The Nature of the Beast

What is the true nature of the human beast? In the movie Wonder Woman, Diana agonizes over the fact that the war continues even though she has killed Ares. Captain Trevor tells her that maybe the horror of war wasn’t contained in one malevolent being. Maybe a little part of that darkness lives in us all.

When I was a young woman, my grandmother once changed the channel on TV rather than watch a Nature program about the African savannah. When I asked her why, she said she didn’t like to see the lions catch the antelope. I explained that such things were part of the laws of the wild, that it was in the lion’s nature to kill and eat, that’s how it stayed alive. That didn’t make it a bad animal. She said, “No, but I don’t have to watch it either.” At the time I thought she was being a tad ridiculous. Now it’s me who turns away—not from a wild hunt, which I’ll still watch despite my love for animals and their environments, but from reports of the horrors humans wreak on one another. At least the lion kills because it must. Humans kill or maim or terrorize for very different reasons.

Unfortunately, refusing to look at the monster does not make it go away.

I’ve often said it’s impossible to have light without the balance of dark, and that to be a fully rounded human, the seeker after Truth cannot deny that aspect of their being. If I am truly in pursuit of enlightenment, I must face my own shadow, embrace it, incorporate it into the whole. To ignore those parts of myself that frighten or repel is to live a hobbled life.

Note I did not say the seeker must act on those shadows. Acknowledgement is a beginning. To incorporate those parts of myself, I must accept and learn to manage them, to mitigate them when they surface, to channel them in productive or useful ways. Restraint and control is key and believe me, it ain’t always easy, even for someone like me who prefers peaceful existence.

But I can only sort the baggage I carry. Others must take responsibility for their own darkness, and aren’t there plenty of people in the world who bypass the whole restraint clause to chase fulfillment of their personal desires? Just look around. Our world sometimes seems to be in a downward spiral from individuals who believe that to embrace their shadow is to become one with it. They believe this so strongly that they see the shadow as the Light. As Truth. In their view, any denial of their yearnings is an infringement of their rights. (Members of the incel movement come to mind.) It never seems to occur to them that fulfillment of those desires may infringe on someone else’s freedom, and even if they did realize this, they believe their first duty is to themselves to the exclusion of everyone around them. For them, there is no “we.”

This is a difficult era in which to be an optimist, though I still strive to stay in that zone. I have to admit that I often turn away from the news with its stories of terrorist attacks and school shootings and dehumanization of whole groups of people because of their sexuality or gender or the color of their skin. As a highly sensitive person, these reports literally turn my stomach. They rob me of sleep. They drop me into a pit of despair from which only isolation provides escape. So I take the news in small bites and do my best to find beauty wherever I can.

Yet despite the violence that takes place on a daily basis it seems, huge numbers of people pay good money to watch fictional depictions of it on the big screen or to read it in novel after novel. I have to admit that even though I am mostly a pacifist, almost all of my written fiction has a dark thread, some more than others. My novel-in-progress is based on it. I queried a psychiatrist acquaintance about this once. Why, I asked, is my fiction so full of violence when I personally am horrified by it? She explained that it is likely a vicarious release, a safety valve that, through utilization, keeps me peaceful. Perhaps it’s the same for readers or movie-goers who prefer action-adventure, murder mystery, horror, or thriller genres. Those fictional realities release violent tendencies in safe ways. Is it the same for gaming? Maybe. As someone who eschews those types of games, I can’t say.

But it doesn’t work for everyone, does it? Some few who read these books or watch these movies or play these games actually have the opposite reaction to what proves an otherwise standard pacification formula, like the Reavers in Firefly and Serenity. I remember reading a Rodney William Whittaker novel years ago (Shibumi, written under the pseudonym Trevanian) in which the storyline fails to describe in detail a very dangerous activity between two of the protagonists. A footnote explained that in a prior novel, his detailed description was actually carried out by a reader, resulting in harm to one or more people, and that he did not intend to make that same mistake again.

I don’t know whether the violence in movies/books/games is behind all the increased viciousness in the world. Some maybe. All? Almost certainly not. Perhaps that brutal streak is simply part of being human. People often speak of the duality in nature. Light and dark. Up and down. Left and right. Inside and out. Religions utilize these sets of opposites in their theologies. Good and evil. Heaven and hell. Enlightenment and suffering. Countless movies and books play on the same classic theme, separating out the light and dark to pit protagonist against antagonist in a plethora of scenarios. Others reflect the idea that to totally squelch one’s so-called negative aspects can backfire in the worst ways.

Which brings me again to the idea of balance. I wonder, sometimes, if we aren’t like the mice in the mid-20th Century rodent experiments of John B. Calhoun—not the victims of overcrowding, as was first believed, but victims to “excessive social interaction” (Smithsonian Magazine). I’m no psychiatrist, but even I can see that when the people in my life are feeling overwhelmed, they retreat from social exchange and overstimulation by the news media, staying silent on Facebook or Twitter, avoiding gatherings, keeping to themselves. I know that is my go-to solution in times of great stress.

My comments are, of course, only my own observations, and just a scoop off the surface of even those. I don’t have any answers. I’ve heard the theories that perfect peace equals zero growth and development, but the opposite of that is total anarchy. Perhaps the best “balance” is the pendulum swing of alternating growth and rest, but as I said, I’m no specialist. I can only say what works for me.

How do you balance the light and shadow in your own life? How do you cope with the overabundance of world news and social media and the like?