In Part 1 of this long essay I talked about how I have, previously, considered myself a misanthrope. I used the mythology of Star Wars, specifically the Jedi/Sith division, to illustrate two types of approaches to making judgments about ourselves and others, based upon the differences in approaches which such divisions display. I called them the “good” and “bad,” with the scare quotes because neither is strictly good nor bad in themselves, because that is how we, culturally, tend to identify them, based upon our cultural traditions based in part upon Christian ideas. The distinction, between humility and confidence, is one of a healthy continuum but which has the capability to be expanded into self-deprecation and arrogance, which are not healthy.
From there, I want to deal with what I will call the ugly and the beautiful, which I will hope to illustrate below.
The devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape.
The gravity of both humility and confidence, if tempered, are not dangerous nor unhealthy by themselves. But if not tempered either can be used by other attributes within us, and they can either cultivate a manipulating or a manipulated set of behaviors. If intentionally cultivated towards the excesses of self-deprecation (especially if hidden within false empowerment) or arrogance (especially if hidden from any self-doubt), it can lead to disconnection from people, dislike (of others and/or ourselves), and possibly delusions of superiority or lack of self-worth.
The ugly does not seek to empower others, nor even ourselves, necessarily. At best, the ugly is merely a kind of blindness, both of others but more importantly of ourselves. But at its worst the ugly is intentional and uncaring; a targeted, intelligent, manipulation of not only facts, but a cold indifference to the actual nature of people and who they are, in the name of making them useful to one’s selfish desires. At worst, the ugly is nihilism incarnate, sucking on the apathy, fear, and hatred in the world like a predatory vampire.
At best the ugly is a mistake of perception and self-delusion, and at worst it derives from the uncaring sociopathic or psychopathic potential within many of us to not even care what people actually are, so long as they are means towards some selfish end. And, what’s worse, is that sometimes this ugliness can hide in plain sight; the devil often assumes a pleasing shape, so says Shakespeare, influenced by Christian mythology..
The ugly is not stupidity, ignorance, nor lack of power. The ugly is also not intelligence, understanding, nor power itself. The ugly is (in part, at least) apathy, nihilism, and isolation which has the capability of pulling us towards the ascetic self-deprecation of unworthiness or the greedy self-indulgence of feelings of superiority over others. Sometimes, it manages to do both in the same person, perhaps played out in the confused sense of unworthiness covered by delusions of superiority, as a sort of defense against the unpleasant uncertainty and nuance of one’s self-image.
Our various abilities to empathize, sympathize, and to maintain compassion differs based upon physiological factors we did not choose. We are, in a sense, thrown into the world, stuck within the wetware of our brains and forced to make sense of it all, unable to escape the perspective which such physicality insists upon us. And it is through this physiological computer that we comprehend and structure our worldview. Our lens to the world is this physiology which we did not choose, and so it is no surprise that when we have different wetware we develop different software–by that I mean our ideas, perceptions, and character.
Differences in perspective and worldview are not just about ideas. In many ways, it’s about how, and by what physical processes, those ideas formed. Understanding of others, especially empathy, is the only means we have to close this gap in difference and to create concepts of morality, interpersonal understanding, or even love. Without empathy, we can only maintain shadows of these feelings; rules/obligation, judgment, and requited, often co-dependent, desires.
When we meet others with a different kind of brain it can look confusing and overwhelming to us, and we may not understand the nature of the difference. If person A was born with a natural ability to empathize, such a person will be less likely to manipulate and more likely to be manipulated. If person B has little ability to empathize, they are more likely to not even notice, or care, that they manipulate, and are probably harder to manipulate. And, of course, their ability to manipulate is tied to how much attention they pay to understanding other people, and I wonder if it might be the case that when they learn how to manipulate, they think they are doing what naturally empathetic people do.
This is a disquieting thought, for me.
And, of course, most people are in the gray areas between the super-empathetic and those who struggle to even comprehend the concept of empathy. For most people there is a continuum. For most people, the ability to manipulate, understand, judge, and feel compassion for others depends more on mood, experience, and the specific people we associate with as much as physiology. For most of us, there is a real struggle for the ugly (or the beautiful) within ourselves and from external sources.
