I’m no Rousseau. I do not believe that man in nature is inherently kind or fundamentally good and that it is simply society that corrupts and creates evil. Have you taken a look around at what nature does? It’s not just butterflies and watercolor sunsets. Nature is deadly snake bites and decaying corpses, violent hurricanes and ferocious grizzly bears who will gladly eat Leonardo DiCaprio for breakfast (regardless of his desire to save the planet one yacht fundraiser at a time.) Nature is life, but it is also very much death. Nature holds goodness, but it also contains evil. It is freezing cold and boiling hot and irrefutably indifferent to your feelings. It is breathtakingly beautiful and at times full of innocence and gentleness. It is also ugly. It is also a killer. And it does not posture as anything other than what it is. Society did not create darkness. It was here long before, and it is what we come from. Before the dawn of civilization some six thousand years ago, the human quest for survival involved quite a bit of killing. If you slowed the tribe down, you were killed or left behind. There were all sorts of crazed, barbaric sacrifices and rituals. Cannibalism. Flaying. Infanticide. As we have seen throughout our history, though violence may not be required in order to survive, man is certainly still violent.
If this sounds depressing, perhaps it is, but I simply find it truthful. It is the reality of the dualism and complexity of life, both in society and in nature, and using society to expel these greater realities is a bit naive. The attempt at creating a flawless utopia, to eradicate all evil and darkness (both small and large forms of it, often subjective) always results in dystopian disarray. The shunning of the basic truths of life and attempts at controlling that which must not (and cannot) be controlled eventually causes a magnificent break and subsequent destruction far worse – the center cannot hold. This has been proven time and time again in various societies throughout history and has been reflected in literature, film, philosophy, and art. (It also applies to art in and of itself. Trying to make only beautiful and pleasing forms that ignore the ugly, profane, or disturbing creates, in my opinion, limited, mediocre work.)
In society, as in nature, I believe there will always be tragedy and suffering, regardless of how good people pledge to be or whatever laws are created and enforced. Despite immense shifts of further tolerance and equality throughout civilization (and if you doubt this, read Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature) and despite many, many of us walking around mindful of others and not intending to do harm, evil exists. Man cannot defy all fundamental truths about existence merely because the act of trying to is a beneficent and noble one. Thank god humans try. We should keep trying. There are people who dedicate their lives to helping others escape brutality and violence and unbelievable suffering. There always will be. Goodness stands up strong to evil. But does it erase it? Can it?
If one understands nature and one understands the scope of history, then perhaps one might understand humanity a bit better and the experience of being alive. Study any civilization since the Sumerians, and find a great mess of violence and peace. Humanity comes from nature (not society) and is inevitably complex and dualistic. We have compassion in us, but we also have beast in us. Our sexuality, this force that drives our species to reproduce has its own savage twists, while also including tenderness and love. And of course, many acts of violence in man come from a fierce need to protect and defend those we love. It is never so straightforward.
We find such human truths in many mediums of artistic expression, especially historical literature and fine art. (This is a generalization, but I often notice how contemporary visual art denies the messiness and evil of life in favor of cleanliness and order, much like our current progressive mindset believes that evil is societally manufactured and can therefore be done away with if we perfect the system. Good luck!) Disney has made everything shiny and happily ever after, but those fairy tales, at their essence, were dark and ambiguous and sometimes filled with horror. The Renaissance was a feast of human emotions. Shakespeare always told the truth about human beings and our flawed, laughable, cruel, wicked, sometimes honorable and heartrendingly decent, loving natures. Both his villains and heroes were complex figures with whom we can relate. Emily Dickinson and Poe and William Blake got it. They knew of the sinister brewing below. Greek and Roman mythology spelled it out as clear as day (and you should have seen how my sixth grade students devoured the grotesque tales of Odysseus taking on the Cyclops and Hydra.)
I have always been drawn to the tale of transgression, to anything with a sharp edge, because it cracks me open and wakes me up. I like movies and novels that rip my heart a bit or make me weep. Though I have shied away from horror films, I love a great ghost story. I like when the bad guy wins, because the bad guy sometimes wins. It’s honest. I have loved experiencing the series A Song of Ice and Fire (the Game of Thrones books, for the laymen) because of its refusal to contain cliched redemption, happy endings, and predictable character arcs. I don’t like suffering in and of itself, nor do I like exploitive horror or terror, but I do respect it and acknowledge its existence. I respect art that examines every nook and cranny of life and shows that wherever we look, we will find all of nature: ugly and decaying, beautiful and fresh, sometimes all at once.
