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Looking Inward: How to stay sane in brutalising times

Human beings need recognition. The essence of dehumanisation is not to see someone, to render them inconsequential and invisible

Looking Inward: How to stay sane in brutalising times

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We’re living in a brutalizing time: Scenes of mass savagery pervade the media. We have become vicious toward one another amid our disagreements. Everywhere I go, people are coping with an avalanche of negative emotions: shock, pain, contempt, anger, anxiety, fear. The first thing to say is that we are the lucky ones. We’re not crouching in a cellar waiting for the next bomb to drop. We’re not currently the targets of terrorists who massacre families in their homes. We should still start every day with gratitude for the blessings we enjoy.

But we’re faced with a subtler set of challenges. How do you stay mentally healthy and spiritually whole in brutalising times? How do you prevent yourself from becoming embittered, hate-filled, calloused over, suspicious and desensitised? Ancient wisdom has a formula to help us, which you might call skepticism of the head and audacity of the heart. The ancient Greeks knew about violent times. They lived with frequent wars between city-states, with massacres and mass rape. In response, they adopted a tragic sensibility. This sensibility begins with the awareness that the crust of civilization is thin. Breakdowns into barbarism are the historic norm. Don’t fool yourself into believing that you’re living in some modern age, too enlightened for hatred to take over.

In these circumstances, everybody has a choice. You can try to avoid thinking about the dark realities of life and naively wish that bad things won’t happen. Or you can confront these realities and develop a tragic mentality to help you thrive among them. As Ralph Waldo Emerson would write centuries later, “Great men, great nations have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it.” And that goes for great women, too.

This tragic sensibility prepares you for the rigours of life in concrete ways. First, it teaches a sense of humility. The tragedies that populated Greek stages sent the message that our accomplishments were tenuous. They remind us that it’s easy to become proud and conceited in moments of peace. We begin to exaggerate our ability to control our own destinies. We begin to assume that the so-called justice of our cause guarantees our success. Humility is not thinking lowly of yourself; it’s an accurate perception of yourself. It is the ability to cast aside illusions and vanities and see life as it really is.

Second, the tragic sensibility nurtures a prudent approach to life. It encourages people to focus on the downsides of their actions and work to head them off. As Hal Brands and Charles Edel write in “The Lessons of Tragedy,” Greek tragedies were part of a wide culture that forced the Greeks to confront their own “frailty and fallibility.” By “shocking, unsettling and disturbing the audience, the tragedies also forced discussions of what was needed to circumvent such a fate.” In this way, people are taught resilience and anti-fragility — to be prepared for the pain that will inevitably come.

Third, this tragic mentality encourages caution. As Thucydides would argue, in politics, the lows are lower than the highs are high. The price we pay for our errors is higher than the benefits we gain from our successes. So be careful of rushing headlong into maximalist action, convinced of your own righteousness. Be incremental and patient and steady. This is advice I wish the Israelis would heed as they wage war on Hamas. This is advice that Matt Gaetz and the burn-it-all-down caucus among the House Republicans will never understand.

Fourth, the tragic mentality teaches people to be suspicious of their own rage. “Rage” is in the first line of “The Iliad.” We immediately see Agamemnon (whom we detest) and Achilles (whom we admire) behaving stupidly because they are filled with anger. The lesson is that rage might feel luxurious because it makes you convinced of your own rightness, but ultimately, it blinds you and turns you into a hate-filled monster. This is advice I wish the hard left would heed, the people who are so consumed by their self-righteous fury that they become cruel — desensitised to the suffering of Israelis, because Israelis are the bad guys in their simple ideological fables.

Over time, I’d add, rage hardens and corrodes the mind of its bearer. It hardens into the sort of cold, amoral, nihilistic attitude that we see in Donald Trump and in many others who inhabit what the political sociologist Larry Diamond has called the “authoritarian zeitgeist.” This attitude says: The enemy is out to destroy us. The ends justify the means. Savagery is necessary. The only thing we worship is power.

Fifth, tragedies thrust the harsh realities of individual suffering in our faces, and in them we find our common humanity. I’ve always been amazed by Aeschylus’s play “The Persians.” It was performed only eight years after the major battle that would eventually secure Athenian victory over the Persians, and it was written by a man who fought in that battle. And yet it is written from the Persian vantage point and elicits sympathy for the Persians, in all their hubris and suffering. It teaches us to be empathetic to all those who suffer, not just those on our own side.

From this sort of work, we learn to have a contempt for sadism, for anything that dehumanises, and to have compassion for the everyday people who pay the price for the designs of proud and evil men. That compassion is the noble flame that keeps humanity alive, even in times of war and barbarism. That compassion recognises the infinite dignity of each human soul.

Brooks is an Opinion Columnist with NYT©2023

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