original sin vs. original blessing
paranoia vs pronoia
evil by nature vs decent by nature
The litany of human awfulness has been getting to me. I haven’t been quite to the point of cutting off Facebook and the news, but close. Close. It’s been helpful that good initiatives have been coming out of DC, but not at all helpful that the goopers are standing fast in their resolve to oppose everything. Gaah. Yuck. Phooey.
And suddenly I started reading a book sent to me for my birthday. It’s a BIG book and I was not in shape to start it, even though it was sent by one of my dearest lifetime friends—until now. And within two pages, something in my heart and brain went “tilt” and my brain opened up like a wide-screen zoom. I remembered two other writers who have consistently asserted the same premise: humanity is by nature essentially decent and caring.
Years ago we interviewed Matthew Fox for our radio series, “Hitchhiking Off the Map.” He had proposed the concept of “original blessing” rather than “original sin” and his church took considerable exception to that concept. He was a priest in the Dominican Order. Joseph Ratzinger of Opus Dei was a cardinal, and he forbade Fox to teach or lecture for a year. After the ban was lifted, Fox said, “As I was saying…” and went right on. One of his books, of which there are many, is Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality.
Rob Brezhny has been a great spirit-lifter for me, many times posting an exuberant joyous contribution to Facebook when I most needed it. His excellent book, Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia, is subtitled “How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings.” He is so magnetic and smart that he disarms my automatic rejection machine before I can begin to rev it up.
And my new fat book? Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman. One of his opening shots across the bow of “Humans Suck” is his account of a real Lord of the Flies event. William Golding hit it big with his novel and it became almost a textbook for the veneer theory, which states that there is a thin level of civilization restraining our true natures as destructive beasts. Bregman began to wonder if there had ever been a real-life event that stranded schoolboys on a deserted island. He found one from 1966, telling the tale of six boys, aged thirteen to sixteen, who had been marooned for more than a year. By the time they were found, they had set up a commune with food garden, tree-trunk barrels to collect rainwater, a badminton court (!), chicken pens, and a fire that they never allowed to go out. When a physician finally evaluated them, they were in peak physical condition.
The writer describes the placebo effect, in which believing something will make you better often has that effect totally aside from literal causation. Then he proposes that there is also a nocebo effect, wherein something can cause harm just because it is believed to do so. He then suggests that our grim view of humanity is a nocebo.
Sure. Right. Anticipating this response, he lays out well-documented chapter and verse about how cynicism can claim that it is always right. By and large people are likely to assume that their family, friends, and neighbors are not dastardly, and would be likely to offer help in an emergency. It is when looking to others whom we only know through the news that the cynicism kicks in.
This is not an airy-fairy book. It is meticulously documented and footnoted and provides real research and real stories. It will take me a while to finish it, but I will. And Bregman has teamed up in my mind with Matthew Fox and Rob Brezhny to lift my ragged spirits.