Cruel humans — How can people be this way?

Nine-eleven was al-Qa’eda’s deliberate humiliation of the West. Such a cruel thing to do. I remember saying ‘Evil begets evil’, and so I am not surprised that this act of barbarism was followed by what I consider to be disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other recent examples of being cruel

I would suggest that the brutality of some powerful people in the West can be heard in the voice of those politicians like US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld who said “There just aren’t enough targets in Afghanistan…We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around.”

cruel
torture at Guantanamo

Can human cruelty not also be seen in the action of President Bush who tossed aside the civilised principle of habeas corpus by setting up Guantanamo and other torture centres?

History of man’s inhumanity to man

These recent acts of human cruelty are part of a long history of man’s inhumanity to man. The massacres, looting and capturing of slaves by forces led by Attila the Hun in 5th century eastern Europe; the unrestricted bombing of civilians living in cities like Gunernica during the Spanish civil war; the starvation, brutal treatment and extermination of Jews, and other victims of persecution in the Nazi concentration camps.

Ordinary life is full of small acts of cruelty

Human cruelty of course goes on all the time perhaps in less dramatic ways and in a much smaller scale than these. Malicious gossip can destroy a personal reputation; spiteful actions can result in huge distress; nasty comments within close relationships can cause longstanding wounds.

We can all succumb to anger but why do some people feel contempt, or want revenge and act out their feelings in these ways?

Reasons for contempt and revenge

One answer that impresses me is to do with a common tendency towards self-orientation rather than concern for others and a materialistic rather than an ethical focus in our thinking. Depending on the way the individual chooses to live life, these two innocent inclinations can actually amount to self-centredness and preoccupation with bodily pleasures and possessions.

Prioritising number one means seeing things only from ones own selfish point of view rather than trying to understand the predicaments of others. Thinking in terms of physical things means neglecting the ethical dimension.

When people with this state of mind cannot get what they want, I would suggest they are likely to feel contempt towards those who do not favour them and revenge towards those who thwart their desires. Such hostility is the seed of cruel behaviour. When these feelings dominate and people believe they can get away with it, are they not more likely to do mischief, cause injury and act cruelly?

Not everyone thank goodness allows such ugly feelings to determine their actions. But some do. This is not to argue that people will not vary in their behaviour. Some are sometimes spontaneously cruel when experiencing strong feelings of scorn or wanting to get their own back on someone. Some people can make a deliberate plan to intentionally cause hurt. And yet others actually take sadistic pleasure in seeing inflicted pain.

Adolf Hitler is an example of the last of these who took great delight in repeatedly watching the film of the cruel deaths of those who had plotted to overthrow his regime. It’s all a matter of individual choice.

Danger of selfish anger

The main religions all warn against the dangers of this kind of selfish anger that can go wild like a forest fire. In his book Essential Spirituality Roger Walsh quotes a famous Zen story to dramatically makes this point.

A Japanese warrior approached a Zen master to request answers to some questions that had been troubling him. ‘What is it you want to know?’ queried the Zen master.

‘Tell me sir, do heaven and hell exist?’ ‘Ha! Snorted the Zen master in a tone that was half-laugh half-sneer. ‘What makes you think that you could understand such things? You are only an uneducated, brutish soldier. Don’t waste my time with your silly questions.’

For an instant the warrior froze in shock. No one, but no one ever speaks to a Japanese warrior like that. It meant instant death. ‘Are you too stupid to understand what I said?’ roared the Zen master. ‘Stop wasting my time and get out of here.’

The warrior exploded with rage. His hand flew like lightning to his sword and swept it aloft for the kill. But in the split second before the sword descended to crush the monk’s skull, he heard the words.

‘This is the gate to hell.’

Again the warrior froze in astonishment. His own rage brought hell to him and those he attacked. And the master had risked his life to make this fact inescapably clear. Breathing deeply, he slowly replaced his sword and bowed humbly in awe and respect.

‘And this,’ smiled the Zen master, ‘is the gate to heaven.’

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

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