Friday, August 26, 2005

Not enough kindness?

In the movie "Mask of Dimitrios", Sydney Greenstreet on several occasiions says, "There is not enough kindness in the world." Generally, he's being a bit ironic, but there is truth in what he says.

So here we are.

What's it all about, anyway? All this scurrying about, trying to make ends meet, keep up with the Joneses, get ahead of the Joneses, get more, more, more. Why is all so complicated? There's so much in the hands of so few, while so many suffer. It shouldn't be this complicated.

I was talking with someone the other day, who made one of those statements that is so blindingly obvious, you wonder why people don't think about it every day. I think we were talking about space travel or the Hubble and the costs associated with such projects. He said, “Y'know, there's more than enough money to do those things.”

Now this gentleman is not a commie, pinko, liberal, intellectual New Ager. He's a down-to-earth, conservative, go-to-church-twice-a-week Southerner who would never be accused of pie-in-the-sky, share-the-land, live-in-a-commune-with-some-chick-named-Moonflower tendencies. So when he makes a statement like that, it's worth noting.

Of course, he's right. Governments waste appalling resources on finding ways to destroy other governments.; corporations squander immense sums to pay executives who aren't worth the minimum wage; athletes are paid obscene sums to play kids games while acting like the schoolyard bullies. Imagine if the money, material, time, and people were geared toward feeding the hungry, eliminating disease, and exploring the universe.

Pure paradise. It just doesn't work that way.

At some point, a lot of kids ask their parents why people just don't get along and do those wonderful things. The parents always respond, “You'll understand when you're older.” Well, I'm older, and I don't understand yet. And yet, in a way, I do.

History shows that unselfish behavior doesn't work in the long run. Communal societies either fall apart or get trampled by competitive groups. If you say that everyone gets all the creature comforts by just carrying their weight, someone is going to shirk. If there is noting to be gained through hard work, you won't get much hard work. The human animal craves recognition, reward, a chance to excel, and even to dominate. It's part of the striving that sets humans apart from other creatures, that need to know about everything, to come out on top.

Cro-Magnon man and Neanderthals lived side by side for thousands of years, but Neanderthals are gone while we, descendants of the earliest Homo Sapiens, are still here. We plan, we create, we build, we strive. The Cro-Magnons may have killed off the old cave men, or they may have simply out-adapted them. Most likely, it was some combination of the two, as the climate changed and competition for scarcer resources became more intense. So, to be us, we have to endure politicians squandering the planets resources while large numbers of their constituents starve; we have to live with Bernie Ebbers stealing and ruining the lives of people who worked for him by running his corporation into the ground. We have to put up with the excesses of business, of celebrities, of religious leaders, all to gain the reward of an incredible self-awareness that seeks to know all there is to know.

We actually do try to overcome our baser tendencies. Moses, Jesus, Confucius, Buddha have all tried to lead us to more noble pursuits and a greater appreciation of life and our fellow human beings. And a lot of people do give themselves to these philosophies and do more good than harm in the long run. If that wasn't the case, we'd have destroyed ourselves long ago. What a shame and cosmic embarrassment that would be. After all, we've done so much, good and bad, in around 100,000 years. In fact, we've done most of it in the last 10,000 years. Neanderthal hung around for half a million years; the dinosaurs were around 165,000,000 years and probably never had a philosophical thought in their entire existence. Surely, we can channel enough of our striving to keeping the race going for at least another 100,000 years?

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