Why has the human race failed to create a better world? With all of human history to learn from, with all the great teachers and religions, why is our world such a tragic mess, lurching from one crisis of our own making to another?
Beyond what we do to our fellow humans, our collective violence and greed are now threatening the very world we seem to see ourselves as rulers over rather than part of. There is no need to go into detail. We have failed to live in harmony with each other and the world around us to the extent that life as we know it, the product of billions of years of evolution, might be on the brink of collapse. Why?
Humanity obviously has thrived, threatening to overrun almost every other form of life on the planet, so it appears the problem is not some external constraint. It must have something to do with us. And the problem runs deeper than just what we do, for were our actions the problem, we could recognize this and act better. But is that not what religions and the whole enterprise of ethics, morals and law have been trying to do since before history began to record the mounting evidence of their failure?
Neither promise of reward nor fear of punishment, temporal or eternal, has successfully motivated people as a whole to act much differently from how we act today. And humanism has fared no better. Saints, prophets and great teachers have walked and preached among us, but perhaps there is no clearer case of the exception proving the rule. We might not possess evil intent, but somehow we just can’t seem to get it right.
Christianity has an answer — original sin. The accounting, however, leaves much to be desired. Like bonded labor, in which children inherit and must pay off their parents’ debt, hereditary guilt has no place where justice supposedly reigns. Buddhism too has an answer — ignorance. But this brings us back to the question of why millennia come and go with no substantial change for the better. From this perspective, the problem appears to be not ignorance itself but the inability to go beyond it.
Nonetheless, both of these answers, which have sufficed for many throughout centuries and still do, point to the problem as lying within us. Of course, other religions and ideologies also chart roads to salvation, enlightenment or progress. And they too have answers as to why we have not arrived. But let’s face it — far from arriving, we have essentially gone nowhere.
This leaves us little choice but to consider that we are inherently flawed and there is nothing we can do about it, that we have run out of other places to look for a solution to our problem. The reasons for avoiding this are starkly clear. It means truly staring into the abyss. But if that is what we must do, then better to muster our courage and do it than to let despair or groundless hope hold us hostage. And the abyss might contain light as well as darkness.
A simple acknowledgment might shed some light in an unlikely way. In considering the prospect that we are inherently flawed, we tacitly assume that the flaw is the problem. Some defect is lessening us. Some obstacle is keeping us from achieving what we could otherwise achieve. So, naturally we focus our energy on what we would need to do to correct the flaw, to remove the obstacle, to fix things so they work properly. We have not been able to do this, but the reason might be that there is nothing to fix. What if we are the flaw? If our concept of what or who we are, our identity, is the problem?