You know that book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? I would add this: All I Needed to Know about Human Beings I Learned from Science Fiction.
Of course, the subject matter–human beings, the nature of being human–is fundamentally disturbing. In the early 1990’s, when I read Dawn by Octavia Butler, I hadn’t really faced up to how disturbing, so her book really freaked me out. In it, humans have destroyed most of the Earth and each other, and an alien race comes to rehabilitate the Earth and save what humans they can. But they discover that human beings are inherently hierarchical and competitive, incapable of peace (as history also reveals), so they imprison them with love–they bond so that their humans experience intolerable pain if they stray too far away from physical proximity. They can also enter the minds of their humans.
What freaked me out was the idea that we are incapable, as a race, of living in peace. That our natures, our unevolved brains, were leading us to destroy ourselves and our planet. And excuse me for being Ms. Doomsday, but, uh, anyone notice anything happening on the planet that might fit the description?
I think I threw the Octavia Butler book down on the thick golden sand of Herring Cove beach, said some f-this and f-that and dove into the ocean. Then I probably came back and ate too many chips and hummus combination thingeys.
But here’s the point. Ayn Rand, the survivor of a totalitarian state, of oppression and terror, had to know what Stanley Kunitz (I think it was him) said. “There is nothing we won’t do to each other; and no words we won’t use to deny it.” If you know that, up close and personal, how do you live? How do you develop faith in yourself and other people?
The answer is simple. You tell yourself that not everyone is like that…not everyone is hierarchical, not everyone is competitive, not everyone evolved in some Darwinian fashion; there are exceptions, you tell yourself, and me and mine are among them. Then you go about defining me and mine. For Ayn Rand, talent, intelligence, non-conformity, innovation, strength, independence, were the me and mine. For Democrats, compassion and help for the poor and suffering, social justice (to some extent or another, and not enough for me), equality, are the me and mine. For Catholics, sinners, heterosexuals, believers, are the me and mine. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? In each case, for each group, we are attempting to stave off the idea that being human means, among other things, being hierarchical and competitive, needing to dominate, and destroy through that or because of that.
What about Mother Theresa? Gandhi? Jesus? The Buddha? What about Barack Obama, for that matter?
Yes, yes, human beings do remarkably generous things, even to the extent of giving up their lives. In the Holocaust, one of the worst atrocities in history, we saw incredible destruction; and we saw heroism, especially in the Resistance and the camps themselves, where people helped each other. Of course, as Sophie’s Choice reminds us, some people did terrible things to survive, and we don’t talk about that. They were victims, and targeted, and they became what their perpetrators made them become. We forgive them for that, even as we cringe.
The question, though, isn’t whether we possess goodness, kindness, generosity, courage, soul. The question is whether, as an entirety, the human race can overcome its inherently competitive and hierarchical nature.
Ayn Rand’s characters were intransigent in their belief in freedom, they were extreme in following their talent and nothing else; she lacked an understanding of psychology that would have allowed them a fuller complexity. I think of the driving need to think you can be other than the ones who made you suffer, that you can be utterly distinct–perhaps that’s why it’s most commonly younger people who love her work. There’s a time in life when you want to be utterly distinct from your parents, if you didn’t admire them, which, get real, many of us didn’t and don’t.
There is nothing we won’t do to each other; and no words we won’t use to deny it.
Oh, how we long to escape that sentence, to say that it is true of everyone but me, everyone but mine. How we long to have faith in our humanity, to define humanity as only the good.
I am interested in reality. I am interested in what would happen if we quit defining the world in terms of us and them. I am interested in holding all of who we are, of what we are capable, the degraded and the sublime, the divinity and the destruction.
Octavia Butler’s vision in the book Dawn is utterly bleak. In her vision, human beings don’t deserve freedom, because once they have it, they begin to destroy. At the same time, the experience of their slavery is intolerable. She leaves the reader with no answer, with only the double bind.
Which is how I leave you, today. But not without hope. I hope for one moment, I hope to know peace again, in the next moment, and the next. I hope to hold us all in my consciousness, with love, knowing that tonight or tomorrow or next week I will be selfish with my partner, or manipulative, or even angry and unskillful in my anger, knowing that I will judge another human being, even if it’s only for cutting me off in traffic. And then I will bend down, brush the hair off my beloved’s forehead, and tell her this, I see you, all of you, and you are yours, and that is enough for me.
Then I’ll wake up the next day, complaining, asking her to change.
We are all everything, all the time.
May we be at peace with what is.
And may our brains evolve, as they so need to do.