is normal and out of our control. It also allows us to remain comfortably in suffering because there is nothing we can do that will change our fundamentally flawed nature. This thinking enables masses of people to live in poverty, believing it necessary that a few powerful people reign over everyone to keep us all in line. Meanwhile, elite and proletariat alike work overtime at jobs that don’t feed the spirit, “because they have to”. Healthy people will not do something they don’t enjoy every day, much less keep doing so until they convince themselves they like it or that it’s the best they can expect from life.
If we really look at history, we find many examples of kind and sustainable peoples in existence before our culture obliterated them. It is no surprise that we think we have always been this way because everyone we ever met has this same value system and the lifeways of people who lived before this culture, although those people are genetically the same, are relegated to “prehistory” or otherwise treated as barbaric.
This is not to say that Paleolithic peoples never fought or struggled. Some ancient tribes developed more violent ways of life while others were more peaceable. Also, even the most peaceable types inevitably dealt with conflict. It is natural for individuals to struggle as they grow and learn, and for conflict to arise between people and between groups. Disagreement and challenge have always been part of human life. (In fact, many Paleolithic peoples developed formalized conflicts as a way to clarify and maintain differences between groups.) But this doesn’t mean it serves us well to believe that life is inherently full of suffering and we must battle to survive (whether between peoples or within oneself).
With a little more compassion for our species, we might shift our view to say that our trials and challenges are not indications that humanity is fickle but rather that our “mistakes” are how we learn. It is important to consider that much of the suffering and conflict we face now – genocide, nuclear war, homicides and hate crimes – are phenomena which were largely absent from the lives of our ancestors and indigenous cultures around the world, and the massive scale of suffering in these events stems from the beliefs and values detailed here.