There is always the temptation, when reading an item like this, to surrender to contempt. But that would be surrender indeed, since contempt is my sworn enemy. When I think on it further, though, I realize the superfluity of feeling contempt for those would punish others for their own weaknesses, because I realize the truth: they already suffer all the contempt that a person can be subject to. For in fact, they hold themselves in contempt.
This is the secret behind everyone who wants more laws to protect people from themselves, who sues a company for tempting them with advertisements, who calls for bans on drugs and cigarettes and cheeseburgers, who welcomes invasions of privacy in the name of safety. Contempt. Mistrust. Hatred, to be blunt. Of other humans, and, by extension, of themselves.
But wait, I hear you say, that’s not true at all! I don’t hate myself or my friends. It’s all those other idiots I can’t trust!
To which I say: we are all one race. Unless you believe you are a member of a master race, every failing you see in others is potentially latent in yourself. There are only two ways to fear another: either by seeing them as a thing, an unpredictable creature, a beast of the woods, with inscrutable motivations; or as another you, a fellow-person with feelings that you can understand only by extrapolation of your own experiences of being human. Either the person standing in front of you is alien, a black box defined by it’s phenomenology (what it does) alone, or it is a person which can only be understood through your own feeling of person-ness. In the latter case, you can only fear what you have yourself felt. You feel avarice, and you fear theft. You yourself lie, and you disbelieve another’s words.
It is perhaps necessary, sometimes, to see humans as the other. The sociopath, the child-molester, the serial killer – if we cannot fathom their motivations anywhere in our psyche, we have no choice but to see them as a something essentially different from ourselves. But this objectification, essential in rare cases, is the seed of genocide and slavery when magnified to a macro scale – as we all know. When we can look on another and fail to see ourselves, but only a thing; when we deny that essential human dignity of being “another like me”, the stage is set for holocaust.
I am convinced that most people, most of the time, really do see others as humans in their own right, not as things. Which means that every evaluation they make of their fellow humans is also a reflection, in part, on themselves. We fear, not the gun, but the killing rage. Not the alcohol, but the urge to take just one more drink. When we connect to others by identification, we also fear by identification.
And by fearing, we engender fear. Mistrust is the great primordial vicious circle. There is no better way to raise a trustworthy child than to tust her, and no more effective way to rear a liar than to mistrust her. A teacher recently told me that his students simply can’t be trusted. And so, by that magical invocation, and the pronouncements of all the other authority figures in their life, they are perforce untrustworthy. Words have power. Distrust is the greatest self-fulfilling prophecy of them all.
Love is the opposite of mistrust. Love is the ascripion of dignity to another being, the identification with something of myself in another. Perfect love drives out fear.
“Love your neighbor as yourself”. There is an implicit prerequisite in that: “As yourself“. You cannot love another without first loving yourself. You cannot love yourself if you have lost your innate dignity. The dignity that comes with trust in yourself.
So you want to make the world a better place? Trust a child. Let him know by your words and actions that he is a human being, heir to a great legacy, worthy of full respect. Love a child, not by telling them “You’re a sneaky little crook, but I love you anyway”, but by saying “You are an honorable and worthy human being”. Not necessarily in so many words, of course.
And they will grow up to love themselves and to trust others, who will also learn to believe in themselves and others, and maybe someday we can all call a halt to this mexican standoff we live in, and put our guns down.