Nelson Mandela’s greatness was most visible in his power to overthrow—through his courage, compassion, and peaceful manner—the brutality and murderous ways of the Apartheid regime. He was an ordinary man, he said, as he counseled us to find our own greatness.
How do we acquire greatness? Mandela’s power to do good was rooted in his charisma and love. If we are to be liberators like him, we presumably have to shed our negativity, fear, anger, malice, and violent instincts. We have to liberate our self from the darkness within.
From where in human nature does such negativity arise? A recent article in The New York Times tries to comprehend the human capacity for the slaughter of innocent people. Citing examples this year of horrific bloodletting by terrorists in Kenya and government security forces in Egypt, the article asks: Do we all have the capacity for such wanton murder?
Experts interviewed in the article say yes. But they don’t get to the core of the question. Instead, they blame the readiness to kill on “a culture of authority and obedience that supplants individual moral responsibility with loyalty to a larger mission . . .” Also blamed are “a routinization of violence, as well as injustice or economic hardship . . .” One expert says the most important ingredient in the willingness to murder for a cause is “the dehumanization of the victim.”
These explanations are superficial. Mandela, who died yesterday, would have more to offer. He would want us to ask ourselves: “What is it about me that would cause me to forgo moral responsibility? Why do I allow myself to see the enemy as less than human? Are there people who I hate, and do I have some hidden need to have enemies?” Mandela, it seems, empowered and enlightened himself by taking personal responsibility for humanity’s worst instincts. I don’t know the exact nature of his inner journey to greatness. But I can offer, in the words that follow, vital knowledge that can make us less negative and thereby more loving as well as more powerful.
We are, of course, admirable and noble in so many ways. But we obviously have a primitive side that, like an ogre or barbarian, comports itself badly on the playing fields of civilization. When upfront self-scrutiny is called for, this underdeveloped part of us kicks up a thick dust cloud of denial and resistance.
Russell Jacoby, author of Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present (Free Press, New York, 2011), writes that the greatest violence has often taken the form of fratricide, where neighbors or blood relations, familiar and similar in so many ways, show greater hatred and murderous intent toward one another than occurs among strangers or outsiders. This counter-intuitive fact makes sense when we consider that such violence and murder have their origins in the “intimacy” of one’s own psyche, where the inner clash of chaotic dynamics impedes our evolving humanity.
When we’re not conscious enough, we create conflict and enemies by projecting our unconscious negativity on to others. Many people are unaware of both the dynamic of projection and the extent of their negativity (in the form of inner fear, inner aggression, and inner passivity). They’re not aware that they’re “seeing” and hating in others what they refuse to see of their own naked inhumanity.
How much is our own unresolved and unrecognized negativity a factor in the huge supply of weaponry throughout the world and in the violence we do to the planet? Much of that negativity arises out of primitive aggression. That aggression is close to home, hiding out in our mean-spirited inner critic (superego) which harasses us and holds us accountable to its self-proclaimed authority. Our inner passivity, too, is a part of us that refuses to be fully human and stand up for what’s right. Our authentic self, source of our wisdom and courage, is buried under the conflict between inner passivity and inner aggression.
Our inner critic kicks us when we’re down and belittles our greatest achievements. For the most part, we manage to hold it in check through the degree of our humanity and mental health. But this self-aggression does constitute an inner tyranny that limits our sense of freedom. We’re usually quite intimidated by this agency of our psyche, although much of that experience is unconscious. Our inner defensiveness and fearfulness are shifted to the external world, prompting us to react to threats in a primitive manner—violently and murderously. In contrast, our first instinct when we’re more evolved is to respond through the power of rationality, courage, equanimity, and awareness of the oneness of life.
When we see the “enemy” as less than human, we’re being less than human. How so? Our superego treats us as less than human, and we let it get away with that rough treatment of us. We then transfer on to perceived enemies the expectation that they will treat us with the same ruthlessness which we endure from our superego. From the other side, terrorists do indeed treat us in a brutal manner, so the struggle to defeat them must include the effort to raise them to a higher level of consciousness (or the conflict could go on indefinitely). As we raise our own consciousness, we will be, like Nelson Mandela, able to reform the other side.
Murderous instincts emerge from inner passivity rather than from true aggression. Terrorists and criminals, for instance, are driven by inner passivity (see, “Terrorism and the Death Drive” and “The Overlooked Factor in Criminal Behavior”). They act out of a kind of phony or pseudo-aggression that is a reaction to the extent to which they are steeped psychologically in a sense of powerlessness and insignificance. Their self-damaging aggression serves as a defense against realization of how fully they are entangled in that inner passivity. In other words, much brutality and murderous aggression is an attempt to cover up the self-doubt and inner fear that is part of the passivity that contaminates the human psyche. Even decent citizens can easily behave in a passive way, which enables murderous psychopaths (or common villains more likely to condone state-sponsored murder) to rise to political power in many parts of the world.
This depth psychology is not widely disseminated, even in universities. The media discuss only superficial psychology. So people are not being taught the origins of the deeper impulse toward violence. Why is this knowledge not widely taught? It’s as if we’re too titillated by violence and terror, just as we are at violent or horror movies, to be truly disposed to eliminate it. The knowledge also offends egotism’s idealized self-image. In any case, we can’t become powerful and enlightened enough to eliminate these horrors of human misconduct when we’re unable to recognize and subdue the primitive aggression and defensive passivity clashing in our psyche.
As mentioned, we can be remarkably passive when character and resolve are called for. Americans can be passive and indifferent to brutality done to others in the name of national security. This is ultimately because, on an inner level, we are passive to our inner critic and allow ourselves to be bullied by its aggression. In reaction, many people identify in a misleading way with the inner critic, just as they can identify fervently with military might. Meanwhile, in protecting self-image we refuse to believe that we might be silent enablers of both self-abuse (from our inner critic) and the abuse of others (by being passive enablers of violence).
Whatever path of self-knowledge we chose to follow, each of us can become, like Nelson Mandela, a guiding light to the world.