The Problem

I know that I am stating the obvious when I say the there is a problem with humankind. One can skim through history and find a never-ending parade of villains with names like Adolf Hitler, Caligula, Elizabeth Bathory, Idi Amin, Jack the Ripper, John Wilkes Booth, Josef Mengele, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Rudolf Höss. More recently there have been Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Gary Ridgway, Jefferey Dahmer, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Mohamed Atta, Osama Bin Laden, Ted Bundy, the Zodiac Killer, and Timothy McVeigh. And I've barely scratched the surface. Even if one could explain away some of the horrible behavior of humans on mental illness, or brainwashing, or whatever, one is still left with an awful lot of just plain evil.

Lest you be tempted to excuse the majority of humanity by viewing them separately from the evil super-villains I listed above, let me remind you of the countless nameless functionaries who ran gas chambers in Nazi Germany, acted as officers in the East German secret police, hacked their neighbors to death in Tutsi/Hutu violence, lynched people in the American south, the soldiers of nearly every country on earth that committed war crimes, and gunmen who've shot children at schools. I won't even bring up all the examples of fraud, theft, assaults, scams, child abuse, betrayal, cheating, abandonment, and lying politicians of every stripe.

You might still say that most of the people you know, including yourself, have not done any of these things. You might consider yourself a decent person. And I hope that is all true. But I also think that most people eventually reach a point of honesty with themselves - even if they never admit it to anyone - that not all is right with them. In fact, it is only by comparing themselves to Hitler or murderers or rapists that they can find some solace for the deep-down realization that they aren't the good people they would like to be. One can look at western society today and see that there is something deeply wrong. So much behavior reveals both a self-loathing and a desperate attempt for people to recast themselves as better than they are (or at least better than most other people). I think that most of the self-harm I hear of people doing - including people I know - is a subconscious self-punishment for their own perceived shortcomings. Self-loathing is apparent throughout American society, with its attendant self-destructive behavior. At the same time, people associate with groups that give them a sense that they are acting righteously in comparison to others, whether that group is a religious body or a social justice movement.

Perhaps some people lie to themselves all their life. But I'd like to think that most people eventually come face to face with having done some crummy things to other people, even if they expend a lot of energy trying to not think about it. Every honest non-psychopathic person over the age of 20 that I've had a discussion with has, to one degree or another, faced the bottomless black pit at the center of their souls and come away a different person than they had been before. Even Mother Theresa - a religious woman who gave up everything to help poor people - wrote in her diary that she considered herself a hypocrite. "I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God - tender, personal love. If you were (there), you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.'" Why would such a saintly woman hold herself in such contempt? Because she realized that nothing she could do would wipe away the guilt she felt from the darkness in her own soul and the separation from God that it caused.

Even people who know the right thing to do can't seem to live up to their own standards. At best they can say that they are trying. St. Paul put it this way: "For I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I keep on doing the evil I do not want to do." In the end, the only goodness we can find within ourselves is relative. "I'm not as bad as so-and-so." Of course, such a sentiment is, itself, selfish pride - putting someone else down to raise ourselves up.

Do you still think yourself a good person, given some qualifications? Ask yourself: have you ever taken anything that you didn't have permission to take? And what do you call a person who does that? Yes, that means you are a thief. Again, ask yourself: have you ever said something you knew was untrue? What do you call a person who does that? Yes, that means you are a liar. Jesus takes it a step further and equates hatred of a person with murder: "You have heard that it was said to the ancients, 'Do not murder' and 'Anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment." His disciple, John, states it even more clearly: "Whoever hates his brother is a murderer". Jesus also said that to lust is no better than committing adultery: "I say to you, that whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart." Have you ever lusted after someone? Have you every hated someone? So, most people would have to admit that they are liars, thieves, adulterers, and murderers.

I've seen people given a very little power and it immediately goes to their head. They begin to behave in ways they hadn't before. This no longer surprises me - most people's "goodness" is only a consequence of not having the power and/or opportunity to behave worse. Power doesn't corrupt - it merely provides a means for the pre-existing inner corruption to find expression. If Hitler didn't have power to express his evil, we likely would never have heard of him. He would have still been Hitler, but he might have seemed a basically okay person if he had no opportunity to do great evil. How much of our "innate goodness" is merely the consequence of the restraints put upon us by the lack of opportunity and fear of consequences? In other words, although some people may be a bigger piece of the problem with our race, we are ALL part of the problem.

The essence of the human problem is, simply stated, selfishness. People kill others for various reasons: to assuage anger, remove a barrier, hide another crime, or because it makes them feel powerful. But the root of each of those is placing oneself over the life of another human. Even manslaughter is a matter of simply not caring about others' welfare. We steal or wage war because we want something that belongs to someone else. We cheat on our relationships because we want our own fulfillment more than honoring our promise to another person. We abuse our authority because how we feel is more important than how others feel. And on and on... And we are experts on how to justify our actions and/or dismiss our selfishness by pointing out someone else's greater selfishness. But a sober self-appraisal will reveal to ourselves our innate self-centeredness.

In the next article, we will examine proposed solutions to the human problem.