Therefore, for most people the ugly is one string tugging their behavior in one direction or another, including how they feel about other people. It is a temporary influence which, in more healthy times, may fade into the background and become largely impotent while it gives way to other attributes. But for others, I think, this ugly is the primary, and perhaps in some cases the only, string which pulls them.
Such people simply may not understand the concepts or experience of empathetic and compassionate concern for other people. And if they do, they might not care or see them as weaknesses or hooks to pull people around by.
And then such people become the source of the strings of others, pulling them towards this ugliness. They become one source of misanthropy, collecting people mired in anger, hatred, and judgment temporarily. Often, they collect as many people as they can, so long as they are useful, especially if such people are willing to exist around this misanthropy due to cowardice, apathy, or through being led to believe that they might be an exception to such misanthropy–a nice thought, to be an exception! The longer such people remain in such quarters, the longer it feels natural, normal, and even superior.
Such un-empathetic people, largely functional because they grew up adjusting to the world in the way their brain works, may eventually become aware of the difference between them and others and intentionally use their practiced skill of emulating empathy, love, and understanding to get what they want. In some sense, they may even believe that are being empathetic, that they understand, and that they actually are superior.
Telling the difference between such a person and someone who is clueless, insecure, or narcissistic is often difficult. Being clueless, insecure, or narcissistic are forgivable, but being intentionally manipulative, dishonest (especially while claiming honesty as a value), and using people insofar as they are useful is not.
Such people are largely incapable of actually caring for anyone except for how those people add or take away from their own selfish desires. Such people will collect misanthropes, the insecure, and even social justice warriors. Such people know how to blend in, learn the ropes, and fall within the scope of acceptability for such people with misanthropic tendencies. They can blend in, like a chameleon, so long as they are getting what they want from the people around them, all the while stroking the parts of them which brings out the judgment, criticism, and anger.
Such things, useful tools they are, can be manipulated by our own minds or by others who reinforce them.
Such people perpetuate the judgmental, critical, and angry sources of distrust, dislike, and disregard of other people. Such people are the nexus of misanthropy. I am as susceptible as anyone to its pull, know the landscape well, and no longer wish to participate in this worldview. I will resist this ugliness within me and around me.
I prefer something else.
The idyllic tools we focus on, whether the “good” or the “bad” are just that; tools. The ugly can use the tools to encourage and cultivate feelings which separate us from each other, or they could, perhaps choose another path. Beautiful (or as Brene Brown calls them, “Wholehearted”) people (and here I mean beauty in the sense of internal beauty) will not feel compelled to cultivate the separating sense of being superior or entitled. Beautiful people will choose to cultivate compassion, empathy, and will judge with the attempt to understand rather than create distance.
I wish to be a source of encouraging the beautiful in people. I wish to bring out the feelings of care, compassion, and the best within them. I want actual emotional and mental health, not the false-empowering sense of growing towards “superiority,” “power,” or even “righteousness.” We are not necessarily healthy because we feel superior and powerful. Those feelings are a false sense of maturity and growth which accompany a toxic and often abusive dynamic, one which I have seen up-close all too well.
I’d prefer to note but not focus on the flaws I notice in people and look for the strength, maturity, and potential growth behind it. Rather than focus on feeling superior, perfect, or even more capable, I’d rather behave with patience, attention, and empathy so that I could be satisfied with being enough, at least for right now,and help others feel the same way. I wish to keep growing; to learn more, understand more, and to be a better friend, lover, and partner to people around me. But the desire to be, or at least to be seen as, superior is a distraction from simply being well, healthy, and open to the beauty in other people.
Actually being healthy now is never about being superior, more healthy than other people, and especially not about “winning” in some imagined competition. Being healthy, day-to-day, is more subtle. Being too focused on being better than other people will surely make it hard to see, let alone achieve.
