It’s a beautiful, sunny day. I don’t have an automatic toaster that accurately measures the seconds it takes for a slice of bread to be done just how I like it. I remembered to get the bread out of the toaster just in time!
I like it at “This is toast, but it’s furious with you” and sometimes even at “No”.
A sunny day, manually popping toast out of toaster at the right time, a shower at the perfect temperature, these are the little things that make life enjoyable, whether we notice them or not.
Our families, friends, accomplishments, and sleeping sound at night knowing you’re a good person are the big things that make life enjoyable.
But as we all know, beyond that-the people we love and the moments we cherish-it’s a nasty war of massive proportions.
Everyone knows that. Given a chance, people will intrigue for their own gains and conspire against others. They will lie, mislead, be deceitful and irresponsible, and make life harder for others.
Since kids, we’re taught that the world is out to get us, that if we don’t watch our back, we’ll be maltreated and suffer.
In most movies, from Lion King to The Titanic, the main theme is good vs. bad, people vs. people (and lions vs. lion cubs or ship vs. iceberg).
There’s always a plot, a coupe, there’s always someone selfish and aggressive conspiring to ruin all we’ve built.
We all know and believe that left to its own devices, humanity will fight and destroy itself.
“It’s what Dutch biologist Frans de Waal likes to call veneer theory: the notion that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation.”Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman
And if things get terrifying as they do during wars or famines that kill?
The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (also known as Psychology of Crowds) is an extremely popular book about how people respond to crisis. “One of the most influential works of social psychology in history.” Gustave Le Bon wrote the 130 pages book in 1896. Some, ehmm, notable readers include Hitler, Churchill, Freud, and Stalin.
Your friend who studied social sciences probably read it and quoted it frequently too.
Churchill wanted to know whether bombing Germany would ruin Germans as Le Bon suggested. He asked his friend Lindemann to investigate. Lindemann asked a team of British psychiatrists to determine what’s the impact of war on people. They did so in a British region heavily impacted by the war.
Turns out Lindemann only wanted a study that corroborated his initial idea, not declined it entirely.
When the psychiatrists shared their findings months later, in capital letters no less, NO EVIDENCE OF BREAKDOWN OF MORALE, Lindemann didn’t share the news with Churchill.
“He ignored it. Lindemann had already decided that strategic bombing was a sure bet, and mere facts were not about to change his mind.”Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman
The rest is literally history. Britain bombed Germany. More women, men, and children were killed in one single night in Dresden than in London during the entire war.
Economists also investigated 21 devastated British towns. Production had increased faster there than in cities that hadn’t been bombed.¹
You may be thinking, okay, Delfina, but we’re not war strategists. We’re not that interested in the specifics of war.
But this isn’t about what’s the most suitable way for countries to occupy, conquer, and terrorize other countries.
It’s about what we do and who we become when terrible things happen to us, our loved ones, and our countries.
Tom Postmes, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Groningen, presents this hypothetical scenario to his students every year:
“Imagine an airplane makes an emergency landing and breaks into three parts. As the cabin fills with smoke, everybody inside realises: We’ve got to get out of here. What happens?
•On Planet A, the passengers turn to their neighbours to ask if they’re okay. Those needing assistance are helped out of the plane first. People are willing to give their lives, even for perfect strangers.
•On Planet B, everyone’s left to fend for themselves. Panic breaks out. There’s lots of pushing and shoving. Children, the elderly, and people with disabilities get trampled.
Which planet do we live on?Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman
‘I would estimate about 97 per cent of people think we live on Planet B,’ says Professor Postmes. ‘The truth is, in almost every case, we live on Planet A.’
According to eyewitnesses who were there when the Titanic was sinking, so, not Di Caprio or Kate Winslet, unlike what the movie adaptation would have you believe, not everyone was panicking. People said, “there was no indication of panic or hysteria, no cries of fear, and no running to and fro.”²
Unfortunately, I have no credible sources to quote from the Lion King. Besides maybe this.
But I did read something from the 9/11 terrorist attack:
‘And people would actually say: “No, no, you first,”’ one survivor later reported. ‘I couldn’t believe it, that at this point people would actually say “No, no, please take my place.” It was uncanny.’A Paradise Built in Hell. The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit
In chaos, we don’t turn into selfish monsters ready to destroy anything and everyone that gets in our way. We turn to our fellow humans to ask if they’re okay, to offer a helping hand, to exercise our God-given/evolution-given right to be human, what the word means in all its entirety and glory.
There’s more. You may have heard of Lord of The Flies by William Golding, which sold millions of copies and was translated into more than 30 languages.
