We’re living in a brutalizing time: Scenes of mass savagery pervade the media. Americans have become vicious toward one another amid our disagreements. Everywhere I go, people are coping with an avalanche of negative emotions: shock, pain, contempt, anger, anxiety, fear.
The first thing to say is that we in America are the lucky ones. We’re not crouching in a cellar waiting for the next bomb to drop. We’re not currently the targets of terrorists who massacre families in their homes. We should still start every day with gratitude for the blessings we enjoy.
But we’re faced with a subtler set of challenges. How do you stay mentally healthy and spiritually whole in brutalizing times? How do you prevent yourself from becoming embittered, hate-filled, calloused over, suspicious and desensitized?
Ancient wisdom has a formula to help us, which you might call skepticism of the head and audacity of the heart.
The ancient Greeks knew about violent times. They lived with frequent wars between city-states, with massacres and mass rape. In response, they adopted a tragic sensibility. This sensibility begins with the awareness that the crust of civilization is thin. Breakdowns into barbarism are the historic norm. Don’t fool yourself into believing that you’re living in some modern age, too enlightened for hatred to take over.
In these circumstances, everybody has a choice. You can try to avoid thinking about the dark realities of life and naïvely wish that bad things won’t happen. Or you can confront these realities and develop a tragic mentality to help you thrive among them. As Ralph Waldo Emerson would write centuries later, “Great men, great nations have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it.” And that goes for great women, too.
This tragic sensibility prepares you for the rigors of life in concrete ways. First, it teaches a sense of humility. The tragedies that populated Greek stages sent the message that our accomplishments were tenuous. They remind us that it’s easy to become proud and conceited in moments of peace. We begin to exaggerate our ability to control our own destinies. We begin to assume that the so-called justice of our cause guarantees our success. Humility is not thinking lowly of yourself; it’s an accurate perception of yourself. It is the ability to cast aside illusions and vanities and see life as it really is.
Second, the tragic sensibility nurtures a prudent approach to life. It encourages people to focus on the downsides of their actions and work to head them off. As Hal Brands and Charles Edel write in “The Lessons of Tragedy,” Greek tragedies were part of a wide culture that forced the Greeks to confront their own “frailty and fallibility.” By “shocking, unsettling and disturbing the audience, the tragedies also forced discussions of what was needed to circumvent such a fate.” In this way, people are taught resilience and anti-fragility — to be prepared for the pain that will inevitably come.
Third, this tragic mentality encourages caution. As Thucydides would argue, in politics, the lows are lower than the highs are high. The price we pay for our errors is higher than the benefits we gain from our successes. So be careful of rushing headlong into maximalist action, convinced of your own righteousness. Be incremental and patient and steady. This is advice I wish the Israelis would heed as they wage war on Hamas. This is advice that Matt Gaetz and the burn-it-all-down caucus among the House Republicans will never understand.
Fourth, the tragic mentality teaches people to be suspicious of their own rage. “Rage” is in the first line of “The Iliad.” We immediately see Agamemnon (whom we detest) and Achilles (whom we admire) behaving stupidly because they are filled with anger. The lesson is that rage might feel luxurious because it makes you convinced of your own rightness, but ultimately, it blinds you and turns you into a hate-filled monster. This is advice I wish the hard left would heed, the people who are so consumed by their self-righteous fury that they become cruel — desensitized to the suffering of Israelis, because Israelis are the bad guys in their simple ideological fables.
Over time, I’d add, rage hardens and corrodes the mind of its bearer. It hardens into the sort of cold, amoral, nihilistic attitude that we see in Donald Trump and in many others who inhabit what the political sociologist Larry Diamond has called the “authoritarian zeitgeist.” This attitude says: The enemy is out to destroy us. The ends justify the means. Savagery is necessary. The only thing we worship is power.
Fifth, tragedies thrust the harsh realities of individual suffering in our faces, and in them we find our common humanity. I’ve always been amazed by Aeschylus’ play “The Persians.” It was performed only eight years after the major battle that would eventually secure Athenian victory over the Persians, and it was written by a man who fought in that battle. And yet it is written from the Persian vantage point and elicits sympathy for the Persians, in all their hubris and suffering. It teaches us to be empathetic to all those who suffer, not just those on our own side.
