The Human Condition Explained
Parts 3 onwards are by Jeremy Griffith
Part 3:1 The agony of the human condition
Here on Earth some of the most complex arrangements of matter in the known universe have come into existence. Life, in all its incredible diversity and richness, developed. And, by virtue of our mind, the human species must surely represent the culmination of this grand experiment of nature we call life. As far as we can detect, our species is the first organism to have developed the fully conscious ability to sufficiently understand and thus manage the relationship between cause and effect to wrest management of our lives from our instincts, and even to reflect upon our existence. In a world ravaged by strife it is easy to lose sight of the utter magnificence of what we are; yes, the human mind must be nature’s most astonishing creation.
One of the greatest demonstrations of this intellectual brilliance was sending three of our kind to the Moon and back. How far we have come. But what a state our world is in. Despite our magnificent capabilities and capacity for immense love and sensitivity, levels of personal and environmental wellbeing are at unprecedented lows. Every day brings with it startling evidence of the turmoil of the human situation. Michael Leunig’s exceptionally honest cartoons that were included in Part 2:5 revealed something of the real horror of our human situation. The truth is we have an unspeakable history of greed, hatred, brutality, rape, torture, persecution, murder and war—a propensity for deeds of shocking violence, depravity, indifference and cruelty. Conflict between individuals, races, cultures and countries abounds; there is genocide, terrorism, mass displacement of peoples, starvation, runaway diseases, environmental devastation, gross inequality, racial and gender oppression, crime, drug abuse, obesity, family breakdown and epidemic levels of depression, unhappiness and loneliness. And an exploding world population is rapidly exacerbating all of these problems.
Try as we might to deny it, behind every wondrous scientific discovery, artistic expression and compassionate act lies the shadow of humanity’s darker accomplishment as undoubtedly the most ferocious and destructive force that has ever lived on Earth. And, as I emphasised earlier, improved forms of management such as better laws, better politics and better economics—and better self-management, such as new ways of disciplining, organising, motivating or even transcending our troubled natures—have all failed to end the march towards ever greater levels of devastation and unhappiness.
So, unable to cope with the truth of the extent and seriousness of our destruction of the world around us and within us, we humans have had no choice but to live in denial of it. We had to, as we say, ‘put on a brave face’, ‘keep our chin up’, ‘stay positive’, ‘keep up appearances’, ‘keep calm and carry on’, etc, etc. This delusion sustained us but it also blinded us to the true extent of the devastation about and within us. We are unable to see the seriousness of the situation—see that the human race is entering end play or end game, where the Earth cannot absorb any further devastation from the effects of our behaviour, nor the human body cope with any more debilitating stress, or, most particularly, our mind endure any more psychosis and neurosis or our soul any more alienation.
In recent times environmental issues have dominated our concerns, but we have only been focusing on the symptoms. To fix all the runaway problems we are surrounded with—in fact, to stop the destruction of our world and the disintegration of society that is happening everywhere we look—we have to fix the cause of the problems, which is us humans. We are the problem: our out-of-control egocentric, selfish, competitive and aggressive behaviour. The underlying real question that had to be answered if we humans were ever to find relieving, redeeming, healing understanding of ourselves was ‘why have we humans been the way we have been, less than ideally behaved, in fact capable of horrific atrocities?’
The fact is, the greatest of all paradoxes has been the riddle of human nature. As has been emphasised, we humans are capable of immense love and sensitivity but we have also been capable of shocking acts of atrocity. This duality of what has historically been referred to as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ has troubled the human mind since we first became fully conscious, thinking beings: are humans essentially ‘good’ and, if so, what is the cause of our ‘evil’, destructive, insensitive and cruel side? The eternal question has been why ‘evil’? In metaphysical religious terms, what is ‘the origin of sin’? More generally, if the universally accepted ideals are to be cooperative, loving and selfless—ideals that have been accepted by modern civilisations as the foundations for constitutions and laws and by the founders of all the great religions as the basis of their teachings—then why are humans competitive, aggressive and selfish? Does our inconsistency with the ideals mean we are essentially bad? Are we a flawed species, a mistake—or are we possibly divine beings?
The agony of being unable to truthfully answer this question of why we are the way we are, divisively instead of cooperatively behaved, has been the particular burden of human life. It has been our species’ particular affliction or condition—our ‘human condition’. (Note, the reason I said we have been unable to truthfully answer the question of why we have been divisively behaved is because we have frequently used the excuse that we humans are competitive, aggressive and selfish because of our animal heritage; that we have savage animal instincts that make us fight and compete for food, shelter, territory and a mate. Of course, this cannot be the real reason for our divisive behaviour because descriptions of our human behaviour, such as egocentric, arrogant, deluded, optimistic, pessimistic, artificial, hateful, mean, immoral, guilty, evil, depressed, inspired, psychotic, alienated, all recognise that our species’ unique fully conscious thinking mind is involved in our behaviour—that there is a psychological dimension to our behaviour. We have suffered from the human condition, not the animal condition.)
Good or bad, loving or hateful, angels or devils, constructive or destructive, sensitive or insensitive: what are we? Throughout history we humans have struggled to find meaning in the awesome contradiction of our human condition. Neither philosophy nor psychology nor biology has, until now, been able to provide a truthful, clarifying explanation. For their part, religious assurances such as ‘God loves you’ may have provided temporary comfort but failed to explain WHY we are lovable. So, yes, WHY are we lovable? How could we be good when all the evidence seems to unequivocally indicate that we are a deeply flawed, bad, even evil species? What is the answer to this question of questions, this problem of ‘good and evil’ in the human make-up, this dilemma of the human condition? What caused humans to become divisively behaved and, most importantly, how is this divisive behaviour ever going to be brought to an end?