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My teenage son is writing a report on the history of the petroleum industry for school and during the course of his research he has been reading something and spontaneously burst out with comments like, “This is unbelievable!”, or “Are you kidding me?”, or “This is insane!”. I became curious as to the source of these outbursts and asked him what he was reading that caused him such shock and horror.
“Its the oil business,” he said. “It reads like a history of organized crime and gangsters.”
“That's because it is a history of organized crime and gangsters,” I shrugged. “Always has been. It is a simple fact that human beings are incapable of handling any commodity capable of generating that much wealth without becoming criminals and gangsters. It's our nature.”
Poor Chuck, like all young people learning more about the world, was appropriately horrified by what he was discovering in it. It brought back to me those moments when I was young, ravenous for knowledge, and finding that it can be a bitter fruit. As human beings, particularly young ones, we like to have romantic notions of the world, it gives us hope and impetus to move forward. Those of us who never feel the inclination or the need to dig beneath the surface of human history can sometimes grow old with at least the vestiges of our romanticism intact, or even just our righteous convictions that we can hold up as a veil between ourselves and reality. But people with restless and curious minds are often in for a bit of shock and disappointment. No one is born a skeptic, it is knowledge that makes us so.
Chuck's foray into the history of the oil industry had brought fully into focus the potential of the human spirit for absolute wretchedness and he was finding it a little depressing. I couldn't blame him, it is a history rife with tales involving the most horrifying of the seven deadly sins on a operatic scale. He suggested to me that it might have been better if he had never learned about it.
“Nonsense.” I told him. “Ignorance is never bliss, its just ignorance. Knowing the truth, even covered with ugly warts, freak hairs, and bleeding wounds is always better than not knowing. Facing the truth often requires great courage; living in a rose colored bubble of denial is an act of craven cowardice.”
“But its so depressing,” he moaned. “Human nature is horrifying.”
“Undoubtedly,” I replied. “But does it depress you to look at a polar bear, one of the most adorable and cuddly looking animals on earth, and realize that it would probably eat you as soon as look at you? Is it a terrible grief to know that the Siberian Tiger, perhaps the most beautiful creature on earth, could reach out one lazy paw and probably end your life without a moment's hesitation? That is what they are. That is what they are designed by nature to do. So long as you realize that and exercise the appropriate caution, you can still enjoy them.”
“Okay,” he responded, “but people have big, complex brains and they seem to like to use them to exercise the most vile parts of their nature. That fact makes me feel that our future as a species is pretty hopeless. It seems to me that trying to get people not to be the worst of their natures' is like telling that tiger to be a good kitty, kind of a waste of time.”
I told him that there was no doubt about it, human history was written in blood, since the very beginning of recorded history and before anyone ever wrote it down, and the writing implements were the vile, hateful, greedy, petty, jealous, fearful, violent, power-mad, bullying aspects of human nature that we like to believe have been tempered over the ages but which have actually just become more subtle and covert. I added that we may indeed be doomed to extinction at our own hands and victims of our own natures, but that didn't mean that there was no hope. The hope lies in the fact that through every age there have been those few yet remarkable people who have managed to transcend the ugliness of human nature and fight for a different path, even at the forfeit of their own lives. The hope lies in every single anonymous individual who chooses to not be the worst of what they are any single day or even any single moment. The hope lies in the fact that there are people who even bother to try and rise above their natures at all.
“All we can do as individuals,” I told him, “is resist the urge to follow our most vile aspects and be cognizant that they exist, thereby making choices in our lives that lead us to transcend what nature has made of us.”
“In other words,” he suggested, “choose to be a good kitty.”
“Yes, and more,” I agreed. “Choose to be the best kitty you can, no matter what the rest of the naughty litter is doing.”
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