The story is about four British kids, the sole survivors of a plane crash, now on an island on the Pacific. At first, they’re all happy for this miracle adventure, but as days go by and as the book goes on, they start fighting each other. So much so, that when an officer comes ashore weeks later, three of the kids are dead. The only kid left, “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, for the darkness of man’s heart.”
William Golding won a Nobel prize because his book ‘illuminates the human condition in the world of today with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth.’
The book is often quoted about “the darkness of man’s heart,” but besides being a made-up story, after delving into the author’s life, Bregman found that the author had been very unhappy: an alcoholic prone to depression who beat his kids and claimed to “always have understood the Nazis.”
I, for one, don’t want this person representing me, but anyway.
If you’re still here, I have more for you! The author of Humankind, Bregman, who I’ve quoted extensively here, wrote about this, comparing the Nobel-winning book to modern scientific insights. Kids would probably act very differently, he concluded.
But since a story is often more powerful than “modern scientific insights,” Bregman set to find if the question “What would kids do if they found themselves on a deserted island?” had been answered in real life.
As luck would have it, he found a real-life Lord of The Flies story. I would highly recommend clicking that link to read about all the strokes of luck involved in finding the story and the people, but long story short, six kids had been shipwrecked on a deserted island in the Pacific in the 1960s.
After a year at sea, they were rescued by an Australian sea captain, Peter Warner.
Nowadays, ‘Ata, the island they landed on, is considered inhabitable. Years after the story, a Spanish adventurer found the spot and thought it would be great for expeditions. He only could it take it for 9 days.
A journalist asked him if they planned on expanding to the outcrop.
‘Never. The island is far too tough.’
Yet, the kids stayed there for a year. They’d built a food garden, tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium, and a permanent fire.
One of the kids, Mano Totau, was 15 at the time. He considers captain Peter Warner one of his closest friends.
“While the boys in the make-believe Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in the real-life Lord of the Flies tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.
Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. The squabblers would go to opposite ends of the island to cool their tempers, and, ‘After four hours or so,’ Mano later remembered, ‘we’d bring them back together. Then we’d say “Okay, now apologise.” That’s how we stayed friends.”Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman
This is human nature. This is humanity’s best kept secret, that under duress, we won’t kill each other, metaphorically and literally, but we’ll join forces. In wars, our morale won’t suffer, but we’ll get stronger. In plane crashes, in terrorist attacks, we won’t run for cover and ruin anything in our way, au contraire, we’ll help each other to get out safe, even if that means risking our own lives. We’re good fucking people, despite what Freud, Hitler, Lindemann, or Golding would have us believe.
“To stand up for human goodness means weathering a storm of ridicule. You’ll be called naive. Obtuse. Any weakness in your reasoning will be mercilessly exposed. Basically, it’s easier to be a cynic.
The pessimistic professor who preaches the doctrine of human depravity can predict anything he wants, for if his prophecies don’t come true now, just wait: failure could always be just around the corner. Or else, his voice of reason has prevented the worst. The prophets of doom sound oh so profound, whatever they spout.
The reasons for hope, by contrast, are always provisional. Nothing has gone wrong–yet. You haven’t been cheated–yet. An idealist can be right her whole life and still be dismissed as naive.”Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman
I’ve always considered myself an altruist that helps out, but I wasn’t sure people would do the same for me if need be.
Yet, I’ve seen it time and time again, people who decided to help out other people during the petition for the creation of a public registry of sexual offenders, rapists, and pedophiles, sacrificing their time and mental energy to help others; I’ve seen it with people I don’t know that well that try to help me out professionally even though “there’s no reason for them to do so,” I’ve seen it with people who celebrate my creativity and support it openly even though there’s no reason for them to do so.
We all live our lives as though veneer theory (remember? The notion that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation) is correct.
But as I’ve explained, it’s not.
Besides the little things (my perfect toast) and the big things that make life worth living (my people, my mission) tonight and every night, I’ll sleep a little better knowing others aren’t out to get to me. Quite the opposite, as stories, modern scientific insights, and my loud gut prove, just like I’ll be there for them, they’ll be there for me.
This article is heavily influenced by the book I’m reading, Humankind: A Hopeful History. A special thanks to the author Rutger Bregman!
¹ According to Bregman, the British report was released 50 years later. Sebastian Cox (ed.), British Bombing Survey Unit, The Strategic Air Way Against Germany, 1939-1945. The Official Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit (London, 1998).
² Jack Winocour, The Story of the Titanic As Told by Its Survivors, p. 33.