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Only Human

This week a friend sent me a link to an event taking place just down the road in Victoria this fall. The University of Victoria is hosting an evening with two prominent Canadians—singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn and the former head of UNAMIR (the United Nations peace-keeping mission to Rwanda), Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire. The proceeds from this event will be going to help fund the Child Soldiers Initiative in Africa, an international research and intervention effort focused on the eradication of the use of child soldiers. The price-tag for this event might prove prohibitive ($81.50), but I’m hoping to find a way to get down there for this.

The email brought me back to Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil which I read a few years back. It was by far the most difficult book I have ever read in my life. At several points I simply had to shut the book, put my head down, and weep at the horrific brutality that human beings are capable of. Dallaire’s courage and commitment in the face of truly unspeakable evil and the shameful neglect of the international community were truly remarkable, but the book really shook me up.

I didn’t think I’d ever read another book like that again, but over the last couple of weeks I’ve been walking through the same story through the eyes of one of the doctors on the ground during the crisis. James Orbinski’s An Imperfect Offering is proving as difficult and heartbreaking a read as Dallaire’s book, and is leaving me with similar feelings of helplessness and virtual despair at what we are capable of as a species.

While most of us read books like this and then, eventually, get on with our lives, Orbinski at least did something. He was there, he treated the wounded, he helped as he was able. Yet he, too, had moments where it all just seemed beyond comprehension. At the end of one chapter, after recounting the horrifying story of a little girl who watched her parents being murdered in front of her eyes, he writes:

At that moment, I felt both despair and rage. Despair that she knew intimately our capacity for the most extreme rational cruelty; that she was alone. Animals could never do this. Animals can be brutal, but only humans can be rationally cruel. We can choose anything, we can be anything, we can get used to anything, I thought. Only humans can be evil. Only humans can make this choice.

I think that figures like Orbinski and Dallaire are compelling and demand our careful attention because they highlight the frightful mystery of human nature. Both men know that human beings are capable of behaviour so evil that it can only be attributed to a malevolent force that goes beyond what nature alone can produce; but they also know—and demonstrate by their actions—that these same human beings can rise to heights of love, service, self-sacrifice, and heroism that seem to border on the divine. We have the capacity to choose.

Sometimes I think human beings are undeserving of the terrible freedom God has given us. Too many innocent people suffer too frightfully as a result of the decisions of relatively few. Yet while reading Dallaire and Orbinski almost makes me despair of humanity, when I look at how they, and many others, exercise their freedom to choose, I am hopeful again. Evil may be uniquely human but so is the awe-inspiring goodness, courage, and selflessness of these men. We, alone, can choose how we will be human.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. I don’t understand how a “frightful mystery of human nature.. can only be attributed to a malevolent force that goes beyond what nature alone can produce” (italics mine).

    You’re right. We don’t know enough about the evolution of our species. So why give up the search for knowledge to unveil this ‘mystery’ by claiming that evil can ‘only’ come from a speculated realm that we know even less about?

    I think what I said above is important, but I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve overlooked the greater aspect of your post – humanity’s mirror (in part) from the perspective of Dallaire and Orbinski. Incredibly powerful (and I’m speaking as someone who has only seen/heard interviews with these men). In their personal accounts, Dallaire and Orbinski demonstrate strength that overwhelms me.

    Also, after reading this post of yours I leave pondering a particular word you used and the different contexts it can be used in. The word is – “alone”. In the Orbinski quote it is used in the context of lost loved ones. Further along, the context is innocence. And yet further, exclusivity.

    Isn’t it interesting that when we use the word alone to describe ourselves we could either be feeling sorrow, humility or pride?

    September 7, 2008
  2. I didn’t suggest that we ought to “give up the search for knowledge to unveil this ‘mystery.'” I was simply echoing Orbinski’s (and Dallaire’s) sentiment that the evil they bore witness to went beyond what we see anywhere else in the animal kingdom. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to look at an observable phenomenon (the human capacity for evil that goes far beyond what could rationally be predicted to flow from basic self-interest) and conclude that there is something fearfully unique about human beings in comparison with other creatures. The data we see (that Dallaire and Orbinski recount so heartbreakingly) seems to make more sense through the lens of, say, Romans 3, Psalm 14, or Ecclesiastes 7 than through the lens of just another random product of an autonomous, impersonal “nature.”

    I think your analysis of the use of the word “alone” is very interesting. The range of emotions you highlight is certainly indicative of the diversity of contexts we must face. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily a display of pride to acknowledge that there is something “exclusive” or unique about human beings. We are different, plain and simple. Dallaire and Orbinski saw this difference at its very worst; others see, in them, this difference at its very best.

    September 7, 2008
  3. Maria #

    Hobart Mauer, a famed Psychologist, who had taught at Yale and Harvard. In 1960, he wrote an article in the American Psychologist for which he received much scorn from his intellectual community. From what I know of him, he was not a spiritual man; I think he was an atheist. His article was entitled; Sin, the Lesser of Two Evils.
    Here is a quote from that article.

    “For several decades we psychologists, looked upon the whole matter of sin and moral accountability as a great incubus and have claimed our liberation from it as epic making; but at length we have discovered that to be free in this sense – that is to have the excuse of being sick rather than sinful – is also to court the danger of becoming lost. This danger is, I believe, betoken by the widespread interest in existentialism, which we are presently witnessing. In becoming amoral, ethically neutral, and free, we have cut the very roots of our being lost, our deepest sense of selfhood and identity, and with neurotics themselves, find ourselves asking ‘Who am I, what is my deepest destiny, what does living mean?'”

    Ryan, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. We have to deal with our propensity toward evil, or we are lost.

    September 7, 2008
  4. What incredible reflections you’ve had, as evidenced by your words and the replies you’ve had.

    I did want to share some hope by saying how fortunate we are to be working with James Orbinski through this work with Dignitas International. His vision to ensure that the world doesn’t turn a blind eye again, is alive through the work he leads us through on a regular basis. Because of his vision and others, people are seeing a difference in Malawi.

    September 8, 2008
  5. Maria, I think Mauer rightly identifies moral freedom as being at the very heart of human identity. Thanks for the provocative and challenging quote.

    September 8, 2008
  6. Colin, thank you for the kind words and for making us aware of your organization. As I’ve said throughout, I think that people like Orbinsksi and organizations such as your own certainly represent humanity at its very best.

    September 8, 2008
  7. hey, nice site, i stumbled onto searching for theodicy and other topics!

    as for your post, i think we have to appreciate those willing to deal with the horrors of this world, perhaps even applaud them. i remember working on the sociology part of my undergrad degree and studying long-lived sociological tenets that society is evolving and humankind is evolving towards a sort of goodness. it takes brave people to point out that this is not the case, though it may be a self-serving illusion for a small few.

    i hope this isn’t too obvious of a plug, but i’d love your comments on some of my c.s. lewis and theodicy posts back at my blog.

    good site, i plan to check back in

    November 23, 2008
  8. Thanks Mike. I appreciate the kind words.

    November 24, 2008

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