Because good and evil exists on these larger macro levels, it too exists on the micro in our “civilized” living and everyday thoughts and feelings. Many of us in living in modern civilization are not faced with such strong threats of violence and terror. We still, however, face the duality of good and evil, however minor the experience, which to me is indicative of the raw nature of man. Therefore, I believe strongly in the importance of acknowledging and feeling the dark side, the great pain and suffering of being alive, because for many of us, to avoid it keeps us sicker. Obviously we know humans have the capacity to kill and destroy. But even those of us who are (thankfully) more decent and civilized – we’ve still got some darkness, don’t we? There is a reason people like being tied up in the bedroom, watching slasher films, punching holes in walls, or unleashing vicious profane tirades while stuck in traffic – there is a reason that decent people compete and get jealous and lie and sometimes want to kill or die – that stuff is in us. Deny it all you want – it’s there. Maybe more serious in some for a myriad of reasons both psychological and environmental, but mark my words, humans are capable of both goodness and depravity (if only in their minds.)
There is, however, a distinction between authentic pain and difficulty and perpetually wallowing in the mind of suffering, rejecting and denying all decency and joy, just as there is a distinction between acknowledging certain dark truths and encouraging people to be harmful and immoral. Natural morality is just as much in us as is the desire to defy it. The human mind’s need to fight an enemy is a bit anachronistic in that there is usually, for many of us much of the time, no immediate threat; to obsessively cling to darkness and fear is just as foolish as denying its existence in the first place. Chronic negative thinking is a leftover fight-or-flight mechanism that has allowed our species to survive hundreds of thousands of years and withstand the attacks of animals and humans, but it’s not that relevant in our day to day living. This took years for me to understand, unravel, and finally address. The boss, the lover, the traffic, the deadline, are not actual dangerous threats, but they feel that way because of the survival mechanism. And yes, sometimes there are very real threats, because danger exists. It becomes a balance of observing the mind and allowing the thoughts and emotions without repression or amplification. Not denying, but not dwelling either. Alas, we are not taught this very well in our culture. Things get super black and white and the grey area is largely ignored. As Holden Caulfield said, “people always think something’s all true,” and it usually isn’t. There is a spectrum of good and evil, and we all run the gamut. Some go further in either direction. We are all on the line.
I have experienced how vital it is to accept that there will never be perfection or a constant flow of pleasurable experiences, that trying to force out the “bad” is a foolish mistake, that the positive and negative, the darkness and light, the good and evil will always coexist; but I have learned, too, that I can focus my attention on what is larger than such dualities, that there is a force beyond our earthbound feelings that I believe to be benevolent, while still acknowledging that the darkness is there, is sometimes necessary (and sometimes feels good.) We are meant to experience a range of emotions, both pleasant and painful, because there is no other way. It is what exists.
Finding the the resting place in between (or beyond) both worlds has been a practice, and there is no perfect or right way to go about it. To paraphrase a wise old man, as long as we keep living, we keep learning to live. I had to suffer like a goddamn pro before I realized that much of what I thought was wrong,whether with the outside world or with myself, much of this darkness that clouded my mind was a misperception, muddied not only by hypervigilance and an overactive reptilian brain but also by trauma and childhood wounds. I also realized that I had the right to experience real happiness in the midst of human nature (because why not) and would maybe have to practice at it. Just because there was plenty to feel sad about didn’t meant that there wasn’t anything to celebrate. Joy can actually be harder to allow and sustain, because our brain is programmed to look for danger. On the flip side, just because I am feeling so damn good for a period of time doesn’t mean I am suddenly exempt from the human experience (fascinating how quickly I forget) and that to push down unpleasant feelings just makes them erupt louder and more painfully.
Therein lies the great balance. The middle path. The moderate, neutral perspective. Which of course doesn’t sound that fun or sexy, because again, humans tend to be extreme; we want things to be either all this or all that. I want life to completely hopeless or completely perfect and to stay that way. Some of us really want to pretend evil is weak and easy to conquer. I think good and evil both have their stake in life. But it actually can be quite a rich experience, the volatile in-between, because it allows fully the whole gut-wrenching charade and the great wondrous mixtures of nature – the blustery, fierce brutality and the delicate, soothing, sometimes bursting goodness.