If you had to use just a single word to express the human condition, which would you choose? This isn’t a Cosmopolitan Magazine quiz, so think for a moment before you fill in the blank. Maybe take out a pen and make a list. Weigh your options against each other, and see if you can find a term that doesn’t fall short.
I think that a sober meditation on the past century that has unfolded (since 1914) would confirm this truth: Human existence is, at root, a paradox. Any answer which fails to admit this is dangerously misleading.
Our lives are a bundle of howling contradictions, of seemingly irreconcilable truths that pull us in different directions like wild horses yoked together, threatening to rip the fragile, complex truth into jagged, hazardous pieces. We are animals and mathematicians, street fighters and symphonists, carnivores and pet-lovers, jingoistic champions of our tiny tribes who are haunted by the brotherhood of man. We are Adam newly born from the hand of God, and the sinners who cringe at the Last Judgment; we are Macbeth and we are Hamlet, we are Romeo and Cordelia. We are the “naked ape” who stole fire from heaven, and we are Oedipus, blind but wise. Cain and Abel, Barabbas and Jesus are equally our brothers.
The great temptation of ideologues is to divide the sheep from the goats – to resolve man’s paradoxical nature into brutally stark polarities. We’re told that “our people” (our tribe, class, or party) represent what is best in man, and we must unite to purge the “other,” a unity that elicits the very basest tendencies we tell ourselves we don’t share.
Perhaps the most bitter truth about the human paradox comes from the mouth of a man who did more than almost any other to divide and persecute, Josef Stalin. Stalin was the architect of the Great Famine and The Purge, Hitler’s willing ally in 1939 and the inventor of the Gulag. He once said: “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” Stalin’s war against the people of the Soviet Union killed, in peacetime, more than 21 million citizens — so many that historians cannot agree on an accurate count.
Stalin may have been a butcher, but his words ring true. A master of backroom politics and political blackmail, this former seminarian had an intimate knowledge of our soul’s darkest unswept corners. If Mother Teresa was right that any one of us (herself included) is capable of committing any crime, then each of us has something to learn from Stalin.
He knew (and in his thuggish way, admitted) something most of us won’t put into conscious thought: Life is at once both sacred and cheap.
We know this to be true, both instinctively and from experience. In the first place, we consider our own lives sacred, our own rights inalienable. When we are threatened by violence or victimized, we swell up with righteous anger and rouse each other to action. Our perception of self-sacredness extends easily to those we love. Some of us have held a tiny child of our own, looked at each of his perfect fingers and gleaming eyelashes, felt the faint flutter of his heartbeat, tended to his needs when he cried. In these moments we are suddenly certain that this innocent life is of infinite importance, and the very thought that someone might snuff it out fills us with rage. Our conviction may even make us willing to sacrifice our life in order to save it. This is how we typically love a sibling, a parent, a spouse.
Like a drop of ink in a glass of water, the intensity of our empathy tends to diminish as it spreads. For friends and neighbors, for those who look like us, or pray like us… and finally for our fellow citizens, we feel some shadow of that same passionate attachment we feel for ourselves and those we love.
With each degree of separation from the ego, our conviction fades, until at last, at the furthest extension of our empathy, we find total strangers — those on the other side of the world with whom we have little in common beyond the human condition. Some may even be our enemies. At this distance our ability to understand the sacredness of human life finds little support in our viscera. Suddenly, what we once understood so well requires the active support of our minds, an abstract philosophical or religious opinion. We will ourselves to care, and sometimes we succeed—which is why billions of dollars in private charity flow to foreign countries every year.
Sometimes, however, we fail, and our failure explains the ease with which we overlook or even cooperate in the abuse of humans far from home. “Our people” become soldiers killing civilians, businessmen poisoning rivers, or social engineers sterilizing poor women “for their own good.” Hannah Arendt pointed out forty years ago in her Origins of Totalitarianism that well-formed British and French soldiers, who would never have stolen a stick of gum in their mother country, were capable of appalling savagery in “the colonies.” In our own, American history, white men could not long stand the presence of white indentured servants—soon replacing them with black Africans.
If we can manage to stand far enough away, the life we knew as sacred appears more and more expendable. It’s much like driving past a graveyard full of strangers and reacting with only a melancholy shrug.
Of course there is nothing wrong with loving your family members more than you do some stranger — in fact, if you love a stranger equally, it’s probably because you love your own family too little. (Think of Charles Dickens’s character Mrs. Jellyby, who denied her own children milk so she could send milk money to the missions.) But if we want strangers — who may feel little for us — to respect our lives as sacred, we must accord them the same courtesy. This is the base treatment, the bare minimum every human being deserves simply by virtue of being human.
It may sound utilitarian, but respecting human life is not some charade we engage in solely to protect ourselves, rather, it is an act of the will that cleaves to a fundamental truth—the one truth that can guard us against totalitarianism and imperialism, utilitarianism and eugenics: the intrinsic moral equality of every human being. The fact that the right choice may also seem useful is only evidence of the fact that truth is accessible by reason.
Had the men leading great nations in the bloody twentieth century been convinced of this single truth, there might still have been wars, poverty, and repression, just as there were in the Middle Ages. What would not have happened is the mass destruction of “undesirable” civilians by their own governments, and the callous use of “strategic bombing” against defenseless populations in enemy countries. Only the most profound failure of empathy, motivated by ideology and animated by technology, could achieve the colossal death toll of the 20th century—which historian R.J. Rummel, in Death By Government, estimates at 169.2 million civilian deaths caused by the state.
The more distant, alien, or unattractive we find people, the harder we must work not to act on what we feel (indifference, or even hostility), but on what we know: That each of these people was once a child whose mother was certain, in the wrenching way we know this of our own offspring, that his life was infinitely precious. That we must will to respect others is a truth that applies equally to soldiers in foreign countries and to the civilians who surround them, to the loved ones we cherish across the dinner table and to the inmates in our prisons, to helpless children in the womb and vulnerable Alzheimer’s patients.
When we start making exceptions to suit our convenience, we will not stop—since the list of human beings who may prove an obstacle to what we want is as potentially limitless as our desires. History proves the height of this slippery slope. This stern truth, that innocent life is sacred, is the antidote to tribalist vengeance, ideological hatred, and technological hubris. It was known to the Israelites, whose Commandments said “Thou shalt not murder,” and to the Greeks, whose Hippocratic Oath made doctors promise “to give no deadly medicine.”
If we want them to inherit a better century than our own, we owe it to our own children to help restore worldwide respect for the intrinsic dignity and incomparable worth of the human person. We must affirm the founding truth our civilization: that each of us is made in the image and likeness of God.
Part I of this series appeared at Crisis on Oct. 24, 2011. Parts III, IV, and V will appear in this space over the next few weeks.