A Reflection on Human Nature

The following piece is a reflection written by our Baha’i Chair Student Intern, Sara Rissanen. This piece discusses Human Nature, one of the five central themes of the Baha’i Chair for World Peace.

Human Nature is the second of the five central themes of the Baha’i Chair for World Peace. As an intern for the Baha’i Chair, I have learned the essence of this theme and have come to see how it plays out in my own life and our world as a whole. In saying that, I am still a student, learning every day how to bring about a world of peace. I hope you enjoy these thoughts and reflections on what this theme means to me and how I see it playing out in our world today.

The exploration of human nature by the Baha’i Chair for World Peace involves examining the idea of whether humans are inherently selfish, nasty, and brutish, or are social creatures, cooperative, and concerned with the welfare of others. In understanding human tendencies, we can solve many of the problems in our world pertaining to world peace and prosperity. I want to take this opportunity to examine selfish versus unselfish human nature and whether we are able to influence human nature, both within ourselves and others. 

If you turned on the news today, you may have been bombarded by the worst parts of human nature. You would see destruction, hate, and selfishness. Much of the time it is easy to focus solely on these negative aspects of human nature. But there is a part of human nature that is undeniably good. While many of us know the personality traits described as the Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy), Canadian psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman contends that culture has too long neglected a whole other side of human nature – what he calls the “Light Triad.” In his studies of the Light Triad, he defines it as humanism (valuing the dignity of each individual), faith in humanity (believing in the essential goodness of people), and Kantianism (treating people as ends in themselves). 

What all dark traits have in common is self-centeredness while all light traits embody selflessness. You can see this selflessness in the way a mother cares for her child, making sure her child is fed even if she has to go hungry. You can see this in children as they dream to become future firefighters and doctors. And you can see this in your life as you witness a random act of kindness from a stranger. This ability to give selflessly is on the opposite spectrum and yet I would argue is an even stronger aspect of human nature. 

Throughout the history of humanity, we have searched for the source of our selfish human nature – from Pandora’s box in Greek mythology to the fall of man in the Bible, humanity has told a story of a good world in which evil enters. With this original good nature comes a desire for good to win out in the end. From fairytales to superhero movies we express this desire of good triumphing over evil. With this comes an innate desire to constantly strive for better. Just as a bird who has been caged naturally longs to go back to the sky, humanity strives to return to a good original human nature, one in which selfishness is not the root of actions. Evidence of this is in the presence of the human conscience. As French philosopher Michel de Montaigne expresses, we all have a conscience that guides us: “As an ill conscience fills us with fear, so a good one gives us greater confidence and assurance; and I can truly say that I have gone through several hazards with a more steady pace in consideration of the secret knowledge I had of my own will and the innocence of my intentions.” 

Within us, there is both a selfish and selfless desire. If you think of yourself on a spectrum where one side is selfless and the other is selfish you could fall anywhere on the spectrum based on the actions you take in your daily life. For example, let’s say you wake up in the morning and make your significant other breakfast (selfless), then on your way to work you cut someone off in traffic (selfish), at work you help your coworker complete a project on time (selfless), and so on. If we would track each of our actions this way I would assume most of us would come to about the center of the spectrum, neither inherently selfish or selfless in nature. 

Have you ever been in a position where you had to make or fight or flight response? Where action was so necessary that you didn’t even have a moment to evaluate the action to be good or bad? I believe that in these stressful situations is where the actuality of one’s human nature comes out.  There is an old Cherokee legend that I’ve heard. The story goes that a grandfather is teaching his grandson about life: “There is a fight going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.” The response that would take over in high-stress situations is the one you feed – the actions you take in daily life that become inherently set in your way of being. Taking this into account it seems we are able to influence our own human nature with the decisions we make. While each of us may have a tendency for selfishness or unselfishness, our free will allows us to choose for ourselves. 

One aspect of human nature that I find to be true is that humans are by nature sociable. We search out relationships; not just romantic relationships but daily interactions with friends and acquaintances. While this aspect of human nature can be discussed further, it is something I hold to be true. Because of this tendency to forge relationships, we all have a vast web of relationships creating a social network. As relational beings, we feed off each other’s tendencies. In this way I think as much as we influence our own human nature, we have influence over others and are influenced by others. Having an understanding of this allows us to build peace through a ground-up approach, meaning we start with the individual’s innate nature and changes that can be made within themselves and relationally in their social network. The path to world peace through human nature starts within the individual. 

You can view all of the lectures in the series on our youtube channel here.

About the Author

Sara Rissanen is a junior studying Marketing at the University of Maryland. She is currently the Marketing Specialist at the Baha’i Chair for World Peace. Sara hopes to create a better future by opening the conversation of peace-building among her peers.

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