“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” - Anne Frank
Will we ever collectively grow out of our most cruel and violent impulses? Haven’t we explored slavery, war, rape, cruelty and murder enough over these many thousands of years of human existence to internalize the lesson that they are very bad things? Despite our more sophisticated language, if we strip the horrors we inflict on one another, the animals, and the earth to their essence and germ, are they any different now than they were 150 years ago or 2,000 years ago? We have some new, horrible weapons at our disposal but they are essentially born of the same twisted root.
With the Boston Marathon bombings, we are reminded again how vulnerable we all are to this dark side of our collective nature. It may be a sick and deviant side, but it has reliably made itself known throughout human history. Today, there are drones in Afghanistan, child armies in Uganda, thousands being murdered in Syria, billions of animals brutally slaughtered every year.
Will we ever evolve beyond this base, reptilian part of the brain? I don’t know. I do know that perhaps the best we can is simply keep shining the light of kindness and awareness wherever we can. As long as we are moving more forward than we are backward, this may be the most that we can hope for, really. All we can do is keep shining a light on the path toward justice and compassion and keep doing our part to move humanity in that direction.
My personal window into the dark side of human nature started in fifth grade. I was that kid who was picked on, one of many, I know, but I can only speak of my own experience.
From fifth grade through eighth grade, I was picked on and apart daily by the mean kids who prowled my school, kids whose eyes lit up with a sadistic glee when they saw me. They loudly inventoried every possible flaw I was guilty of: my hair was unkempt (so it had to follow that I had lice); my skin was a flaky, itchy mess from psoriasis; the ointment I used for the psoriasis covered my skin with a greasy film (so it was determined by a panel of my peers that I must not be bathing); I developed breasts early so open season was declared on my bra straps by the boys who sat behind me in history and English. Every day, walking into gym or the cafeteria, I felt a painful, twisty knot in the pit of my stomach: what humiliations were around the corner?
At home, believe it or not, things were worse. An alcoholic, frequently raging, and unpredictable parent tends to make the bad things in your life inevitably, incalculably worse. So every week day morning, I walked out the front door, shook off whatever had happened the night before, and entered the war zone that was my middle school. And every week day afternoon, I left the hell that was middle school - that day’s taunts and assaults against my self-esteem still reverberating in the echo chamber of my head - and returned “home” to perhaps worse. There was no true sanctuary, save for the occasional weekend with my grandparents. In seventh grade, though, my grandfather started developing dementia, so I eventually lost that, too.
Through it all, though, there were kind people. There were a few friends who thought I was funny, who never made fun of my hair, who helped me forget that most of the time I wanted to curl up and die. (God, this is depressing and revealing and uncomfortable but I hope that it serves some purpose in the end.) When nothing else could be counted on, when even my dog growled at me (which was kind of a lot because he was a gorgeous but inbred cocker spaniel), I had my friends. Perhaps because of this reason alone, I could see some glimpses of sunlight through the persistent gloom of my childhood. They risked their own security at school by being friends with the girl with the weird hair but they did it anyway. My life improved by leaps and bounds after I left my home and went to college but I will always be someone who is immensely grateful for these pockets of light, wherever I can find them. I seek them out like my cat seeks out the sunny spots on the radiator.
After college, I worked in humane education at a large animal shelter. At the shelter, I saw the best and the worst of humanity routinely. I met people who would keep dogs chained outside in the Chicago year-round with just a dirty plastic bowl of water, and I met people who would break into these horrible back yards in the middle of the night and take the dogs to place them in loving homes. I met people who turned in their 12-year-old cats because they found a great new apartment that didn’t allow pets and I met people who would be homeless before they would give up a family member. I met people who would set fire to animals and I met people who would cross busy lanes of traffic on the highway to rescue strays. Most of the people I met through working at the shelter were in the middle of this continuum but there were staggering highs and crushing lows on either side. As soon as I thought I’d lost all hope in humanity, I’d meet someone who was so compassionate and generous and truly saint-like, my hope would be more than restored. This was daily life at an animal shelter. While there, I learned that humanity is capable of shocking acts of brutality and an essential goodness that would leave me speechless, humbled, awed.
I believe that the good in humanity far outnumbers the bad and that we are the ambassadors for ushering in positive change. Keep shining your light. It may not feel like enough, you may feel crowded out by the darkness, but you are not. In the end, this light may be the only real tool we have and this is just fine because it may be the only tool we need. Keep shining it.