“It is evident to me that we only willingly carry out those religious duties which flatter our passions. Christians excel at hating enemies. Our zeal works wonders when it strengths our tendency towards hatred, emnity, ambition, avarice, evil-speaking … and rebellion. On the other hand, zeal never makes anyone go flying towards goodness, kindness or temperance, unless he is miraculously pre-disposed to them by some rare complexion. Our religion was made to root out vices: now it cloaks them, nurses them, stimulates them.”
— Michel de Montaigne
Montaigne was a true believer horrified by the actions of his fellow Christians. Yet we all know how familiar the words above sound. You can change the word “Christian” to so many others and have it ring just as true.
Any ideology will do — religious, political, cultural — so long as the followers follow their passions over their reason.
This terrible, nearly all-powerful, trait is within all human beings, waiting, like Montezuma to erupt upon the world with violence unimaginable.
From the Inquisition to Isis, our passions have won over our saner capacities more times than is countable. The result has been hundreds of millions horrifically murdered in the name of “the good”. Sometimes it is in the grips of war or revolution, other times it is background noise in our lives — Slavery was cooly justified by millions of otherwise reasonable humans, who found it impossible to overcome their beliefs until the world changed around them and forced the issue.
True Belief, unwavering belief, founded deep within emotion — dogma, tradition, or most frightening of all, hope — is a source of violence the energy of which is everlasting.
If we’re lucky, a Zealot who has succumbed to this all-to-human disease will simply harm themselves. The hope Plato gave his followers in his dialogues of everlasting life was so strong in them that many killed themselves — the sooner to bring this eternity into the now.
Our luck has rarely been of this kind, sad for us all.
Terror, born of that virgin mother Ideology, feeds upon the emotional mind of man, warping logic in the service of the passions, turning reason into rationalization, making the hardest realities of life — dying and killing — easy.
The worst mistake a human can make is to forget just how human they really are.
The scarlet-color of our potential is not unique to some, but bred into all of us. Anger, violence, irrational action is far too natural. Every murderer was once an innocent child, just as every tree was once a seedling.
Our failure is not taking seriously the opportunities we have to alter the course of history while the seed is still small: fear, anxiety, depression, irrational attachment to cultural norms, an inability to be skeptical about your current beliefs, etc.
Every time you and I take action based upon emotion, rather than upon our reason, we are building a habit. The odds are strong we won’t go kill someone in our lifetime. But what minor damages are we accumulating, day after day, by acting against reason? How many people do we harm, or fail to help, because of our weakness of mind?
This choice is a daily, even hourly one — choose reason. It is hard. And yet, the skill of it is trainable. I believe that doing so is a moral imperative.
I can say honestly, “You’ll thank me later.”
It is a wonderfully interesting fact that positive emotions such as love and kindness are, in the clearest scientific sense, reasonable. In other words, there won’t be a conflict with reason to tell your children that you love them, or to go to a homeless shelter and help out. There will be no rationalization required! Reason and emotion living in harmony.
It’s when your emotions turn negative that we run into problems. Our brains simply weren’t evolved to deal with situations where our passions would honestly do more harm than good — we do, however, live in that world now.
“Be the change you wish to see in the world” — Ghandi
Take action against yourself. Be mindful. Train yourself to override your negative emotions, just as you train your body to handle physical stress. Then turn around and help someone else to do the same.
It starts with you (and I). But that is just the beginning.
Now go lift something heavy,