Am I healthy now? I don’t know, and that may not even be the primary concern for actually being healthy. Have I done enough, today, to love myself and others? Am I honest with myself and others? Am I allowing my true feelings and self to emerge from the mire of fear, distrust, and dislike I may feel? Am I allowing myself to care about, more than feel superior to, other people? Is my focus on how we’re alike, or how I might be superior?
At bottom, I don’t know what the beautiful is. It’s harder than the ugly, it seems to me. It takes more courage, vulnerability, and actual strength than simply dismissing other people are not worth my time. Because whether we actually are better than other people doesn’t matter. Arguments about degrees of intelligence, mistakes, blame, maturity levels, and such are missing the point. The point is if that’s the conversation or thoughts you are having, you are perpetuating whatever inequality there might be rather than creating a safe space to cultivate its change.
Because even if someone were superior (whatever that means), the feeling of superiority only widens the separation rather than encourage the closing of that gap. I’ve been on both ends of this perception, and I don’t like the feeling I have had on either side of it. The allure and addiction of the feeling of power which comes along with illusions of superiority are difficult to see past, but I am not superior to those who can’t see past it. The difference really is that I realize that neither of us is inherently superior, which is itself humbling.
I also don’t like the feeling of someone claiming superiority over me. Because even if it isn’t true, it creates a lack of motivation within me (that’s one kind of manipulation this perception causes). It does not make me want to try harder or to even believe in what strengths I have. And even if it were to motivate me, the tone of this motivation often becomes toxic.
At it’s worst, it can compel a desire to reply with my own feelings of superiority. The feelings of pride, power, and the false narrative of superiority then echoes within me, and I find myself becoming competitive, leading to me to want to prove that I’m the superior one. And thus the cycle can begin, unless I am able to activate my ability to be empathetic, patient, and understand what s happening in order to stop it from starting.
Then, the beautiful within me is able to not need to reply. I am enough, I know. I don’t need to be better than this person, nor does this person have any actual power over me just because they feel powerful and superior to me. When I can struggle past their ability to manipulate me, then I feel healthy, happier, and can go on with my day without feeling affected by other people’s misanthropy.
I won’t play that game. I don’t need to, because it’s not a fun game to play and I don’t grow or find health, playing it.
No more misanthropy, for me
Insofar as I don’t like someone, that person has earned it. That should be the standard, I believe. If I don’t like you it’s not that I’m superior, that the world is stupid, or that they have not proven their worthiness to me. If I don’t like someone, they have earned that dislike through their actions towards me or other people. And my like for them will evolve and grow based on how they may change themselves, and so dislike is not universal nor permanent. I do not desire the toxicity of misanthropy in my life from here on out.
And if you think I’m stupid or clueless for this approach, I guess I’d be interested in why you think that but I would ask you why you insist upon thinking me stupid? Why must your idea be superior to mine? Why must you be right? What’s so wrong about being incorrect? We all do it, and while the truth matters being wrong is not a moral failing and should not be the standard by which we judge a person’s character.
Dislike of people has to be based on specific actions and attributes of those people. No person knows enough about most people to be able to justifiably, fairly, or wisely judge the characters of so many people, so easily. To be a misanthrope is to judge from the gate, on first impressions, and to assume the worst in people with little to no knowledge or understanding. We should not universalize specific interactions to people in general, and we should err to the side of allowing people to surprise us, just in case our impressions of them are completely wrong.
So, I choose to not allow the feelings of being better, more knowledgeable, more mature, etc to dominate my character because such things are goals (at best) and not the road beneath me. I am not superior to you, but neither are you superior to me. I do not hate you (the generic you), either.
To all you misanthropes out there, I urge you to try and find the connection you have with other people, rather than what separates you. I have found that even within people whom have hurt me and people I do not like, I find spaces of similarity, commonality, and potential connection. Because of those similarities, I cannot hate them any more than I can hate myself.
Sartre was wrong about at least one thing: Hell isn’t other people.
Other people are reflections of our own selves, and ultimately misanthropy amounts to simple self-hatred hidden behind an attempt to create separation where uncomfortable similarity persists.