Capacity for Cruelty

(5 of 11 in a series)

When we observe acts of violence that illustrate the moral depravity of our nature, we often react with comments such as “that’s inhuman!”  Unfortunately, man’s inhumanity to man is all too human and is, in fact, an unchangeable condition of man being man.  One of the surprising observations at the Nazi war crimes trials was that the perpetrators of the Holocaust appeared to be normal.  The scary part is that for the most part they were.  Man’s capacity for cruelty is observation number four.

Man is sick and we know it.  From the evening news to the thoughts and intents of our own hearts, we know something is wrong.  What can explain the massacre, some years ago, of Albanians in Kosovo including a toddler with his pacifier still clipped to his winter coat?  I fell to my face and cried at the Newsweek photo.  Something is not right.  What can explain this moral disease?

And this juxtaposition of beauty and cruelty seen across the human race also exists in us, one man and one woman at a time.  Think about this with me.  I find this one of the most fascinating observations about the human condition.

There is one man that I know better than any other and when I look at him, I observe this same dichotomy between beauty and cruelty.  That man, of course, is myself.  I have seen in my own life the positive imprint of a moral code in my desire to be loyal to my wife and children and to set aside my own ambitions for the greater good of others.  However, even in the midst of these laudable goals, I have found myself bullying my family, wishing ill will on competitive co-workers, and practicing contempt for people I don’t particularly like.

Some time ago, my wife was confiding in me some of the challenges she faced in organizing the Stanford Achievement Testing for over one hundred grade school students while at the same time managing her other full time duties.  Being the servant-husband that I am, I offered to help in any way possible.  For the next two hours, Rhonda sat at the computer organizing forms, instructions, etc.  At the same time, looking over her shoulder, I offered my “help” by way of questioning – without any basis of knowledge – everything she was doing as either unnecessary or inefficient.  In a testimony to her patience, she put up with my critical chatter until I came to my senses and realized my incredible demeaning and condescending attitude.  I went to bed (probably on the couch) wondering how I could have been so rude at the very time I was trying to be a help.  Why does my corrupt side, at times, rise up to control my actions?

So when I look into my own heart, I see the same two aspects of man’s nature that I see in the world at large.  We have an innate capacity for true heroism and beauty (observation three) juxtaposed with an incredible capacity for cruelty and harm (observation four).

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