I am heartbroken.
I’m having a difficult time accepting what we are, and it’s becoming harder and harder to deny. That humans are always flawed and often ugly is not a realization that I’ve come to for the first time recently, but my hopeful faith that there’s enough goodness buried inside us to at least balance us out is waning.
As a young man, after recovering from the harsh slap of reality that initially steals the doomed innocence of all aging children, I comforted myself with the idea that some level of goodness must still be inherent — that there was a small, virtuous voice inside most of us that could not be silenced. While I knew it couldn’t always win out, I elected to believe that it would choose its battles, that it would bide its time and then surface when necessary.
“We’re comfortable sacrificing the lives of others to maintain our own luxuries.”
The idea that an entire society would agree to make sacrifices for the good of all of its citizens appealed to me. Agreeing to eschew individual power and privilege to ensure that everyone ate and had shelter seemed like a no-brainer.
I remember being devastated by the realization that it couldn’t be made to work. Despite our promising words and, in some places, impressive displays of commitment to the cause, on a day-to-day basis, the idea of societal dedication to comprehensive communal care crumbled beneath the weight of greed and exposed a dearth of personal motivation.
The concept of Marxism itself had been warped and bastardized everywhere it had been put into practice, usually at the direction of those whose dreams of earthly superiority compromised their words of universal equality. Too many leaders prioritized personal privilege over communal well-being; too few doctors found sufficient motivation in healing the sick without enviable compensation; the satisfaction of a “job well done” proved too fleeting to permanently energize laborers.
Capitalism seemed the logical alternative. If a lack of individual motivation could be the wrench in the gears of communism, then perhaps an abundance of individual motivation could be positioned as the key to success in the free market.
“The space that I’d previously hoped was filled with goodness now leaks only our ample stores of self-interest.”
Those who slurped most thirstily at the Kool-Aid of private economic competition, though, were the same who sought ways to circumvent the threat of true meritocracy. Even as they publicly touted the virtues of “rags to riches” success, they privately and eagerly built systems designed to exclude those disadvantaged whose talents might threaten the continued privilege of those from less humble beginnings. The wealthy, it turns out, are far less concerned with conserving the integrity of the system that allowed them to become wealthy, than they are with ensuring their progeny enjoy comforts those progeny did not themselves earn. The system built to escape the predetermined destiny of bloodline nobility, immediately began transforming into a system designed to preserve bloodline nobility.
In the shadowy creases between theory and practice, though, I could always see that economic systems and forms of government were not the causes of my more comprehensive disappointment. Similarly bothersome trends exposed themselves in our treatment of religions. Instead of being spiritual safehavens and bastions of compassion, we’ve twisted them instead into dens of hatred and intolerance, focused on stoking tribalism and striking out in xenophobic fear. Hardened conviction became the goal, regardless of whether or not those convictions were misguided.
Not even patriotism was able to live up to my expectations for it. I watched as some of those dedicated to and skilled at defending my country were discarded in favor of maintaining irrelevant standards. I toiled in support of national priorities that had less to do with the actual defense and protection of our way of life and more to do with a fear of and disregard for our fellow humans simply because their unfamiliar faces and families happened to be an ocean away.
In the midst of all of this, though, I still chose to believe that human goodness not only existed, but was a force in plentiful enough supply that it may ward off the darkness if we only sufficiently acknowledged it. I sought beauty in even the grimmest scenes. I praised kindness and turned a blind eye toward obvious examples of the baser elements of human nature, dismissing them as peripheral to a society I was determined to believe was, at its heart, “better than that.”
I took solice in the patience of teachers, the compassion of nurses, the creativity of artists, the bravery of first responders, the faith of the clergy, and the dedication of public servants. I convinced myself that enough of these pools of light could be cobbled together if we dismissed the darkness separating them.
A few years ago, however, the darkness began to seep through the cracks to a degree that could not be ignored. The country divided itself almost exactly in two, with neither side appearing particularly interested in the type of virtue of which I’d hoped humans were capable. As our citizens became more and more comfortable with the idea of defending and announcing their own views rather than hearing and considering those of others, those pools of light I’d in which I’d taken comfort muddied themselves.
A nurse abandoned his/her compassion for spite; a teacher discarded patience for judgment. Suddenly everyone was feeling attacked while everyone was also doing the attacking and justifying their own attacks with the attacks they were suffering. An endless convection of bile took shape, feeding itself as it churned. The moral high ground was deserted for the muddy, bloody fray below.
Through the din of the endless battle, our inner voices, no longer stifled by a regard for others, sounded clearly. We’re comfortable sacrificing the lives of others to maintain our own luxuries. We’ll not only endure but revel in the anquished cries of those who have no one else to aid them. We’ll embrace violent tribalism as the strongest form of “unity”, and we’ll shun true unity by reassuring ourselves that compromise is nothing more than utter defeat.
So, today, as we debate, with fixed jaws and frothy hostility, which of our neighbors we’ll choose to sacrifice under conditions that threaten us all, I am heartbroken. Though we seem more exposed than ever, I cannot find the beauty I’d tried to tell myself we carried inside us. The space that I’d previously hoped was filled with goodness now leaks only our ample stores of self-interest.
I don’t know how to proceed in a world populated by people like us. An artist deals with such disappointment through expression, I suppose. But I’m not that artistic, and I have neither the skill nor the will to try to fool myself into thinking I am. I have only my crestfallen disbelief, and I don’t know what to do with that.