Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dark Knight of the Soul


Back when I was a kid I heard Michael Jackson sing these lyrics in smooth tones:

Chorus
If they say -
Why, why, tell 'em that is human nature
Why, why, does he do me that way
If they say -
Why, why, tell 'em that is human nature
Why, why, does he do me that way
I like livin' this way
I like lovin' this way

Have you ever noticed that when people refer to so called 'human nature', it's usually in the context of rationalizing something bad that someone has done? Rarely do we invoke 'human nature' when in the presence of love, sacrifice, generosity, or compassion. Such qualities are viewed as extraordinary, perhaps even 'super-human', certainly not what should be assumed or expected as part of our 'nature'.

Two summer blockbusters followed a long tradition in the arts of reflecting on this ancient issue of 'human nature', "The Dark Knight" and "Hellboy 2". In The Dark Knight, the Joker sets out on a campaign of death, destruction and terror essentially to prove the point that 'civilization' is a "bad joke" and those like Batman who seek to defend it are suffering from the delusion that human beings something other than what they are: selfish, ignorant, beasts. Batman's unconventional approach to crime fighting is based on faith in humanity, in direct contrast to the Joker's misanthropy. The various chases, fights, and explosions are the dramatic background for a clash between these competing views of human beings. The film ultimately offers the hope that Batman may be right after all. Hellboy 2 approaches similar issues in a very different way. In this film the clash is between humans and various magical/mythical creatures like elves, ogres and trolls. This film begins with a description of human beings as having a "hole in their hearts" and being driven by greed, while the magical/mythical creatures are the noble ones. Eventually one of these creatures, an elvish prince decides to make war on humanity, a kind of military intervention to save the world from human nature. Ironically he finds humanity being defended by a demon (Hellboy) who wants to be a "man" but faces fear and rejection from those he protects. This contradiction serves as a kind of inner conflict for Hellboy which is the beating heart of this fantasy/adventure. Similar to the Joker, the elf prince challenges Hellboy to consider whether or not he is on the wrong side of the contest between good and evil, light and darkness. In the closing words of a character from George Romero's "Diary of the Dead", "Are we (humans) worth saving?"

The question of human nature is not simply inspiration for artistic meditations like these films. How we conceptualize human nature has profound spiritual and social implications:

"The winds of despair", Bahá'u'lláh wrote, "are, alas, blowing from every direction, and the strife that divides and afflicts the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appears to be lamentably defective." This prophetic judgement has been amply confirmed by the common experience of humanity. Flaws in the prevailing order are conspicuous in the inability of sovereign states organized as United Nations to exorcize the spectre of war, the threatened collapse of the international economic order, the spread of anarchy and terrorism, and the intense suffering which these and other afflictions are causing to increasing millions. Indeed, so much have aggression and conflict come to characterize our social, economic and religious systems, that many have succumbed to the view that such behaviour is intrinsic to human nature and therefore ineradicable. With the entrenchment of this view, a paralyzing contradiction has developed in human affairs. On the one hand, people of all nations proclaim not only their readiness but their longing for peace and harmony, for an end to the harrowing apprehensions tormenting their daily lives. On the other, uncritical assent is given to the proposition that human beings are incorrigibly selfish and aggressive and thus incapable of erecting a social system at once progressive and peaceful, dynamic and harmonious, a system giving free play to individual creativity and initiative but based on co-operation and reciprocity. As the need for peace becomes more urgent, this fundamental contradiction, which hinders its realization, demands a reassessment of the assumptions upon which the commonly held view of mankind's historical predicament is based. Dispassionately examined, the evidence reveals that such conduct, far from expressing man's true self, represents a distortion of the human spirit. Satisfaction on this point will enable all people to set in motion constructive social forces which, because they are consistent with human nature, will encourage harmony and co-operation instead of war and conflict.
(The Universal House of Justice, 1985 Oct, The Promise of World Peace, p. 1)

How refreshing it would be the next time you experience someone displaying kindness, patience, compassion or love, you heard another person smile and say, "Well you know, that's just human nature." This simple shift in talking about our 'nature' just might change the world.