Human nature

Although religion tells us that none is worthy of admiration, save God, in another way human beings are the life of the world. I offer a brief metaphor to explain this, based on an earlier poem, to give an example of the beauty in our beauty:

Consider a torch, how humble it is. It is a mere stick of wood, existing only to be burnt. We even cover it over with black pitch! In respect to beauty, it is nothing.

However, the world is over-shadowed with darkness. A lost people is wandering in a Palace of infinite treasures, which they fail to perceive. “Hearts have they, with which they understand not, and eyes have they with which they see not!” This palace is filled with masterworks of such beauty, it would shake the soul to its foundation! But that beauty lies hidden. There is no light to see it by.

In such a place, a torch is much more than a stick of wood. Ignited by heat, and kindled to flame, its light can reveal those beauties to the eye. Still, it is not the torch that matters, but the light – and dearly so. Without it, the masterworks of Creation would lie unseen and unappreciated. Indeed, that glory is everywhere, all around us at every moment. We simply lack illumination.

We may be humble, pitiful, and poor, but we reveal God’s attributes in this world, much like a mirror reflecting light into the darkness. I praise people for what I see in them. I know that what touches my eyes is God’s beauty; but mortal eyes require an earthly form to see it in. So I honor those places, and keep them close to my heart, because they show me glimpses of the Divine.

In like manner, a flower does little more than capture the light of the sun: holding some of it back, reflecting the rest. From this, we see color, and from that, tremendous beauty. Should a flower wilt because it doesn’t shine on its own? Because the light we see comes from the Sun and not itself?

As children of the infinite, we exist as the sum of all human possibilities, reflecting in them the attributes of heaven. For it is remarkable that being so cruel, we can show tenderness; that being so tender, we remain cruel; that being nothing in a scheme of galaxies and angels, yet we manifest the Divine. #title Human nature #date 12/05/2004

There are several things that people do simply because they are people. It is not by intention, but done unconsciously, for no other reason than human nature. I have been pondering this while I attend as a security guard at Bahá’í conferences. There are several traits I’ve noticed, but one in particular serves well for an example:

Imagine a group of people standing outside of a room where prayers are being said. This is a common situation, where silence is needed, and very difficult to maintain. It tests the patience of anyone whose job it is to keep that silence.

When people meet friends after a long time, they will get excited and forget their surroundings, no matter how much they understand that need for quiet. Forgetting where they are, they will talk. A little talking leads to more talking. If other nearby are also talking, the volume of the group gradually rises, until things get quite loud.

So it is that even when a conscientious group of people are observing silence outside a prayer meeting, if some of them should happen to meet friends, the whole of them will soon become rather noisy. The group itself is unaware of this happening, so lost are they in meeting their friends. Even if constantly asked for silence, they are almost certain to become loud again.

It is easy to see why this frustrates those in charge of keeping silence. The group seems intractable, willfully disobeying the constant requests to stop talking. It can start a cycle of escalating reprimand, with growing resentment from the group, until the people actually take pleasure in frustrating the coordinator’s need for silence.

In a Bahá’í gathering, there is fortunately the appeal to Bahá’u’lláh, Who removes the focus from the irate facilitator, and the group is then willing to quiet down despite any upset. But surely there must be better ways of managing these situations, without tempers needing to flare up at all.

Thinking on this for a long time, I came to realize that there is no problem here to be solved. It is simply a case of human nature: trying to fight against it is what causes the trouble. So what can one do?

As a security person in charge of keeping people silent, I’ve found that people basically have two drives: their nature and their will. Their nature is the default response to any situation – such as talking when friends walk by – and their will is the option to choose differently. Nature and will are typically at odds. Otherwise, we would always respond solely according to our whim. The battle between nature and will is something that requires much energy and patience.1

The first step in dealing with people is to know that we all face this struggle. No one is free from it. It happens every time we’re faced with a choice: will we follow our inclination, or do what we know is right?

Since everyone is engaged in this contest, they should be respected for it. Always know that people are waging this inner war, and that they spend tremendous energy on it. How does this help with managing people? Rather than fighting their nature, you can enlist the support of their will, and they will fight on your behalf.

In the case of needing silence, I find that in most cases a person does not need to be told to be quiet – they already know this – but simply made aware that they are making noise. Once they become aware of what their nature is doing, they seek to overcome it. If instead one tries to fight their nature, it only disrespects the individual, and provokes other responses from their nature, such as fighting back.

Thus an adult can often be corrected in their behavior simply by looking at them long enough. If they see you seeing them, they will look at themselves and identify the problem. If your eyes show that you respect and encourage their ability to resolve the matter, they will be only too happy to do so.

In all cases, avoid conflict between your will and their nature. This runs the danger of sub-ordinating their will, and then there is no help from them at all. They may become truculent, pugilant, even downright nasty. At that point, some kind of force is usually needed, or the intervention of a third party whose words might can summon the person’s will to the fore again.

Unfortunately, this whole mechanism is very subtle and hard to see. If a facilitator gets angry at an attendee, he is likely to provoke their worst side, and then feel entirely justified in his anger. He never sees that there is a better way of working with the person who now feels like an enemy.

Respecting the battle people fight within means recognizing that at heart, they want to do the right thing. They want what you want – if your request is fair. If one can only tap into this willingness, and empower it, the person is often willing to do whatever is asked as if it were their own desire.

I have tried this approach with thousands of people, of all ages, friends and strangers, the kind and the irritable. It works best with children – strange as that may seem – who are naturally eager to please if you believe in their willingness to do so.

The greatest mistake is to assume that people want to disobey. It may be true that it is natural for people to disobey, but wrong to assume they wish to. Their will is often quite opposite to their nature. At heart, I think people want to be kind, sharing, and helpful, even if their nature seeks otherwise.

If no one believes in the goodness of a person’s will, they can eventually give up on the battle within, and relax entirely into the habits of their nature. Educating people is not only about teaching them what is right, but believing in their willingness to make that choice – no matter how many times their nature betrays them. After all, if our nature were already perfect, we would not need education.

In essence, this means treating people as if you expect them to want to help you. If your request is fair, my experience is that this is almost always the case. Even if people’s nature prompts them to rebel, summon again the assistance of their will by believing in it. It is amazing what people will do if you show a little faith in them.

The last part to managing people is not to make things hard on their nature. Don’t set them up for failure. For example, choosing a conference venue where it is easy for people to congregate outside a prayer room; because talking is exactly what they’re going to do, no matter how many times you ask them not to. By helping people to help themselves, it can be quite easy to handle very large groups of people, and even have them enjoy you doing so.

  1. Where that energy comes from depends on whether one is motivated by love of another, or hatred for the self’s present condition.↩︎