So I don’t live in the nicest town in New Jersey. In fact, Trenton has seen its fair share of corruption and criminal activity and to top it all off, last night was one of the spookiest nights of the new year. The Northeast is experiencing a Nor’easter and it’s been rainy, windy, cold, and unpleasant for the last 48 hours. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised to have been awaken by a rapping on my back door at 3:00 am in the morning, except for the fact that no one in their right mind comes knocking at that hour. A gentle rapping signaling “Please let me in” increased in crescendo to a full blown pounding and rattling with intermittent bursts of shoving on our securely locked back door. Who in god’s name could it be at this hour? A gentleman dressed in black that’s who, who also declared to our neighbors in a narcissistic rage, “She said she LOVED me and now she won’t open the door for me!” and also declared “Mom I’m at the back door! Let me in! I’m at the wrong house!?” Despite this last declaration he still continued to shove the door open. Why is it when you are waiting for the police to arrive at your most desperate hour every moment seems like an eternity? By the time the police did arrive, which wasn’t too long afterward, the mysterious man in black had vanished and further searching yielded no results.
With my interest in human aggression this night might be considered serendipitous, however, the completely frightening, helpless terror one feels when one is confronted on the side of the unexpected and unknown is indescribable. Human aggression has demonstrated that the way people behave is a reflection of what has happened to them, not a reflection of their innate drives. Peoples forced into a consignment they are not prepared to deal with can have catastrophic results. Individuals who were once generous, compassionate, and honest, once deprived of their traditional way of life, the only life they knew how to live, can turn indifferent and even hostile to others and to outsiders. Environmental changes can force individuals and people to scramble for themselves in order to survive.
When whole groups are forced into a situation they can not handle, the response has been to split wide open, to neglect their children, to abandon their earlier habits of compassion and cooperation. And as a result they will soon be extinct. Indifference is not conducive to human survival. It’s very likely that this has happened before in our human history when groups were not able to handle their misfortunes together, perhaps they died separately and the group vanished. If that has happened, and there is no reason to suppose it has not, then those of us on earth at this moment are the descendants of people who had first of all a certain amount of good luck in the condition of their lives: not too much famine, not too much natural catastrophe, not too much sudden climate change, and at least so far not irremediably too stupid and blind a government. And we are also the descendants of those people who, given that certain amount of luck, helped each other through whatever did come to them.
There could be no claim made that humans beings are innately generous and helpful, any more than they are innately hostile and violent. There are within all of us potentialities to be helpful, just as there are within us potentialities to be violent. But the point is that cooperative drives have helped play a vastly more important role, during the five million or so years of evolution from ape to human being, than have our potentialities for violence. Let’s pray we’re all a little smarter than we look.