Violence and the Meaning of Being Human

A few months ago when the autumn began to envelop the earth with its chilled night air, I noticed some mouse droppings in my kitchen. An unwanted visitor, I mused, as I bristled against the idea of mouse excretion and bacteria in my kitchen. My husband and I discussed our options to rid us of this nuisance and we agreed on the one which seemed to keep us most removed from removing the pest from our abode, the dreaded DCon! Neither of us wanted to remove a dead, mutilated mouse from a trap. So my husband set about carefully placing the DCon in the attic, away from our dear dogs. Several days later, while I was savoring my hot morning tea in the company of the Today show staff I suddenly saw something fly from the ceiling beam to the love seat perpendicular to me. I thought at first it was a bat and I shuddered in horror as I screamed for my husband to save me! I know, I know, I’m a wuss, but I know some of you can relate. But I digress. The thing that landed on my love seat, however, was in fact what appeared to be a dead mouse. I quickly realized it was not dead, however, as it began to slowly move, so I screamed louder for my husband to come and save me! Well, my dogs were in the room with me and they had not yet seen the creature, and I feared that if it was half dead from DCon, then my dogs were at risk if they grabbed the poor thing. Besides which, DCon or not, a bloody tangle between mouse and dogs I definitely did not want to see. My husband finally arrived, scooped the wretched thing into a dust pan and threw it outside. Later, as I was about to let the dogs out into the fenced back yard, I remembered the mouse, and I went out alone first to see that it was gone. But no, there it was, alive but not dead, and surely suffering. Even as I relate this story I am still overcome with a sick feeling for the plight of that innocent mouse. Again, I called for my husband who had to put the poor creature out of its misery, an act that brought us both up close and personal to the actual killing of the mouse. It was not a happy day as we mourned our involvement in the loss of a living creature’s life.

I make it a habit to carefully remove uninvited Daddy Long Legs spiders when they invade my bathroom, and I set them gently free back outside where they belong. On the rare occasion when we accidently hit a creature on the road, we suffer a moment of anguish at the loss of that life, especially because we were involved in its demise. So, you are wondering, what is the point of this story so far? As I recoil in the horror of the daily news, replete with violence engendered by hate I am perplexed beyond any of my training or my life experience about what causes a human life to relish the destruction of another when I can’t even kill a mouse or a spider without feeling badly? Where does the enjoyment of seeing another suffer come from? I was just wondering……..

Besides the headlines on the evening news, I have seen several films recently which vividly depict the satisfaction enjoyed by the perpetrators of these kinds of violent crimes. In Selma, the story demonstrates not only that there was a desire to stop Blacks from voting, but also the relishing by the perpetrators of the beatings that they inflicted. In the film Unbroken, the Japanese officer inflicting pain on the story’s hero seemed chronically unhappy unless he was inflicting pain on him. We, the moviegoers, cringed in horror.

But these films are not unlike the horrors of real life, as we witness every day; reporters decapitated, innocent families slaughtered in the Middle East, promising, intelligent girls kidnapped from school in Africa, never to be seen again, leaving us only to wonder what horrendous fate they have endured.

These acts of cruelty are so far removed from my realm of understanding, yet I am supposed to be an expert on human behavior. I cannot explain these atrocities nor can I even remotely relate to them. I guess it shifts back to that age old argument, is it nature or nurture or a combination of both? What exactly causes a person or a group of people to desire to harm, inflict pain or fear onto another living creature? How can someone actually inflict violence without feeling repulsed by it? How can another human being be so different from me NOT to be repulsed by it?

I know I have not suffered much in my life as compared to many humans around the world. I have not personally witnessed the violence of a war. I have been sheltered, fed, and clothed throughout my life, so that my sufferings have only been the kind of mental anguish that most of us have experienced at one time or another when things didn’t go our way, when we didn’t get what we wanted, when the right person didn’t love us, and so on. But I have suffered and overcome what was declared a chronic illness. I know that many others with that illness succumb to it, that is, they allow it to control and incapacitate them. What is the difference between us? So, I have had my challenges, but we all do. Maybe I don’t understand because I have not suffered enough. But what about those who maintain their humanity and love for one another in countries where the aforementioned atrocities are occurring? What is the difference between them and those who desire to hurt them, yet they have no desire to hurt and hate back? Is it nature, is it nurture, or is it something else?

We are taught that our superior brain is what makes us human. But then what makes someone turn against oneself? In turning against another we do just that, turn away from our own humanity. Where is our thinking brain then? Not thinking, I would speculate! When we turn against another we are operating from our reptilian brain, the amygdala. When we allow ourselves to be ruled by our reptilian brains we have given up, lost ourselves. When we become violent and are not repulsed by it, we are no longer human. When we have lost our consciousness to feel compassion and the ability to emote have we not lost ourselves? Have we not just become another lower animal, an animal that lacks our superior brain, an animal that lacks the understanding that we are all one? Isn’t that what sets us apart?

I was just wondering………………..

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