Last week at a fundraising event for a charity that provides prosthetic limbs to Ukrainian soldiers that have lost arms and legs in the war in Eastern Ukraine, I had the privilege of meeting and talking with two real combatants who have experienced all the horrors and tragedy of war personally. As one who has been blessed with a life relatively free from conflict, carnage and catastrophe, it was in some ways a surreal experience. Those of us who are fortunate to have never faced death and destruction in the face cannot ever really understand the emotional and psychological trauma that war inflicts upon its victims.
The experience made me ponder the enigma that is humankind. As a living species, we distinguish ourselves from the rest of nature in that we are gifted with the ability to think, to judge, to create, to plan, to understand the very essence of how the universe is structured and how it works, and yet, we have throughout history shown this disturbing propensity to kill, destroy and inflict evil on a scale that is beyond rational understanding.
Needless to say, I am not the first person to delve into the miasma of the human mind and what makes it tick. Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, anthropologists, scientists of all kinds and historians have sought since time immemorial to understand what it is it that motivates us as human beings to do what we do. My big regret is that my interest in seeking this type of enlightenment comes so late in my own measured existence. In retrospect, I gave it far too little attention when I was young and just setting off on the journey of life. Sadly our educational systems are geared almost entirely towards teaching us about the “practical” side of life, and far too little on the moral and spiritual skills that underpin our behaviours and which ultimately determine the choices we make in life.
As I have only but recently begun to understand, it is not the scientific, technological and material advances that we have made as a civilization that determine what life is like and will be on this planet.
Our future existence and well-being will not be based on our mastery of science and nature, but rather on a better understanding and mastery of how we think, what we believe and how we behave.
During the evening, I was touched at one point, by the remarks made by one of those front-line Ukrainian vets, when he said that despite all kinds of adversity, the morale of those on the firing line was remarkably strong, because they were volunteers and were there not by compulsion but by choice. They were highly motivated by a powerful mixture of loyalty, nationalism, patriotism, historical pride and sense of duty. Their courage and determination was fueled by powerful ideals.
All this brings us to the crux of what distinguishes us from other living species on this planet. We are capable of creating ideology in all its forms – political, religious, esthetic and moral. For better or worse, we live our lives governed by a framework of ideals. And those ideals and the ideas and values they propound are the most powerful force in the universe. Individual ideas evolve and grow and get systematized into coherent ideologies. Those ideologies get adopted by growing numbers of people and even whole nations and societies, and we then live and act out our lives according to their teachings and principles.
As we know all too well, ideals and ideologies can be good or bad. Communism, Nazi fascism and fundamentalist Muslim terrorism have shown us that they can threaten the very existence of our civilization. Even altruistic ideologies such as Christianity and the true moderate Islamism can and have been subverted by the amoral and the ruthless and used for evil purpose. A powerful idea can make us do things we would normally consider unimaginable and incomprehensible. It can make us kill the innocent, destroy, torture, inflict pain and even sacrifice our own lives.
It is perhaps time for us as a human race to consider putting far more effort and focus in the way we raise and educate our young into teaching them to understand the nature and power of ideas and ideologies, and how to effectively harness them to constructive use, while preventing their abuse by those who have evil in mind. We need to lay the groundwork towards a global acceptance of the fundamental ideals of the sanctity of human life, respect for each other, co-operation rather than conflict, and the elimination of war and terrorism as a political tool. These are not idle, utopian and unrealizable ideals. They are a pre-requisite to our survival as a human race. In an age of nuclear weapons and global climate change, a survival of the fittest strategy is no longer an option. Unless we learn to live with each other successfully and peacefully, none of us will survive at all.