My American Literature class raised an interesting question: do humans grow into worse people as they get older?
While that is a paraphrase of the original question, it led to some interesting contemplation without any certain answer, because it all depends, doesn’t it?
Circumstances, outside influences and genetics all play a role, and people who grow up in dire circumstances can become highly successful in any cultural or societal context, just as those who grow up with that silver spoon can become homeless and destitute.
Our American literature raises the question over and over again: what makes a person good or bad, right or wrong? Who decides?
In our law-based system, when you break the law, you have been bad, but does breaking the law mean you are a bad person? Even though drug dealers and murders are deemed bad by virtue of their actions, they are still likely to be loved and respected by peers or family members.
Anne Frank, the young girl who hid with her family during Hitler’s reign, only to die just before the end of the war in a concentration camp, wrote in her diary on July 5, 1944, “It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States, wrote in his diary on August 11, 1890, “Wars will remain while human nature remains. I believe in my soul in cooperation, in arbitration; but the soldier’s occupation we cannot say is gone until human nature is gone.”
Each of these statements speak to the opposing views of mankind and our capability to do good or evil.
Scholar, teacher and official Xunzi (Xun Qing, or Xun Kuang: c. 310-c. 219 BCE), who lived at the very end of the Zhou dynasty, was an advocate and interpreter of the teachings of Confucius, according to afe.easia.columbia.edu/.
Xunzi said, “A questioner
asks: If human nature is evil, then where do ritual and ghtness come from? I reply: ritual and rightness are always created by the conscious activity of the sages. . . .”
While these three quotes come from different times, places and cultures, they represent a wide range of perspectives about human nature — what we as humans are inclined to do throughout our lives.
As a child, I remember lying to get out of or stay out of trouble, but I was not very good at it. It took so much effort to uphold a lie or create one, with too great a risk of getting caught and receiving a worse punishment, that I decided lying was not in my best interest.
I was shy, but I grew up in a family of people who were not shy. I had no choice but to get my anxieties under control. If I did not, I would be teased to the point of crying with no one to rescue me. I had to learn to be tough.
Left unchecked, without nurturing and guidance, I may have followed a different path in life, and yet, there were many people who had upbringings similar to mine in a single parent home. Had I thought lying and sneaking around was something I could get away with — if I did not care about getting into trouble — I could have followed some of my peers down a more self-destructive path, but I did not.
What about me was different from some of them? We each knew what was right or wrong according to the rules and laws of our time and culture. But, some of us were willing to take the risks and others were not. We all took different risks that fed different elements of our personalities.
Did we get our sense of right and wrong from our parents and teachers only? Or do we each have a conscience that informs us instinctively what is right or wrong?
Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson would have argued that we each have a conscience, and we can each use our conscience if we choose. When we choose not to use our God-given conscience, then we are subjecting ourselves to a group and thoughtlessly conforming to an action or idea that is not necessarily righteous.
Perhaps the question is not whether or not human nature is basically good or evil, but more whether or not we can nurture in each of us the best aspects of our nature so that we treat ourselves and others with kindness and respect.
We could categorize the elements of ourselves that are good or bad. Jealousy, envy, greed, bitterness, hate, violence — these are acts and traits that tend to be considered bad.
Honesty, empathy, charity, forgiveness — these are traits that we consider good. Depending on the situation, each of us is capable of doing any of these, and in some cases we can in one instant be both honest and violent. Does the negative cancel out the positive? Or does any bad deed taint the good of a simultaneous deed?
Quite frankly, I am not sure there are answers to all of the questions given the numerous possible scenarios in which one may find herself.
If I lie to protect a group of students from a shooter, will God or the Universe forgive me my transgression? I would hope so.
Our lives are often littered with choosing the lesser of two evils, and while it would be nice to think we all have a shared conscience and can agree on what that lesser evil would be, we do not.
Look at the election of Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton. Many voted for Trump truly believing that he was the lesser of two evils, and many others voted for Clinton for the same reason.
I am surprised we get anything done in this country, given the diversity of perspectives that inform our moral decisions from day to day. Yet, somehow this country and this world continues to function despite ourselves.
We continue to evolve and change, but in looking back across time, I am not sure we are any smarter than those who came before us, because despite all they have written about human nature, we still cannot answer and agree on some of the most basic elements of who we are as social and sentient beings.
For myself, I feel blessed to have the genetic construct and familial nurturing I had, because I was taught to be empathetic, independent, intrepid, forgiving, loving, and passionate about my endeavors.
My drive to learn and succeed were and are an inner part of me that keep me pursuing knowledge and striving to leave the world a better place than I found it.
The lessons I have been taught and continue to learn help me become better at pursuing my goals in a good way — with a good heart — and a willingness to accept when I have failed and learn from it so I avoid that failure again in the future.
In this way, I hope to feed the good in me and not the bad. In this way, I hope to leave a life that others can look to for guidance and inspiration and be an example of the basic goodness Frank said she believed exists in each person and not the basic evil that Hayes suggests and Xunzi says makes up the foundation of man’s nature.