The end never justifies the meanness

We recoil in horror when others commit acts of cruelty, yet we forget our own. Have you ever been tempted to give unsolicited advice to a friend? Don’t do it; bite your tongue. For example, inviting a friend to join you in workouts at the health club so they can lose some weight may appear perfectly innocent, but what are you really saying? Isn’t it, “You’re not acceptable to me; you need some improving!” But what are friends? Aren’t they supposed to be people who accept one another unconditionally? Besides, if your friend is overweight, don’t you think they already know it? So, your suggestion to join you for workouts merely reminds them of their lack of self-discipline and adds to their stress. No matter how good your intentions were, the end never justifies the meanness.

Meanness? Yes, meanness. Before you dispense advice or make suggestions to a friend, ask yourself whether your comments will make your friend feel better or worse. If the answer is better, you’re a friend. If the answer is worse, you’re just being mean. If you want to be in the construction business, wouldn’t it be better to rebuild people than to tear them down? If your friend has obvious defects, you can be sure they have low self-esteem. They need a boost in confidence, not a knife in the back. Become blind to their faults and acutely aware of their strong points. Talk about what you like about them and you’ll make them feel good about themselves, as well as remind yourself of the value of their friendship.

As we go through life, we will run into much meanness. We will find it in the workplace, in the marketplace, and even in, what is supposed to be our sanctuary, own home. Why are people so nasty? Cruelty often stems from feelings of weakness, inadequateness, or worthlessness. Those who feel powerless strike out at people. They try to gain power by dominating others. Their favorite weapons are ridicule, criticism, and bullying.

Just as individuals can grow twisted and inflict great cruelty, the same is true for groups. In extreme cases they may resort to terror. For as the notorious Nazi war criminal Heinrich Himmler said, “The best political weapon is the weapon of terror. Cruelty commands respect. Men may hate us. But, we don’t ask for their love; only for their fear.” Although Eric Hoffer (1902 – 1983) wasn’t writing about the Al Qaeda organization, his words do explain why they are so desperate to break the spirit of the United States, “Our sense of power is more vivid when we break a man’s spirit than when we win his heart. For we can win a man’s heart one day and lose it the next. But when we break a proud spirit, we achieve something that is final and absolute.”

Terrorists justify their bloodbaths and carry them out without guilt by dehumanizing their enemy and making them objects of hate. They hate others in order not to hate themselves. When their enemies are viewed as satanic barbarians, their slaughter can even be thought of as a “holy” act. Although I am now writing about extreme acts of terrorism, they have their origin in small acts of injustice that have been allowed to fester and grow into the desperate acts of desperate people.

This is why we must be on guard, ever mindful of the hurtful acts we commit. Little acts of intolerance, for example, can spread in the community like a fire. When the victims strike back, we will then have justification for escalating the violence. And so the vicious cycle continues. Obviously, we have enough suffering in the world. Instead of fanning the flames, we need to put them out. Better yet, we need to prevent fires from igniting.

We can prevent fires from occurring by being more tolerant, understanding, and accepting. When people are cruel to us, we can forgive them for their weakness, and learn from it by examining our own behaviour and vowing to ourselves not to treat others in the same fashion. Francis Beaumont (1584 – 1616), writing on the same subject, had this to say, “If men wound you with injuries, meet them with patience: hasty words rankle the wound, soft language dresses it, forgiveness cures it, and oblivion takes away the scar. It is more noble by silence to avoid an injury than by argument to overcome it.”

The last sentence in Beaumont’s quotation reminds me of a recent incident. At a meeting I attended, a member discussed his belief in determinism. I was dying to refute his argument by presenting powerful evidence supporting the claim that we have free will. But instead of speaking up, I bit my tongue. Why do I have to change his way of thinking, I thought. If I feel a need to change it, doesn’t that imply that his thinking is inferior to mine? Isn’t that judgmental? Why can’t I be tolerant and accepting, I thought. So, I bit my tongue and remained silent. The person chairing the meeting, however, did speak up. She said to the speaker, “Yes, many people believe in determinism. Of course, many also believe in free will. It is GOOD that you have studied both sides of the issue and WISE that you follow the position that makes the most sense to you.” Wow! What a difference in approach! While I was passive, she was active and made the speaker feel good about himself. And what she said was absolutely true; she wasn’t resorting to flattery, but displaying great understanding. I learned something useful that day.

Another lesson we can learn is that when we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 -1882) explains why, “Treat men as pawns and ninepins and you shall suffer as well as they. If you leave out their heart, you shall lose your own.” On April 6, 1940, George Orwell repeated the message of Emerson. But he did so with his own dramatic story: “I thought of a rather cruel trick I once played on a wasp. He was sucking jam on my plate, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him. It is the same with modern man. The thing that has been cut away is his soul.”

Perhaps the greatest tragedy lies not in the extent of meanness that envelopes society, but in the fact that the souls who suffer do so at the hands of those responsible for their care or their friendship. Let’s lessen the pain. Do you know what I mean? Don’t be mean!