The night before last I was reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel about Thomas Cromwell in the reign of Henry VIII and there was a passage describing the execution of monks by evisceration and burning. It also described the crowd watching the events. I caught myself reflecting on how we had moved on as a human race and feeling relieved that we could no longer contemplate public condonement of such cruelty. As I traveled home, however, I was confronted with images of Gaddafi being beaten and shot in the stomach and head despite pleading for his life and my heart went out in pain to him.
On the one hand I have to appreciate the skill of Life for me personally, highlighting to me, “You think we have evolved and are no longer capable of such cruelty? – Try this!”. I realised Life was saying: Careful! – no complacency, no expectations. I recognise also the symmetry; Gaddafi who was responsible for the death and torture of many is “hoist by his own petard” and has to experience at a personal level the suffering he inflicted. Perhaps, if we believe there is some continuation beyond death, this is part of the learning. I am also struck by the elegant design of Life; those in the west who were left uncomfortable by the images were left without any moral ground to stand on because of the powerful symmetry with the assasination of Osama Bin Laden. Even intelligent and compassionate friends of mine were able to justify the assasination of Bin Laden; in their view there were some people who were exceptions to the normal moral code, indeed in the USA, there was huge public celebration.
Many would say that it is progress that individuals like Bin Laden, Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein are no longer alive but I wonder instead if we have missed the point and squandered an opportunity for real progress. When I was in my teenage years I began an interest in Nelson Mandela and his life. At the time, it was difficult to envisage how change in the apartheid regime could be brought about without violent revolution. Yet South Africa made a peaceful transition. It came about through Nelson Mandela’s willingness to take a different approach. Which of us could have endured more than twenty-five years in prison without some instinct for revenge or retribution? Yet, from Life’s perspective you can see that the scale of the transformation he was going to make required a similar transformation at an individual level. Twenty-seven years of imprisonment, looked at another way was twenty-seven years of meditation and personal development. It was his crucible where he was confined in such a way that all he could work on was himself. The result was that he came out of prison saying “peace, truth, reconcilliation, love” and meant it. In one fell swoop he prevented anyone else being able to justify acting on feelings of retribution and revenge and he allowed the whole nation to take an evolutionary step.
Albert Einstein famously said that you cannot solve the problems of today at the level of thinking that created them. We talk much about regime change in cases like Libya and Iraq, yet to replace a regime based on power and violence by using power and violence is no change. Nelson Mandela’s approach and that of the Dalai Lama with China suggest a different way, to genuinely change regime by evolving beyond the “us and them” mentality which created these oppressive regimes.
The young teenager who killed Gaddafi was hoisted on shoulders brandishing his gun. How sad that someone else now, will have to live with the responsibility of having murdered someone who was pleading for mercy and the rebels have founded a new regime whose seed point is violence and retribution. As has been the case in Iraq and Afganhistan, the real work of evolution has not started yet and the West has responsibility for it’s complicit role in perpetuating the belief that power and violence are the ultimate currency in resolving difficulties. We think there can be no compromise in dealing with people like Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein yet really there can be no compromise in dealing with our own capacity for violence and lack of compassion. Imagine how all our hearts would have felt had they resisted the instinct for revenge.
In Greek tragedy, there was the concept of Miasma – that the sins perpetuated by heroes like Oedipus infected everyone. The Greeks recognised in their tragedies that these miasma were not unavoidable, they sprung from the missed opportunities to stop negative chains of events. Time and again, individuals had opportunities not to act but were not conscious enough or brave enough to resist their instincts or fears. Thus the miasma was perpetuated. It is easy to look back and think that such Greek tragedies belong to a different age yet they are just as real today and our opportunities to prevent the miasma of individuals like Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein being perpetuated is there to be seized as individuals like Nelson Mandela show us. To see how strongly this miasma penetrates our culture, you only have to watch films such as Avatar (which was hailed as breaking the mould) or most Hollywood action films. The plot is the same, there are the “good guys” who are victims of some more powerful oppressor (the “bad” guys). The good guys then set about defeating the bad guys by becoming even more violent than they are and destroying them. By the end, the reality is that the roles have switched and the oppressors have become the victims and the victims the oppressors. They are indistinguishable yet we are expected to triumph in the violent success of the “good guys” and feel it is positive because they are the “good guys”. It is really the triumph of the old adage that “might is right”. If our modern myths (films) are reflecting this then is it any surprise we are still playing it out in society?
I think behind the scenes though the real evolution is taking place and individuals like Simon Baron-Cohen, who wants to change our concept of “evil” to “lack of empathy” and his book “Zero degrees of Empathy” do show how we might begin to evolve away from this black and white, us and them style of thinking about the world. His aim is that instead of demonising regimes such as the Nazis in the second world war and feeling that we could never be like that, instead we would work on seeing the lack of empathy that caused it and recognising the potential for this in all of us.
The I-Ching teaches that we are “all one in our hearts”. To watch a vulnerable and defenceless Gaddafi being beaten and shot is to watch ourselves. Can we have compassion for a man who was so fearful and lacking in compassion that he could cause the deaths of thousands? If not, then how are we any different and how can we hope to evolve?