Sunday, March 6, 2011

Affecting the Inside from the Outside

It is a curious and not altogether beneficial fact of life it appears we have more unpleasant and therefore dangerous emotions than pleasant ones.

Most if not all of the trouble in the world is caused by the Seven Deadly Sins. Most people can name some of them if not all of them. How many can name the Seven Heavenly Virtues? Very few.

The capacity to feel all those things, pleasant or unpleasant, is inborn in us, and the fact those unpleasant ones are part of our make-up is why all religions consider humanity to be decidedly imperfect. Fallen, to use a description common to Christianity.

Envy, hate, greed, excessive pride…we’re born with the potential for all of them. What “actualizes” them, though, is what comes from the outside to the inside.

I have been unable to find a word to describe people being affected from what comes from the outside of them to the inside. “Feelings” describes what we feel on the inside; “emotion,” what we show. Yet there is no word, as far as I know, to describe what comes from the outside of us to affect us on the inside.

I thought the ancient Greeks, with their usual perspicuity, would have a word, but so far have been unable to find it.

Yet how we are affected on the inside by what comes from the outside is a profoundly important concept, especially when it comes to shame.

Guilt is when you violate an internal standard; shame is based on what others think of you. The Greeks did notice that respect – aidos – is the opposite of shame. If people are respected from the beginning, there will be little shame in them.

Shaming people when there is no need to shame them is a horrendous problem. The Greeks noticed that when they made Hubris – shaming and humiliating people – followed by Nemesis – retribution. Shaming people is fated to be followed by revenge.

They considered this shaming and humiliation of people to be so unacceptable they banned it from the theater as obscene.

The ancient Hebrews noticed the problem, too when they had Cain murder Abel because he felt shamed and humiliated – the first recorded murder in history.

All of us are affected by what others do to us because none of us are “independent.” Our “selves” are interdependent with other people. You can’t be a father or mother without children; you can’t be a husband or wife without a spouse. You can’t have a “mother” or “father” self,” or a “husband” or “wife” self without someone else. We don’t have one unified self, although there is something in us that gives us the illusion we do.

Although it is certainly not cut-and-dried, or unalterable cause-and-effect, the fact remains it is overwhelming true that when people are disrespected, humiliated and shamed long enough, they will react with violence – revenge.

This revenge includes not only murder, as exemplified by Cain and Abel, but mass murder, as in 9-11, which was simple revenge. You might call it Cain and Abel writ large.

This problem with lack of respect – or humiliating and shaming people – followed by revenge is going to get worse. The bad economy exacerbates it, since many employers think it’s acceptable to mistreat employees. Then one day some guy (and it usually is a guy) walks in with a pistol and decides to go out in a blaze of glory, taking several people with him.

And what happens? The talking heads in the media pontificate but never have a clue. The employers are similarly clueless.

The Greeks understand. So did the Hebrews. So did the ancient Christians. But today? Some, but not many.

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