a mosaic watercolour portrait of David Foster Wallace, by Midjourney AI; not my prompt
I‘ve argued endlessly that we are simply the products of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment, and that hence we’re all doing our ‘best’, and no one is to ‘blame’. Since coming to that conclusion, I think I’ve become a more compassionate person, more equanimous and accepting. And better able to accept the inevitability of the accelerating collapse of our civilization and the ecological systems that regulate life on our little planet.
Still, there are many things that annoy me, despite all efforts to see them through this lens. I have little tolerance for reckless, cruel, ‘unfair’, bullying, coercive, controlling, humiliating, abusive, oppressive, murderous and violent behaviour of all kinds; for dishonesty and deceit and propaganda and censorship; for manipulation, exploitation and deprivation; for feelings and actions born of hatred, greed, prejudice, judgement, unreasonable expectations, and jealousy; for ignorance and stupidity; for waste and contamination and destruction; and for incompetence.
That’s a long list of things to get upset about, when it’s all just the universe acting everything out the only way it possibly could!
Try as I may, my brain immediately attempts to attribute these behaviours to something deliberate, wilful, intentional, as if anything could be deliberate in a world with no free will.
Some of these reactions are instinctive, like my reaction (which is fear masked by anger) to dangerous and aggressive drivers. Even now, once the immediate danger has passed, I have a tendency to hold on to the anger for a long time, and even to rehash the event in my mind, and in subsequent conversations. And to ascribe deliberate intent, aimed at me personally, to the behaviours. I can read David Foster Wallace’s What is Water commencement speech a million times, about how that driver might have been on the way to hospital with a sick child or pregnant spouse, and it does me no good.
Likewise I can appreciate that the current wars, sieges, ethnic cleansing, genocides and nuclear brinksmanship (and the press’ blatant dishonesty in reporting about them) stem from centuries of exhaustively, endlessly, and mutually conditioned fear, hate, rage, grief, jealousy, and shame, and recognize that my reaction to them is, more than anything else, about my fear of how they could lead to global warfare producing endless, immense suffering (especially for me and those I care about).
But this self has been conditioned to try to understand such behaviours as a means to identify corrective actions (leading to peace and reconciliation etc). And that conditioning normally ‘understands’ behaviours in terms like cause, blame, provocation, responsibility, mental derangement, or ‘evil’. It is hard to just accept that these horrific behaviours were the inevitable, uncontrollable results of centuries of conditioning of the actors. It’s just too hopeless. We ‘solved’ the problem with Germany, didn’t we? And the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland? How can we ‘fix things’ so that everyone behaves responsibly and respectfully and peacefully and gets along with everyone else?
Well, of course, we cannot. But if all the large and small atrocities (according to each of our individual assessments and judgements) are just the inevitable result of our conditioning, can we at least be compassionate towards all parties, setting aside our judgements and distress about them?
Could we attempt to piece together, from a study of history, and human nature under extreme and chronic stress, and the limits to growth, and how mental illness affects and debilitates us, combined with an acknowledgement of our complete lack of free will, and from that, learn to accept and not judge these atrocities and their perpetrators?
Not a chance, I think. One could certainly put together a ‘case’ for what (might have) led to these atrocities and how their perpetrators, given their conditioning and the circumstances of the moment, had no choice but to commit them. But that is not going to relieve the sense of outrage, of righteous indignation, or the fear and anger and grief that learning of or witnessing these atrocities instils.
The most that might be possible is that my instinctive (fear etc) and conditioned (“that’s so unfair!” etc) reactions to learning of or witnessing an outrage gradually become less intense, less enduring, and less likely to result in me contributing some of the same dysfunctional behaviours (eg honking loud and long at an aggressive driver; or calling for revenge against a group that seems clearly to have perpetrated an atrocity).
If I am seemingly not directly and personally affected by the atrocity, I might even be able to say to myself: This awful behaviour was conditioned; isn’t that tragic? and leave it at that, acknowledging that there is no way I can really know what led to it, but something did, and it was not ‘pure evil’ or some other simplistic explanation. My judgement of fault, blame, or simple cause is at best useless, and at worst dangerous (to my mental health, if nothing more).
I can, after all, be outraged by awful events even if I hold no one ‘to blame’ for them (eg the driver who gets a sudden heart attack and crashes into a crowd of people). I can say isn’t that tragic? and leave it at that, in those situations.
And (sorry, religious folks) this has absolutely nothing to do with ‘forgiveness’. That pretension is all about you saying that you hold someone to blame but don’t hate them anymore. Ugh. If everything is conditioned, there is nothing to ‘forgive’!
While I may be unable to feel any compassion for the perpetrator of a particular atrocity, I can, with some attention and effort, manage to spark and sustain my compassion for all life on earth, and acknowledge my biophilia for those, whether living in endless wonder and delight, or under ghastly oppression and coping with hideous, endless suffering, with whom I share this afflicted little blue planet.
And perhaps sometimes that’s the ‘best’ we struggling, conditioned humans can do, the closest we can come to approaching the grace and equanimity of wild creatures who simply accept what they can’t possibly hope to understand or change. Who witness tragedy with emotions probably profounder than our own, but without judgement. Who perhaps demonstrate an ‘intelligence’ and a capacity for unconditional love and compassion that seems to elude our large-brained species.
Though that, of course, is not our fault.