We humans are geniuses. But we’ve forgotten. We allow ourselves to turn away and hide from it.
In fact, many of us have been instructed from our childhood to do so. We’ve been instructed to think poorly of ourselves. We’ve been told we are sinners, sullied from the beginning, destined to spend our lives repenting for our degraded bodies and minds. Or we believe that most humans are idiots, clinging to silly superstitions and rituals, turning their backs to the obvious perfection of science. Or we believe ourselves wicked for destroying the Earth and for allowing so many of us to live under stark poverty and oppression while so many of us prosper.
No matter what worldview you hold, there appears to be ample justifications for believing humanity is stupid, incompetent, or even wicked.
The world’s religions are perhaps the greatest culprits in spreading this belief. Christian churches, for example, quite often teach that people are dirty and broken, born into sin. They intentionally espouse a value system under which people should feel ashamed of themselves – for receiving pleasure from sex, for questioning authority, for wanting things themselves. The Bible in Genesis 8:21 says, for example: “The Lord smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”
Religion is not inherently evil, bad, or destructive. In fact, there are many religions that don’t seek to impart this belief system at all. There are many others that are in the process of reforming themselves to advance a more positive, life-affirming outlook on life. Religion has done many things that have moved humanity toward the best version of itself. And religion provides motivation and inspiration to some of the world’s most vital and effective change agents.
But if anything in this world is evil, it’s the belief that humans are inherently sinful, impure, and broken, that we should be ashamed of ourselves. There are few, if any, messages more destructive to the human spirit, more of an impediment to change and progress.
As Brene Brown says: “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” Shame allows us to believe that change is impossible, that the universe would be better off without us, that we ought not even try to be our best selves or create the world that we want for ourselves. Shames saps us of our power and vitality. It makes us less able to act in noble and generative ways.
And yet, while more of us are beginning to see clearly and combat the corrosive role of shame in our individual lives, we continue holding on to shame about our species of humans.
Even as our global society secularizes, this toxic belief about humanity persists like a virus. We seem to be willing to loosen ourselves from the idea that God is judging us from above. But the belief that we are worthy of being harshly judged and condemned remains. We hate ourselves for our over-consumption. We hate ourselves for our focus on material items. We hate ourselves for not doing enough for the poor and downtrodden and for perpetuating systems of oppression. We hate ourselves for what we are doing to Mother Earth. We hate ourselves for having not yet created a perfect, harmonious society.
This is a trick we play on ourselves. Believing humanity is wicked is simply another way of believing we as individuals are wicked. It’s another way that shame takes root in our hearts. We cannot have a positive self image of ourselves as individuals, if we the species to which we belong is itself inherently broken.
Overconsumption, greed, environmental degradation, and turning a blind eye to the poor are indeed all deeply problematic aspects of our behavior as humans. They are critical barriers to us building the world that we want and need. It is both a moral and practical imperative to come to terms with and transcend these destructive behaviors.
But there is a difference between acknowledging and becoming accountable for our damaging and unconscious behaviors and being ashamed of ourselves. We can feel guilt (i.e., I did something bad or wrong that I can and should change) without feeling shame (i.e., I am bad, wrong, or broken and am not able to change it).
And we must. Because shame is change’s kryptonite. Shame shut downs possibility and agency. Shame breeds despair, cynicism, and inaction.
Yes, shame often feels helpful or even necessary to change. How can we really show our compassion and empathy to the downtrodden unless we inflict terrible judgment on ourselves and make ourselves culpable? How can we emphasize and prioritize the need for urgent change unless we decry the status quo in the most stark and definitive terms? How can I feel proud of my species when there is such a gap between what we are capable of and how we actually behave?
But for that I offer the same advice we might all offer someone who has committed some unspeakable misdeed: You can sit here and wallow in shame and inaction, hoping that feeling bad about yourself long and hard enough will eventually right your wrong. Or you can truly process your misdeeds, acknowledge and address the reasons for that behavior, and set out to be the new, best version of you possible. This is the only practical and positive way forward.
If we truly want humanity to change, the first and most crucial step is simply to stop feeling ashamed of ourselves to remember that we are beautiful, remarkable, and eminently capable of profound and lasting change.