The Existentialists say that existence comes before essence, that we have the freedom to create who we are through our actions. They also note how our actions define not just ourselves, but anyone we interact with. The basis of our existence is as such to be as free as possible while allowing others that very same thing. But freedom is ever under siege. It is not something we are guaranteed, but something we must choose. There are people who do not wish to let freedom, empathy, or love prevail. They might do this for security or out of ignorance, but history has shown that just as we have to power to be free, we also have the power to take it away. Here is how.
It starts with a cheer, clapping, celebration. Perhaps some dissent here or there, but it’s dismissed as radical, swept aside, overlooked. That’s how it starts; with unbridled support.
It progresses from there in steps, each one adding to the next until the forward momentum that has built up is unstoppable. The first step is distrust. Distrust of what is right and what is wrong. The words we speak, the news we hear, everything receives a skeptical eye and an unwavering feeling of discomfort. In this push away from truths, we find new ones based upon opinions, not fact. Perhaps we claim some people are born greater than others based on superficial differences, or ignore science as false and doctors as liars on anecdotal evidence at best. Life becomes one big game of “us” versus “them.” We try to bring white and black, but only muddy the water more as people are torn between sides. No middle ground is offered, there is only right and wrong, you or me.
In the middle ages, each country distrusted their neighbors and made excuses for why they and their peoples were better. They made up rules for themselves, split the divide even greater and pushed themselves into utter distrust. In this way France and England plunged their countries into a war that spanned nearly a century. When distrust arises, sides form in a natural way. The sides form and push away from one another, never coming together like trying to join the positive end of two magnets. This loss of connection destroys the middle ground, and empathy goes as well. For if there is no place to meet your opponent with respect and decency, then empathy cannot survive. Only through learning and listening to others can it survive, and if these do not exist, then neither can empathy.
And as was true of the middle ages, our neighbors now become our enemies. We isolate ourselves to our islands and build up our defenses, surround ourselves with walls of words that affirm our own opinions. Swords are drawn too quick and war declared over hurt feelings or such made up ideas as honor. We raise the drawbridges and live in our own minds. And when there is such separation between people, so little space to agree or understand, paranoia develops. Absorbed so much in our own ways and beliefs, we begin to fear the ways of others. And in this fear lies our next step in the death of love.
Fear must follow distrust, they work together, hand in hand. If we have steeped long enough in our distrust, fear always sets in. There is no way around it. It is a poison we all willingly drink once our distrust has left us dazed, confused, and alone. Like any good poison, fear burns its way straight to the heart where it goes about destroying anything left living there. Any empathy that survived from the distrust is eradicated, then compassion and soon love. Anything that could bridge the gap between us and who we distrust is lost. And once this is done, fear becomes our only thought. We see something that makes us uncomfortable and instead of asking questions, we are suspicious of it and attack it as offensive. People’s lives and safety come under fire as we allow fear to lead us into blind rage at what we do not grasp. We become anxious that problems surround us, worry that if we do not fix them our way of life will end, and expect that we are living in danger. This is how love dies.
Think back to Joseph McCarthy who distrusted his fellow citizens as communists. He garnered support, built a camp, and then a castle in which they all hid. But hiding could not fix the perceived problems, they feared. Those people would destroy their way of life, they feared. We must do something or our castle will fall, they feared. This is exactly how it looks, a group of people, molding their worries together until they become a monster, a juggernaut made of fear. And when they can no longer contain the juggernaut is when fear has won. Free choice cannot stand alone against what is next.
Subservience follows, a step where we give blind trust to those who display power. A belief that what they do and say is right, even if there is no proof. What we are willing to believe once fear has set in can be extraordinary, and what we are willing to allow is staggering. In times of war, this subservience can often be recognized as people already distrust and fear their enemies so they are willing to give way to those seen as powerful and strong to lead. Think to World War I, where countries allowed themselves to be led blindly into conflict over abstract boundaries and alliances that had been made from centuries of distrust. Citizens willingly signed on and marched off to war out of a belief that their best interests were in mind in the war, that fighting those they feared would allow them and their countries to become stronger. Or think of the internment camps filled with American-Japanese citizens following Pearl Harbor. If it were not for the fact that United States citizens allowed such power to be wielded against their fellow Americans, things could have looked much different. But they distrusted the Japanese, and they feared them as well, so when a solution was offered, it was taken willingly.
Allowing all these steps to occur is not something relegated to the past however. We might be able to look back in history and point fingers at people who led these sort of twists, might be able to say that this would not happen now, but this is to miss an essential part of human nature. All of us, in some way, hold hidden away a part that is able to be contingent in this matter. What this means is that in all of us is an empathetic soul and a destructive one. None of us are perfect in this way. But by claiming we are better than our ancestors, that these things will never happen again means that we necessarily miss the point of being human. We are all different, but we are all the same. If we ignore our own being, we ignore our own possibilities. Empathy and hatred exist in all of us and it is too easy to turn a blind eye to them both, to lull ourselves into complacency and believe we are still doing good.
What we must keep in mind instead is that who we are – flawed in nature – is something to be embraced and accepted. In recognizing these essential parts of our being, not only do we gather the fact that we are not perfect, but also that we are human, and we are just like all other humans. We discover in our own issues and our own faults true empathy. By accepting our problems and looking at the roots of our distrusts, we do not allow sides to form, for we understand the distrust is falsely placed. In accepting our fears as irrational, we are able to more closely look at what has caused them, and grasp what others fear. We are able to extend a bridge over the gap of irrationality and meet in the middle to overcome the absurd. And if we can find in us the power to love, to live in the warmth of others and lend our own, we may never come to a point where people are locked away in cages, where we trust blindly those who wish to harm, where we create divides in the world over superficial issues.
So do not allow distrust to arise. When the poison of fear is fed to you, do not swallow it, but spit it out and use your mouth to speak, to open a dialogue, to offer empathy, and to extend love to anyone who will accept it.