We are not perfect. Far from it. We are able to love, create and nurture but we can also hate, neglect and destroy. When I witness human kindness I am deeply touched. Conversely, when I experience malice I feel dispirited. It is naïve to think we can keep the good and rid ourselves of the bad, but there is something we can do to improve humanity. We can acknowledge our nature. Acknowledge who we are.
That is why the subject of evolution is so fascinating. It shows us our origins and the reasons for our behavior. But it doesn’t end there. After billions of years of painstaking progress through random mutation and natural selection, we are in the fortunate position of being able to influence our own evolution. And it starts with understanding who we are.
The darker side of human nature will not go away, but its impact is lessened if we know it exists. Awareness makes such a difference. Similarly, with the host of studies on human behaviour revealing more and more about ourselves, we are realising some finer-grained truths about our nature: positive thinking and visualisation are not as useful as we have hitherto been told; our capacity for decision making is not as reliable as we believed; and we have much less autonomy over our decisions than we thought.
Such findings may at first be worrying, but that is only because we have expectations about our behaviour. Learning about ourselves – how we function and how we are influenced – is essential, and if our findings prove to be unpleasant or uncomfortable, then so be it. Ignoring them will not change anything. ‘Who are we?‘ is such an important question, yet it sometimes seems we are too busy patting ourselves on the back or competing with each other to examine closely our core behaviour.
The story of the master and the scorpion provides a fitting context: A master, sitting by the river, saw a scorpion in the water. He tried a number of times to rescue it and each time he tried, the scorpion stung him. After a number of attempts his pupil questioned his actions and his persistence. The master answered: “It is simple. It is my nature to rescue and it is the scorpion’s nature to sting.”
There are two conclusions to this story:
- We should not be surprised when (human) behaviour exerts itself, regardless of its nature.
- Knowledge of likely outcomes fosters understanding, compassion and growth because it allows us to work with what we have in a more conscious manner, with increased awareness.
The more we look at ourselves, the more we learn. We may be surprised by what we find because our behaviour is often not how we think it is. Fortunately, our boundaries are not where we think they are either. So whilst we are certainly not as good as we’d like to believe; paradoxically, we can be greater than we ever imagined.