Incompatible with Life

Thinking deeply about matters thought cannot change constitutes either wasted energy or vital mental exercise or both. Yet even the assertion that thought cannot bring about change induces change. The contention that any thought is wasted spurs the mind to defend itself against allegations of inertia. That is not clear, is it? No, it is not. And that is precisely why thinking deeply is to be venerated. Not dismissed as an extravagant misuse of mental energy. Harboring ideas that conflict with one another strengthens one’s ability to understand the complexities of life. If not the ability to understand, at least the ability to tolerate. Tolerance is an ability. Like tightrope walking or sword swallowing or singing on key.

Lately, I’ve tried to reduce my distaste for ideas I find repugnant, just to learn whether those ideas can teach me something about the world or about myself that I otherwise would not know. Among those ideas is this: that decent human beings can find human slavery to be acceptable. Even the idea that I might be willing to explore that concept for a moment is abhorrent. It contradicts my beliefs about humanity in so fundamental a way that I question my own decency in being willing to consider it. Yet that is how we get through the odious task of identifying even the most monstrous among us as human. If we insist on seeing the world through the jaundiced eyes of others with whom we disagree at the most basic level, we have the chance of understanding how to change them.

Though I do not and will not accept that human slavery is ever acceptable, forcing myself to think about it did, indeed, lead me to a more complete understanding of the world in which I live. Or, at least, I think it did. My thoughts wandered through oceans of confusion and self-doubt, touching on things I doubt I would ever have considered had I not forced this loathsome task on myself. Somewhere along the line, my mind drifted from the humanity of owning and controlling another human being to owning and controlling another creature: a dog.

Working dogs—like the animals that help shepherds guide their flocks of sheep—are, as I understand it, treated well for several reasons. First among them, I think, is that the dogs provide a valuable service to the shepherds and, therefore, the shepherds want their dogs to be in top form so they can perform their duties as expected. The idea that these dogs are trained to be servants, against their will, probably never enters the shepherds’ minds. The idea that these dogs are not free to leave either doesn’t occur to the shepherds or, if it does occur to them, it doesn’t bother them because the dogs don’t know how much better their lives are than would be the case if they were “free” to forage for themselves. So, keeping the dogs in bondage is beneficial to the shepherd and to the dogs. The occasional dog that runs away is an aberration; its loss is an inconvenience, not a heart-rending experience.

A child who happens upon a sheep-dog during “off-duty” hours might develop an entirely different relationship with the animal. The no-nonsense working dog may become, to the child, a companion. Over a short period of time, the child and the dog can develop a close relationship that has no bearing on the dog’s working life. When the dog is required, on a cold and rainy day, to help corral sheep, the child feels sorry that the dog is suffering through the harshness of the frigid, wet experience. The child and the shepherd have entirely different perspectives about the sheep-dog. The shepherd views the dog as a working asset; the child see it as a friend. While the shepherd doesn’t see the dog as a friend, he treats the dog reasonably well so the dog can serve the shepherd. The child, though, considers it cruel to force the dog to work.

Now, back to slavery. I try to see the world through a slave-owner’s eyes. I can believe either that the slave-owner is fundamentally evil and is perfectly happy with that fact or that he adopts a mindset that protects him from seeing himself as a monster. In the latter case, he must convince himself that, by providing food and shelter to his slaves, he is providing for them in ways they could not provide for themselves. He must convince himself that the slaves are assets that must be cared for but also must be strictly controlled. He cannot permit himself to view slaves as humans like himself; instead, he must convince himself that they are, like sheepdogs, doing jobs they were bred to do.

Maybe the slave owner did not have to convince himself of anything. Perhaps he learned to see the world they way I described simply by growing up in an environment in which slave ownership was simply a natural way of life. I imagine that he learned, either by being taught or by watching what occurred around him, that slaves had to be corrected when they deviated from expectations because, otherwise, they would “lose their training” and become useless assets.

As I said, these thought processes did not change my mind about slavery, nor about the people who owned them. Well, maybe it did change my mind about the owners. The ones who became enlightened and came to understand the inhumanity of the practice of slavery may well have been decent people at their core. I think I may have come to understand some of the people who, even today, do not seem to be compassionate. They learned, somehow, that compassion is a trait reserved for the weak and, therefore, is not a characteristic to which one should aspire. They learned that people who are different from them are to be either hated or feared or ridiculed or otherwise categorized as threats. Perhaps they were taught that “those people,” whatever differences they exhibited, posed dangers to livelihoods and lifestyles. And, so it goes. People who are “different” may not be captured and used as slaves, but they are labeled and targeted for treatments that would be unacceptable is visited upon “my people.”

Now, the question is how to retrain people to be compassionate and to see other humans as simply other human? I haven’t the foggiest idea. My guess is that only time and death will rid us of inhumanity. And even time and death cannot overcome new generations taught to embrace the same old evils their forebears embraced. But maybe if we (the collective we, as in all of civil society) try to view bad behaviors as taught and not inbred, we might try to help others unlearn old ways and learn new ones. Maybe.

But my patience is waning. I’m growing increasingly unwilling to tolerate fear and skepticism and doubt, even though those very traits sometimes seem to guide my thoughts and emotions. Here I am trying to see the world through others’ eyes and, when I think I’ve done it, I have no patience with the brain that processes those other eyes’ visions.

Thinking deeply can result in drowning in conflicting ideas while being dashed against the rocks of an angry coastline. It is, sometimes, incompatible with life. Sometimes, we just have to feel and not think our way out of our anger.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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