Human life is extraordinarily difficult, for what is good for us is so deeply hidden. With the exception of Homo sapiens, instinct determines what is good for an animal and how to achieve it. A rhinoceros, for example, “knows” by nature what to eat, what to flee from, how to live in a herd, and when to breed. Nature even regulates a rhino’s emotions to suit it needs. An adult male rhino, in mating season, marks out territory with its urine. A male rhino occupies the center of its territory and aggressively chases away any male rhino that challenges it; however, a male rhino must leave its territory for water, and then out of necessity it crosses the territories of other adult males. When a rhino intrudes into another rhino’s territory for water, it becomes submissive. The farther a rhino strays from the center of its territory the more submissive it becomes. Thus, instinct perfectly adjusts anger and fear for the rhino. Similarly, maternal emotions in the female rhino are triggered or inhibited by instincts exactly tailored to the animal’s needs and way of life.
Instinct directs each higher animal to have the right emotion at the right time, to the right degree, and for the right purpose. Fear forces a rabbit to flee from a coyote, not a ground squirrel; anger compels a moose to defend itself from an attacking wolf; desire causes bears to mate in late spring, so their cubs will be born in the winter den.
If only human life were so simple. We must discover our deepest nature — the capacity to be connected to all that is — and the principle of happiness written on our soul — devote your life to something beyond yourself that is free of hate, so your love can be pure. To further complicate life for us, unlike rhinoceri and all the other animals, we humans have two ways of appraising what is good for us — the mind and the emotions — and neither appraisal is determined by nature; even worse, the mind and the emotions often give opposite appraisals of what is good for us. I know I should lose weight, but I like crusty French bread, Camembert cheese, and wine; to further my career I should volunteer to give the next public presentation at work, but the thought of speaking in front of a group terrifies me; I should join a gym or a reading group to make new friends, but lack hope the effort will pay off.
In the course of our lives, each one of us acquires intellectual, emotional, social, and physical habits. While instinct locks an animal into one way of life, a life founded on habit allows the same person to eat with a fork and knife, write a letter, and play the violin. Since nature does not prescribe a fixed way of life for us, we have extraordinary freedom. We can become hunters like the lions, carpenters like the beavers, or musicians like the birds. Every animal activity we raise to a new level. Yet, because of our freedom and undetermined nature, we become confused and acquire faulty intellectual and emotional habits that are frequently at cross-purposes.
Are there any emotional habits that everyone should strive to acquire or attempt to avoid? At first, the answer seems “no,” since the human person is so unfinished by nature, and every culture constructs a different “I.” But one universal, ordering principle for human life does exist: every person has the capacity to be connected to all that is. Thus, any habit that disconnects a person from things or from other people should be avoided. For instance, a person quick to anger will not only anger those around him or her, but will be unable to judge irksome situations accurately. A short-tempered person often gets angry with the wrong people under the wrong circumstances and afterwards may feel regret.
Just as the short-tempered person is avoided by others, so too is the grouch. No one desires to be around a person enveloped in gloom and doom, or to associate with a man or woman who sees only shadows and what is wrong with others. The constant complainer refuses to put up with anything, no matter how trivial, and as a result is quarrelsome.
If a person cannot share, he or she is cut off from others; so, clearly, stinginess and greediness are to be avoided. Stealing and cheating are worse, for the thief and the cheat cannot disclose their activities for all to see, and consequently have cut themselves off from humanity. Similarly, the known liar will not be listened to by others. The liar deprives himself or herself of the full use of language and reason, the two faculties that differentiate human beings from the animals.
Thus, short-temperedness, quarrelsomeness, stinginess, greediness, and deceitfulness cut us off from others. On the other hand, friendliness, a cheerful disposition, generosity, and truthfulness connect us to others.
If truthfulness is extended beyond truth-telling to include the capacity to see things exactly as they are, freed from subjective distortions, then, truthfulness also means to see oneself exactly for what one is, neither more nor less. Such self-awareness is humility. Objective sight reveals that underneath the faults and weaknesses of one’s neighbor lies suffering and a profound unknown. Compassion flows from seeing that one’s neighbor is essentially no different from oneself.
Ignorance, greed, and anger, what Buddha called the three poisons, are the obstacles that stand in the way of each person becoming connected to all that is. If we wish to become who we truly are by nature, we must strive to be truthful, selfless, and compassionate.
If we become who we truly are by nature — if we become like an organism produced by nature with all the appropriate habits to attain our natural end — we become a human-made object with a far greater unity than any culturally-constructed self and more easily see that the ultimate goal of our life transcends nature.