- We were born with love but without hate.
- Love and hate are under our control.
- Human evolution hinges on love.
- Our sense of unity is critical.
Pictures of division, aggression, and hatred dominate the news these days, generating a seemingly endless cloud of gloom. Most of us desire exactly the opposite, that is, living together in peace and harmony. Why do we struggle so much to achieve what we want?
My analysis starts from the viewpoint that we were born without hate towards anybody. Every parent observes the innocent and well-intended nature of infants. Hate is an acquired sense.
As human beings, our minds are subjected to many inherent drives, shaped by evolution over thousands of years, to boost our chances of survival. Our environment, on the other hand, is instrumental in teaching us how to navigate these drives and instincts.
Our parents typically teach us (and hopefully lead by example) how to handle our aggression drive. Evolutionary, aggression serves to fight threats and to protect territory. It is a basic instinct innate to any animal on this planet. A key evolutionary advance for humans is our nuanced ability to distinguish between a true threat by other humans and actions that may be perceived as a threat but are not.
This learning process entails a two-step approach: First, we must be able to control the immediate impulse of aggression and second, we must carefully assess the perpetrator’s nature and motives. Compared to the primitive, instinct-driven aggressive response, a deliberate reaction is the result of an advanced (mature) approach to the same trigger.
Central to such an advanced approach are mechanisms found in the process of loving, i.e., the recognition of goodness in a person—in oneself as well as in others. Realizing fundamental goodness allows us to place actions in a context of considering the perpetrator’s benevolence instead of only their seemingly hostile act.
For example, our parents likely taught us to control our anger. Instead of hitting a younger sibling, we were told to consider that they hadn’t learned the meaning of possession yet and meant no harm when taking our toys. This education on restraining aggressive instincts typically continues throughout our childhood.
Despite our parents’ efforts, the process of controlling aggression and considering others’ positions remains challenging to many of us throughout our lives. It is easy to lash out like a Neanderthal when somebody irritates us, while it is much harder to follow an advanced, mature approach. It is even harder if our state of mind is not peaceful to begin with. Since contemporary life causes “stress” and challenges to our ego, it is obvious why we struggle with restraining our aggression.
The same skill of controlling our emotions and considering the potential innocent nature of an event or word is fundamental for the success of human relationships—indeed even of human evolution. The human ability to form bonds and communities allowed for the astounding achievements in knowledge and technology that occurred over a very short time frame in history. Control of aggression is central to peaceful cohabitation. Yet, we continue to struggle to master this skill and our failure is arguably responsible for continued human misery.
It takes constant effort and commitment to master the skill of loving. This is not news. Being asked to show love for our enemies means we need to try much harder if we want to succeed in bringing peace to the world and ourselves. We can practice various strategies to get closer to this goal. It does not matter if we use prayer, meditation, or merely common sense, as long as our tools enable us to master the essential skill of loving.
A major obstacle to our effort to recognize goodness in others is our tendency to differentiate between those who are like us vs. those who are seemingly not. While this division is largely arbitrary when viewed with some distance, we often struggle to see our commonality when we assign ourselves to different groups. Despite being from the same town or community, we may act with animosity towards those who are from a different sport club, religion, ethnic background, etc. Similarly, we may view folks from different regions as different from us and fail to see the obvious fact that we are all fundamentally the same.
Recognizing minor differences among us is not problematic as long as we don’t assign characteristics and values to different groups. Unfortunately, succumbing to the perception of division facilitates placing “us” above “others." The sense of superiority may be reinforced by group dynamics, rituals, pseudo-rationalization, and “tradition,” at which point it is difficult to resolve. Eventually, we may view “others” as not only inferior but even unworthy of human decency. In this setting, disagreements may lead to contempt—and even hatred.
Akin to the skill of controlling our drive of aggression in the face of seemingly hostile actions and attempting to consider the perpetrator’s viewpoint, it requires an advanced, mature mental approach to dissolve the concept of “othering” in our heads. Even though we may assign ourselves to certain groups based on our background, culture, religion, or heritage, we must remain reminiscent of our close kinship, which should override any sense of division we may have.
Humility is an essential quality for the art of loving. We are not superior to others—we are the same. This realization may be obvious if we reflect upon it calmly, but it may be difficult to remember in the midst of a conflict. In the face of a seemingly unfriendly act by somebody outside our (perceived) group, our sense of commonality may quickly fade and our primitive aggressive instincts may dominate our minds. It requires our utmost focus and effort to control our feelings and consciously choose to respond in a more evolved, mature way despite our initial impulse.
It is ironic that one of humanity’s greatest achievements also often remains its greatest weakness. Failure to recognize our fundamental commonality generates conflict. Over thousands of years of human history, a poor sense of unity has been the root cause of countless battles and hurtful discrimination.
While the current state of our world may lead to despair, humanity is actually making progress. Just looking back a few centuries or even decades, it is clear that many parts of our civilization have evolved in terms of inclusion and civil cohabitation, though not all at the same pace. We have made hard-won strides in fighting misogyny, racism, and other discrimination, even when we look back merely 50 or 100 years ago.
Unfortunately, progress hardly ever follows a straight line. We are witnessing progress, but also setbacks. Once our minds are poisoned with preconceived notions about “us” vs. “them,” it is hard to see the truth, particularly when a few people inflict atrocities and pain. Like with any disease, addressing the symptoms is not enough. Only prevention and addressing the root causes will change a disease’s impact. While this takes time and doesn’t necessarily help those who are ill now, they may find comfort in the thought that their suffering will lead to the healing of others.
Today is World Kindness Day. We need to increase the number of people who can embrace our evolving human spirit. With ongoing effort, we are well-positioned to keep moving toward a more loving and understanding civilization. History teaches us that this is not a pipe dream—even though our progress may appear painfully slow through the eyes of our limited life spans.