Existentialism tells us that everything we do and say not only defines who we are, but contributes to what it means to be human. As human beings, our actions reflect upon, and therefore influence, everyone.
The definition of humanity includes a wide variety of contradictions, disparate beliefs, an almost contagious mediocrity, and dangerous extremism. Our history includes the brilliance of enlightened philosophers, and genocidal tyrants. Government protected freedom, along with slavery. Inspiring declarations of equality, continually stained by vestiges of discrimination. Civilized laws twisted by corruption. Magnificent works of art and literature, competing with ignorance and hate propaganda. A reverence for human nature, continually spit upon by war, terrorism and torture.
Most of us recognize the nobler aspects of humanity, even as we disregard them at the behest of less honorable agendas. We are adept at ignoring our mistakes, denying them when possible, or deflecting criticism by blaming someone else. When all else fails, we revise history to justify our errors.
We do this despite those dignified aspects of human nature that we long ago enshrined to inspire us all. Truth. Freedom. Respect for just laws. Personal integrity. Democracy. Fair play. Civil rights. The humane advance of technology.
Considering our everyday priorities, however, can we say that these ideals actually define us?
To a certain extent they do. Even when we hold them in reserve, their inspirations are available. During times of great stress or danger, however, their guiding principles often give way to expediency.
The recent report on CIA torture provides an example. After 9-11, those of us in the United States were suddenly confronted with vulnerabilities for which we were unprepared. In a single morning, our world vision had changed-our illusions shattered. We felt panic, confusion, threatened by super-villains. They had to be "super" to do what they did.
We learned that day, but quickly forgot, that hubris is a shocking dream to wake up from.
This was not supposed to happen. We believed that if there is any God in heaven or justice in life, our ideals should have tipped the scales to protect us.
But where are these ideals in our everyday lives? Enshrined in monuments and history books? Things of the past belong to the past. They only exist when we bring them back to life now.
Mistakes are inevitable when we prop up our illusions at the expense of our ideals. The outrage of 9-11 called for a swift and violent response, without regard for consequences. We rose to the occasion confident in our justification.
Our leadership assured us that Americans are not a people who torture. And yet we did. It was no big secret. Committing torture was now added to the definition of what it means to be American. Like so many others, we affirmed that a state sponsored disregard for life was part of what it means to be human. Still disconnected from the mandates of reason and conscience, we then invaded Iraq, thinking that a show of power would settle all the problems of the Middle East. We killed over 200,000 people, while assuring ourselves, beyond all reason, that their families and friends would welcome us as liberators.
Disregarding commonsense, and our own moral values, we are still living with the consequences of our mistakes.
Does it have to be this way?
Existentialism tells us that everything we do and say defines who we are. This is not just a statement of fact. It is the means on how to change things for the better.
If we purposely and consistently engage our highest ideals, we add them to what it means to be human. Inspiring others to do the same, will spread across the world like ripples on a pond.
No war, no scientific breakthrough, no political leader or wishful thinking, is going to do that for us.
We have to do it ourselves.
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