From this sort of work, we learn to have a contempt for sadism, for anything that dehumanizes, and to have compassion for the everyday people who pay the price for the designs of proud and evil men. That compassion is the noble flame that keeps humanity alive, even in times of war and barbarism. That compassion recognizes the infinite dignity of each human soul.
So far, I’ve been describing the cool, prudent and humble mentality we learn from the Athenians. Now I turn to a different mentality, a mentality that emerged among the great Abrahamic faiths, and in their sacred city, Jerusalem. This mentality celebrates an audacious act: the act of leading with love in harsh times.
As much as we need bread and sleep, human beings need recognition. The essence of dehumanization is not to see someone, to render him inconsequential and invisible. For example, over the last few decades, we in the college-educated media and cultural circles have increasingly shut out working-class voices. Many people look at the national conversation and don’t see themselves represented there, and hence grow bitter and alienated. Members of the working class are far from the only people who feel invisible these days.
The core counterattack against this kind of dehumanization is to offer others the gift of being seen. What sunlight is to the vampire, recognition is to the dehumanizers. We fight back by opening our hearts and casting a just and loving attention on others, by being curious about strangers, being a little vulnerable with them in the hopes that they might be vulnerable, too. This is the kind of social repair that can happen in our daily encounters, in the way we show up for others.
I recently published a book on the concrete skills you need to do this, called “How to Know a Person.” During a recent Zoom call, someone asked me: Isn’t it dangerous to be vulnerable toward others when there is so much bitterness, betrayal and pain all around? My answer to that good question is: Yes, it is dangerous. But it is also dangerous to be hardened and calloused over by hard times. It is also dangerous, as C.S. Lewis put it, to guard your heart so thoroughly that you make it “unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
The great Black theologian Howard Thurman faced a lot of bigotry in his life, but as he put it in his 1949 book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” “Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father.”
This is not a call to naïveté. Of course there are toxic people in the world. Donald Trump is not going to change just because his opponents start feeling warm and fuzzy toward him. Genocidal fanatics like the leaders of Hamas just need to be defeated by force of arms.
But most people — maybe more than you think — are peace- and love-seeking creatures who are sometimes caught in bad situations. The most practical thing you can do, even in hard times, is to lead with curiosity, lead with respect, work hard to understand the people you might be taught to detest.
That means seeing people with generous eyes, offering trust to others before they trust you. That means adopting a certain posture toward the world. If you look at others with the eyes of fear and judgment, you will find flaws and menace; but if you look out with a respectful attitude, you’ll often find imperfect people enmeshed in uncertainty, doing the best they can.
Will casting this kind of attention change the people you are encountering? Maybe; maybe not. But this is about who you are becoming in corrosive times. Are you becoming more humane or less? Are you a person who obsesses over how unfairly you are treated, or are you a person who is primarily concerned by how you see and treat others? “Virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is,” Iris Murdoch wrote.
One of my heroes is a woman named Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who lived in Amsterdam in the 1930s and ’40s. Her early diaries reveal her to be immature and self-centered. But as the Nazi occupation lasted and the horrors of the Holocaust mounted, she became more generous, kind, warm and ultimately heroic toward those who were being sent off to the death camps. She volunteered to work at a labor camp called Westerbork, where Dutch Jews were held before being transferred to the death camps in the east. There she cared for the ill, tended to those confined to the punishment barracks and became known in the camp for her sparkling compassion, her selfless love. Her biographer wrote that “it was her practice of paying deep attention which transformed her.” It was her ability to really observe others — their anxieties, their cares and their attachments — that enabled her to enter into their lives and serve them.
It did not save her. In 1943, she herself was sent to Auschwitz and was murdered. But she left a legacy: what it looks like to shine and grow and be a beacon of humanity, even in the worst imaginable circumstances.
I’m trying to describe a dual sensibility — becoming a person who learns humility and prudence from the Athenian tradition, but also audacity, emotional openness and care from the Jerusalem tradition. Can a single person possess both traits? This was the question Max Weber asked in his classic essay “Politics as a Vocation”: “How can warm passion and a cool sense of proportion be forged together in one and the same soul?”
It’s a hard challenge that most of us will fail at most of the time. But I think it’s the only practical and effective way to proceed in times like these.
Source photographs by Getty Images.
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