Author Archive | Priya Huffman

Who Are We?

Reading from the book Black Earth by Timothy Synder, a brilliant American historian who teaches at Yale, brought me to full attention and a heightened sense of both alarm and urgency.

The book includes a riveting account of Hitler’s rise and how the Reich mounted the case for systematic genocide of the Jews for the sake of racial purity. He portrays the step-by-step creations of the German, and Polish propaganda machine who persuaded ordinary men, family men who loved their children, wives, gardens and animals to engage in wholesale slaughter, and convinced ordinary women that it was not worth lifting an eyebrow to question.

It is also a devastating portrayal of how the major players at that time and place, Germany and the Soviet Union set about, with the precision of a neurosurgeon, destroying Poland, carving her up and massacring as many as 1,000,000 of her inhabitants.  What is so confronting is the detail with which he takes us, into the madness of all the justifications offered by the various governments, to make possible what is surely from a human point of view, utterly inconceivable.

But I digress slightly, the segment that caught me flat footed was a quote by one of the very few Polish men to have survived Stalin’s Gulag in the early 1940s. He was able to write in mind boggling detail about life, death, the cruelties and unbearable conditions of life for those who had been sent there, essentially, to die. The quote by Gustuv Herling, went as such, “When the body has reached the limit of its endurance, one cannot, as was once believed, rely on strength of character and conscious recognition of spiritual values, there is nothing in fact that man cannot be forced to do by hunger and pain.”  As if that were not enough of a confront, he added the words that jumped started this whole train of thought that you kindly have joined me on. He said, “A man can only be human under human conditions.”

In blunt terms, it is the luxury of favorable conditions that allows us to be our best selves, or at least, what we take to be the best of our humanness. Failing that, we become people capable of things that from this side of the human lens, seem unconscionable. Absent food, water, shelter, warmth, security, who are we, and what might we become? Then add into the mix violence, terror, torture, cruelties the likes of which we may not even wish to consider, then who are we and what do we become?

I consider myself privileged. To have lived in peace time, not to have known true hunger, ever, not to have been terrorized or traumatized by violent neighbors, not to have been beaten, starved, cold or tortured. I have not seen horrible acts of cruelty, although I am certainly appraised of them. That is true privilege, not how much money we have in the bank, the size and luxury of our houses, but to be able to sleep at night, without thinking that we might be attacked by bombs or gangs, who might want to steal, rape or kill us. To walk down a street and not be looking over your shoulder every moment, to speak a differing opinion and not be fearful of being snatched up into a white van never to be seen again.

Who would I be if I had to live under less than optimum conditions, if I had to endure what millions around the world do endure on a regular basis, even many in this country? Who would I become? Who would you become? I do not know, but what I do know is that there is a limit to how far being merely conscious can take any of us if not supported by the ‘privilege’ of living under somewhat humane conditions.

Consciousness seems to be less determinative than I had formerly believed. If conditions are too collectively horrible, we ourselves can become horrible. If the environment in which we find ourselves, accepts horrible or cruel behavior, then we too can often enough adapt to that as normative and acceptable. In the case of the systematic obliteration of large sections of the Polish peoples, as well as the European Jewry, they were killed by officers and soldiers of the Reich and of the Soviet Union, and the ordinary citizens of Poland; fathers, sons, brothers, who had food, clothes and were not tortured to force them to enact these killings.

It is said that we humans are tremendously adaptable, capable of accommodating to a wide range of contingencies, if it is condoned by those around us, or as Tolstoy says so pointedly in Anna Karenina: “There are no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him.” This may explain how we are so capable of accepting what otherwise be deemed as unacceptable. But this very adaptability is a source of our greatest strength and our greatest danger.

We, in the Western World say with conviction, ‘Never Again’, after waking to the horror and genocide perpetrated against 11 million peoples during the World War II, but has that stopped us from the killing fields of Cambodia, the slaughter in Rwanda, the Sudanese atrocities, Bosnia, Chechnya, the Congo, and now, right now, the mass starvation and killing of the people of Gaza, perpetrated by the Israeli government and supported by the US of A. whose record of often supporting the authoritarian side is notable, albeit lamentable.

Indeed, these United States of America, the greatest experiment in democracy in modern times, is founded on one the greatest genocides, of the First Peoples of this land, yet never has there been a reckoning, an acknowledgment, nor any attempt at owning responsibility and attempting reconciliation, as Canada has attempted. Even the rabid racism that still exists to this day in the aftermath of slavery is a fact that cannot even be spoken, or admitted, in some states, school systems, the judicial and educational systems.

