Science and Cruelty

How brains, beliefs, and being human give rise to the horrors of human cruelty.

Antidotes to human nastiness

Human cruelty is disturbing and depressing. How do you cope?

Being a victim of cruelty can be fatal. For those who survive, it can be incredibly unpleasant, demoralising (in more than one sense of the word) and painful. Often the scars remain for ages, even for what may appear to be quite minor acts of cruelty - verbal abuse at school, for instance.

Even learning about cruelty done to others can leave you appalled, depressed and unnerved by the human capacity for nastiness.

Writing a book about cruelty affected me this way. Walking down a street, I'd be looking at people and thinking, "You know, it wouldn't take much to turn you all into victims -- or perpetrators".

What I needed was antidotes to cruelty, and I found them. Here are seven of the best, my favourite self-help techniques. Do they work for you? If not, what do you turn to when the horrors on the news make you feel a little sickened by humanity?

1) Friends and family
Nothing new here. If you're lucky enough to have them, the feeling that out of all those myriads, there are a few to whom your existence matters provides a kind of security I've found nowhere else.

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2) Music
Another age-old remedy. If we're talking classics, for piercing calm how about Bach's Goldberg Variations; for taking anguish and making it manageable, Schubert or Mahler or the Strauss Four Last Songs; and for moving on from pain, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. For sheer exuberant joy, you might want to investigate the Duckworth-Lewis Method -- if you haven't come across this great album, it's real feel-good music.

3) Nature
Well-known effects: getting away from people into a garden or the countryside can help to remind us that there's more to life than human beings being horrible. And taking exercise can help with mood, too.

4) Jokes
Many jokes are cruelty in a sugar pill of humour, but not all. I have a liking for surreal jokes ("How many Martians does it take to change a lightbulb? One and a half.") What kind of humour gives you a warm glow?

5) Classic Novels
Reading is escape, they say. Escaping to the civilised worlds portrayed by, say, Anthony Trollope or Jane Austen; or the vivid lives of characters in Dickens or Eliot, is sometimes dismissed as a failure to face 'the real world'. As if reality is and must be only the worst bits. A book can show you how other people feel -- especially a meaty book like these, which gives you time to get to know the characters. The best authors, like George Eliot, can make you sympathise with people even when they are misguided or deeply unlikeable. I know theorists pour scorn on the idea of literature as facilitating empathy, but I'm not ready to give up on it yet.

6) Science
Turning off the news, deciding people are 'just evil' -- it can spare us the pain, but it doesn't solve the problem. I believe that understanding cruelty gives us the best hope of getting rid of it. Of course, that means more exposure, not less, to begin with. But realising that even the worst kinds of human behaviour may have causes we can change brings the hope of control, and eventual improvement.

7) Housework
I mean it! Finite, achievable tasks, obvious results ... If the news has left you feeling the world's a mess and there's nothing you can do about it, domestic drudgery's a great way to boost your sense of control. Most of the mess will still be there when you're done -- but not all.

 

What do you think? What have I missed? Let me know your tried-and-tested antidotes.

 

Kathleen Taylor is a freelance science writer and researcher at Oxford University.

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