As 2011 draws to a close, it seems natural to look back on the year that was. What events defined this year and how did they shape us, what did they tell us about us, about who we are and where we are going. At a time when boundaries become less and less relevant, when technology communication threatens to surpass all borders, events take on a new global context. No longer are the days when we could hear of happenings from far away and dismiss them as irrelevant to our lives. We saw that so clearly earlier this year when a handful of events affected so many of us in so many ways. But to provide a proper retrospective, simply regurgitating what took place like an out-of-date almanac won’t do. The true gauge of the impact of what took place is surely how those events affected how we look at ourselves and how we perceive who we are. At base are we evolving from those who once lived in caves or is human nature something so strong, so innate, that no amount of knowledge will fundamentally change the way we are? Human nature is an ephemeral concept. While views may vary (a recent example being the TED conference in November in Amsterdam), there are some definitions of human nature that I think shed more light than others, and all seem to imply there are elements of good and bad, or even good and evil, within us all. While there are far greater minds than mine who are looking at this issue, I cannot help but feel inside that there must be more to being human than just the bad, the selfish, the cruel. With that in mind let’s look back on the year and find out…
The Middle East
It was reported as nothing more than a storm in a tea cup, yet it was the whisper that grew to a roar and brought the greatest change in the Middle East for 60 years. Decades of totalitarian dictatorship fell as the rumble in Egypt rippled east and west across North Africa and up into the Middle East. The people had had enough. Our fundamental human desire for freedom from oppression had finally come out and revolution was the result. While that yearning for freedom might be regarded as part of our human nature, the paradox is that the part of our nature that needs to dominate others, to be the alpha male, was being denied. Two conflicting desires, both existing and non-existing simultaneously. As we look further at 2011, this pattern becomes clearer.
Further north, Europe continued to spiral into economic crisis. On the level playing field of the European Union, the haves and have-nots still struggled. The few rotten apples threatened to spoil the whole barrel, and the situation remains dire. This one issue raises so many of the questions surrounding what it means to be human and our human nature: to fight to be better, richer, faster than the rest. But at the same time to help the weaker, those in need, the less fortunate. The conundrum of our nature is at least as complex as the finances of 27 countries (Estonia joined the EU this year, bringing the membership countries to 27). And yet some commentators argue that what seems inexplicably complex is actually remarkably simple and understandable once you can make sense of human nature from its core.
Disasters were not limited to man-made events and Mother Nature always does her best. Earthquakes in Japan, New Zealand and Turkey, and floods in Brazil, Pakistan and Thailand killed thousands and impacted us all, whether we even knew it. The electronics market felt it hard as production factories destroyed by the tsunami in Japan meant our favourite toys (some would argue necessities) evaporated overnight. Ironically it was as if the loss of lives was less important to us than the delay in getting an iPad 2, or iPhone or new camera. In the face of this selfishness though, was immense compassion for our fellow men and women who had died or survived the tragedy. It seemed that the beautiful part of our human nature shone threw as assistance, help and donations of food, welfare and funds to help rebuild rushed to those in need.
There were triumphs at what we had achieved. After 30 years of operation, NASA called it a day for the Space Shuttle program. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said “At today’s final landing of the space shuttle, we had the rare opportunity to witness history. We turned the page on a remarkable era and began the next chapter in our nation’s extraordinary story of exploration.” While he may have been referring to Mars, it’s hard not to look deeper and see a reference to the need to explore our nature, and discover more about ourselves. We can put a man on the moon, but we still don’t know who we are.
That final space shuttle launch may have been watched by thousands, but 2 billion people tuned in to see the wedding of the century as England’s Prince William married Kate. We allowed ourselves to fall in love all over again, or for the first time, as we could share in the dream. Love must be part of human nature to have that many people watching. Again, the irony, the almost hypocrisy of the problem of not being able to understand who we are, lovers or haters? How can we be in the tenth year of the war on terror and yet all long for love? The answer may be closer than we know.
For some however, the search to better understand ourselves is over, as 2011 marked the end of their journey. While we were happy to see some of them go, and devastated at the loss of others, they all had some notable views on the perplexing issue of human nature.
Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, no further introduction necessary: “Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Joe Frazier, heavy weight boxer. In possibly the greatest fight in history he was the first to down Muhammad Ali. On learning of Frazier’s death Ali said “The world has lost a great champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration. My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.” George Foreman added his own eulogy on Twitter: “Good night Joe Frazier. I love you dear friend.”
Muammar Gaddafi, who’s view on human nature were as hypocritical and paradoxical as the issue of our nature: “Man’s freedom is lacking if somebody else controls what he needs, for need may result in man’s enslavement of man.” The Green Book (1975)
Bin Laden, the subject of the greatest manhunt in history: “We love death. The US loves life. That is the difference between us two.”
Singer and addict Amy Winehouse, who, having refused to attend a clinic established by icon Betty Ford, found herself joining Mrs Ford for the ultimate rehabilitation only days after Betty passed. Well, if only you hadn’t said ‘no, no, no’ to rehab Amy…
Elizabeth Taylor, who in many ways doesn’t belong under the heading ugly, but whose conduct placed her there, said this: “The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.” And that issue of morality, or lack of it, in the human makeup seems poignant in any era.
The Final Word
But finally, I found the following quote from Major Richard “Dick” Winters, who passed away this year, the last living commander of the 101st Airborne in WWII epitomised in the HBO series Band of Brothers, best summed up human nature, some 70 years after he had committed the ultimate sin, but for the ultimate glory: “I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said ‘No… but I served in a company of heroes.'”
May 2012 produce more heroes than villains.