Oh the Humanity

15 03 2010

Watching PBS’s National Park Series recently, I was moved by the life and perspective of John Muir. Born in 1838, Muir was essential in the formation of Yosemite as a U.S. National Park. The documentary focused on the challenges faced by those (like Muir, future founder of the Sierra Club) who wanted Yosemite to be a protected space. Muir’s efforts are preserved in his letters and essays which illuminate his passion for the land. In addition to his musings on nature, John Muir noted that there are enough different kinds of people in this world to do all the good things you could think of (beautiful space preserved/conserved for the public’s benefit) and all the bad things imaginable (destruction of nature/consumption of land for private interests). Still, he persisted. And he sounded so damn peaceful about it.

One person’s beauty-on-earth can be another person’s high-dollar-dream. We the people are so varied – we shouldn’t be shocked to see our interests set against each other. And we shouldn’t be so quick to think that one interest is Right (though some interests/deeply held beliefs are more considerate than others).

This got me thinking about how his words didn’t shatter the earth at that moment – I’m hearing his words on a documentary in 2009 and I’m thinking – yeah, we still don’t get that evil and good not only exist within us all but exist despite our neat little boundaries. Somehow after his words, future generations were not smarter, better. I’m thinking about privilege. Borders weren’t done away with – racism could’ve been relegated to history books. There are enough good and bad people in the world? There are shitheads and sweethearts? Shitheads can be sweethearts? Sweethearts, shitheads? Nothing else matters, like, where you were born? Wait .. you’re telling me that .. wait … the world is complicated? Like I said, it got me thinking.

I’m looking at this on an individual level as well as a humans-as-one level. Humanity is complex.

There is no inherent purity swimming within humans or rancid bile boiling our blood. Just as there is no single idea that unites all feminine people/no single trait that connects all masculine people. A world of binaries is a world that is easily duped.

You know that eternal question we face at least once in our lives – are people inherently good or inherently evil? I’ve never bought it. I’ve tried to go there in my mind but entering into that simplistic world is difficult – perhaps more so without the proper religious background.

Coming from a family that always respected my personal religious evolution (if nothing else) – I managed to escape the pressure that so many American children face (most children and adults across the world really) to adhere to a religious policy that outlines a society that is the Right society. I remain thankful for this freedom granted by my parents. As I continue a spiritual/personal journey that is all my own, I look back on questions like that – inherently good, inherently evil. Perhaps just a mental exercise but many people feeling compelled to choose one or the other. I examine my own humanity and agree with Muir’s statement. I feel like he’s saying ‘it’s not that easy’.

We as a group do a million little good things and a gazillion little bad things every single day … We as individuals are capable of the same. Good? Evil? Let’s call the whole thing off.

Consider: White, middle-classers with gentrification bumper stickers on their cars stating “We put the hood in neighborhood!” (co-opting fun aspects of a life without realizing the realities of living in it). But then: upper-crust private school kids embracing the world as more complicated than just ‘we are privileged and you suck’ (social justice pioneers born out of a background that says ‘you’ll be comfortable anyway’). Money privilege does not = evil.

And you know what? Realizing (if you haven’t already) that social binaries/simplicities are bunk can be a great thing. It can make you a stronger fighter – educated for the struggle – and can bring more peace to us in general. If you consider that someone is not inherently evil then you can start to imagine them as a full person – you can think about interacting with them (which can lead to understanding/growth). If we look at society as a changeable, complex space and view ourselves as learners in the process – we dismantle the weapons of oppression, we reach out more – (the internet is great for this, obv). This can also play into war – what is an “enemy”? Do people in enemy countries still make love, have babies, get in petty fights?

In my dreams, a person who cares is fine enough for the world. But really, we need critical thinkers – serious objectors – and we need conscious friends – and we need these traits in addition to caring. Because in reality, something like this happens all the time: an otherwise socially aware/socially critical author can write otherwise good books with no mention of race until we’re introduced to a character that is “black”. The race of the other characters, I suppose we are to assume, is “white”. Maybe that’s my own bias but I consider that in 2010, in the U.S. – in a white-english-speaker’s novel, the seemingly non-raced characters are most likely white. Good things (socially critical) and bad things (normative perpetuation, majority nonsense) from one single book.

It’s a contradiction of character that exists within so many of us. But it’s not a roadblock – this author might have already grown out of that blind ignorance – might be older, wiser and even more awesome now.

It’s not like a social victory happened in the 1960s and the world changed – it’s more like there are a million little victories to be had all the time. We succeed when we address our contradictions. We thrive when we care. We progress when we take opportunities to learn/teach/talk.

Inherently good (X), inherently evil (X). This binary needs to be examined. “Curiosity killed the -” whatever, let that tale fade away. I say the curiosity in us should be celebrated not reprimanded … I, for one, love that it’s not that simple – inherently good and thus destroyed by something (like life) or inherently evil and saved by something (like religion). And on an individual basis – that all people that share some cosmetic trait, some geographic location, that they are somehow connected or somehow equal to some value and that value is below or above the value of another “group” of people – utter shit. Question this whenever you hear it. I’m talking gender, race, sexual orientation, ability, in sickness and in health.

In life, binary boxes oppress us. I refuse to accept the biology-dominant perspective in regards to personality and worth: that certain people are naturally better, that privilege is scientific. This kind of perspective discourages creativity, discourages critical thinking, discourages a full life altogether. I say nurture curiosity in yourself, your friends and everyone you meet that is younger and older than you.

The dreamer descendants of John Muir (who faced challenges but still nurtured compassion) should be sure to carry a full human perspective around with us as we interact. An open attitude breeds empathy. It can also lead to fuller knowledge – which has got to create an even more complex/educated society – which can be useful for shattering false privilege. Empathy’s relevant if even just for simmering down all the tiny fights that happen each day. Makes for better friendships too – someone feeling snappy? Consider a broader perspective (consider yourself in the same situation), then act. You’ll be bobbing in compassion, I’m telling you.

Knowing that an established institution such as the National Park system in the U.S. built itself through the long days and nights of petty arguments, legitimate challenges, and flat-out ridiculous opponents, today’s politics/war/fear seem surmountable (if not completely outdated)- if we really go for it. Frustrating as it can be to try to accomplish something good in this world – I feel like the peace comes from our interest in other humans and their full humanity, being equal to ourselves.

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