The political ecology of many countries is tilting Right. In some case so far Right so as to scare us ‘privileged’ ones, who have not yet had to live under a heavily controlling authoritarian governance, yet we, here in this country, can see that possibility looming, as close as our next election.

It does not only matter who is against whom and why, it matters that we humans are capable of dominance, of subjugation, of killing, of torture, of creating conditions whereby we might lose our humanity and become capable again of the indefensible and the inhumane. Given that we humans are so adaptable, we are profoundly molded by the environment in which we find ourselves, the social mores of our subculture and the pressures around safety and survival that are inherent in our particular situation. History supports those psychologists who advocate that the environments in which we grow up and develop dictate at least 80% of who we are and become, while genetics takes a back seat in that game.

I have a renewed appreciation of how potentially dangerous we humans are, as a collective, given the right conditions. A famed psychologist whose name has joined the great ‘forgotten’ once made the comment, that it is easier to predict what a group will do, but much less easy to predict what an individual may do. Yet individuals, you and me, can shine and can also be swayed by media, by fear, by incentives that move like the sweet grasses in the spring breezes, this way and that, because we are pack animals and do not like to move against the grain of our family, subgroup, or community.

Yet as Individuals, we are capable of the greatest acts of kindness, heroism, superb creativity in every arena of life; the arts, science, technology, we are capable of generosity, innovation, utter brilliance in almost any sphere. But here’s the odd phenomenon: The depravity of the worst of us is often reflected in the acts of the collective, (mobs) but the reverse is lamentably not true. The best of us is seldom reflected in the collective in a sustained way, unless after natural disasters when communities come together to help and be their best selves for at least a period of time, but it tends not to last and does not translate into models of governance that promote our best selves to shine. Unfortunately, we have more than enough collective examples of worst of us, lived large. Why is that I wonder?

We keep looking for forms of governance that might enable the goodness of the one to be spread and reflected in the whole. So far, we humans have not managed this transition, which is why I titled this essay as I did.

I saw a funny cartoon the other day, and how I wish it were only a cartoon. A young boy is standing next to an armchair in which sits his father reading the newspaper. The kid, a boy of about 10 says to his dad, “I decided what I want to do when I grow up, I want to go into organized crime.” The dad looks at his son and asked, very matter of fact, “Private or governmental section?”

I must admit to being somewhat fatigued by the ‘love and light’ crew who lean heavily into the mythical possible at the expense of the actual whole. Maybe I just envy their sense of wellbeing as they lean into tomorrow. To them and for them I appear pessimistic, although I do not consider myself that. Rather I am one who is cognizant of the full range of what we humans are capable of, one who reads the tealeaves of our ‘right’ leaning world and sees dark clouds gathering on the horizon, clouds that are moving at quite a clip towards us, presenting us with potential governance structures that may not work to promote the humanity within us, but work exactly to promote its own power dominance and thereby encourage the worst of us.

I am one of the privileged who believes that goodness, while inherent in babies, still needs the right ecology to manifest, that kindness while innate in the very young, only flowers if the conditions permit, are taught and encouraged, and that generosity is not a given, but the overflow of a humane environment and furthermore, that excellence exists on the individual level in inspiring abundance, but not on a sustained collective or societal level, where we too often sink to our lowest denominators.

If even a portion of what I am saying has merit, it is incumbent upon us, you and me, to contribute to the humaneness of our immediate worlds, in any ways that we can, so as to promote as much well-being, to as many as we can, in our immediate or larger worlds according to our respective spheres of influence. It serves our self-interest to do so, because we cannot flourish if those around us do not. We would then not know safety, peace or the “better angels of our nature”, as Abraham Lincoln remarked.

It further serves our self-interest to acknowledge that wealth of goodness that still exists for so many of us, so we might connect authentically around both our fallibilities and our gratitude for all that still is so amazingly magnificent, which is being alive in this here now life, with all its vicissitudes, uncertainties and even its immanent and scary dangers.  It serves our self-interest that we find our small groups of friends, communities to gather and be part of so we are not isolated, which is a recipe for being more easily swept into a collective river, not of our making. It further serves our self-interest that we use our time here to relate meaningfully and honestly with those in our world that we care about and not wait to speak of our love and our appreciation, for all that still is.

Even spring time needs favorable conditions to shine as she is now doing in my neck of the woods. May we too promote and benefit from the best conditions we can muster and create for ourselves, our families and even for our communities and pass it along to others. May we be generous with the gifts of our hearts and purse, because it is currency well spent on this side of life.