Pain

Have you ever suffered extreme levels of emotional pain? Have you ever sat in your room, staring at the wall, wondering how to endure the next hours or days in the state of mind that you are in?

I am not speaking of ordinary frustration or sadness. What I am talking about is mental pain that is so severe that it feels like there is a knife sticking in your stomach, or like your head is under pressure, about to explode. The pain is so excruciating that it seems impossible to live with it for the next hours/days/weeks, yet it is impossible to run from it, because it is in your head. It fills you with hopelessness and desperation, because whatever you do, you cannot escape it. It is like being trapped, alone on an infinite plane: you can run indefinitely into one direction, without ever being able to meet someone or to leave the plane. You may encounter this pain if you get severely depressed, if someone important in your life (girlfriend/boyfriend, wife/husband, parents, close friends) betrays you, if someone abuses you physically or verbally, if you encounter childhood trauma, or if your worldview and life philosophy collapse under a traumatic experience.

The problem is that those who suffer such extreme levels of emotional pain often find themselves alone. Others may tell them to “pull themselves together” or that “it’s not so bad” or they may deny their experiences, labelling them as neurotic or overly sensitive or crazy or hysterical and self-centered. Essentially, they make the sufferer responsible for his suffering. In addition to his suffering, the sufferer now also has to defend himself, he may struggle with self-doubt and he may blame himself. The fact is that often, people who experience such pain are in touch with something that others prefer to repress. Empathizing with someone who is suffering means that one must be willing to suffer with them, one must be willing to be with their pain. Many turn away because the suffering of the sufferer overwhelms them: they avoid eye contact and evade. 

Psychology teaches that in order to help someone who is suffering, you have to be a “container” for his pain. When someone is overwhelmed by pain, it means that the pain is so severe that he cannot hold it, look at it, and work it through. In order to make it possible to deal with the pain, a psychotherapist provides a safe environment in which the pain can be held and examined. Essentially, the patient explains his feelings to the psychotherapist, who can hold the pain in a safe environment, “contain” it, such that they both can safely examine it, without being overwhelmed by it. In this way, the patient can handle the pain and work it through. The precondition is that the person who helps the sufferer must be able to endure the pain – the helper must be a larger “container” than the sufferer, otherwise the helper will also be overwhelmed.

I often find that those who have worked through emotional pain of this sort have acquired wisdom. They are softer, calmer, and more sensitive. They have become larger containers themselves, which allows them to recognize suffering and provide help.

If you are suffering, and you are alone and nobody listens to you or if people deny your experience, remember that there are many millions of people in the world who share your fate. Try to find people who can help you – do not be afraid to talk to a mental health professional. There is much unnecessary suffering because people hesitate to seek help. Remember that there will be happier times, and that you can grow from the experience.

David Foster Wallace on Learning How To Think

In the commencement speech This is Water, David Foster Wallace speaks about the goal of education. He reminds the audience that this goal should be developing the ability to think, rather than accumulating factual knowledge. The ability to think, according to Wallace, is the awareness that allows you to consciously decide what you think about and how you think about it. Without this awareness, you are swayed back and forth by the impulses and insecurities of your mind, which leaves you in a state of slavery.

He begins his speech with a metaphorical story. Two fish swim along, an old fish crosses their path and asks them “How’s the water?”. The two fish keep swimming, and after a while one of them asks the other: “What the hell is water?”. The meaning of the story is that the most basic and fundamental truths and the limitations of our thinking are invisible to us. They are so close to our eye that they are impossible to see.

Each of us lives in his/her own universe. The world we live in is shaped by the things we pay attention to, and the meaning we assign to these things. This is in turn determined by our personality, which is shaped by genetics and childhood experience. The problem is that it is extremely difficult to step out of this perspective. We are caught in it.

Wallace discusses the saying “the mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master”. If we are not careful, we may find ourselves locked in a obsessive struggle to fulfill illusional objectives of our neurotic minds. The most widespread slavery of mind I know of is the struggle for success – I have spent many years in it. We think that we need to be beautiful, healthy, successful, intelligent, witty and popular to feel valuable (obviously we also need a partner with the same qualities). As long as we are able to conform to these ideals to a degree that allows us to feel ok, we can hold on to this mindset. But what happens if we can’t? Clearly, this thinking leaves no space for accepting mental illness, loss and failure. What happens if we end up alone, sick, and scathed by life? What happens if we fail at our jobs or in our education? We feel like losers, we get depressed and suffer, because there is a conflict between our mindset and our life experience.

If we persevere in this struggle, we may arrive at a new perspective, after a period of depression. This new perspective is one in which the value of a human being does not depend on success. And then we realize that we have been enslaved all along, enslaved by our conviction that the value of human beings is conditional, enslaved by the belief that we are only deserving of attention and love if we are successful. We were constantly trying to convince ourselves that we were deserving of love.

And then we experience the wonder of personal growth. We feel how our mind is larger, our perspective better. Problems that seemed to be unsurmountable just vanish. It is not that our live has changed fundamentally – only our perspective has changed. We may still struggle with the same situation, but somehow it is okay. There is also more space for others – before, we were constantly trying to maintain our self-esteem, our gaze was firmly focused upon ourselves. Now that we are no longer locked in this struggle, we are able to lift our gaze, to really observe others and think about their feelings. We find that others are suffering, too, and that we are not alone.

What is a limited perspective you had to let go of?

Why fascist politicians are no patriots

“If, at some point, the German people will be lacking in its willingness to make sacrifices and no longer strong enough to give its blood for its existence, it shall perish and be destroyed by a stronger power. I will not shed a single tear for the German people”

Adolf Hitler [quote from The Meaning of Hitler by Sebastian Haffner]

In the book The Meaning of Hitler, Sebastian Haffner makes an attempt to analyze and understand the phenomenon of Hitler the politician. He made the following observations:

  • Hitler’s personal life was one-dimensional and empty. It is characterized by a complete lack of love, friendship, dedication to education and work, and true interest. He treated women with condescension and neglected them, and he had no friends. He was incapable of having real relationships. He never dedicated himself to education, and he never found fulfillment in productive activity. There was no personal life behind the myth of “The Führer” – his life was almost exclusively a political one.
  • Appealing to the vulnerabilities and feelings of humiliation in the German population, and soothing them with his grandiosity, he served as a psychological catalyst.
  • He had an intuition for his opponent’s weaknesses. He was only able to overcome weak, indecisive opponents (his political opponents in Germany and the leaders of other European countries in the 1930s), but he was unable to overcome determined opposition (e.g. Britain led by Winston Churchill).
  • He undermined the institutions of the state to put himself into a position of absolute power.
  • He was cruel and enjoyed violence.
  • He used the German people as a tool for his own grandiosity, when the war was lost he discarded it.

Some people believe that Hitler was a patriot. They point out that he led Germany out of the global economic crisis and reestablished it as a major power. Openly or in secret, they admire the achievements and victories of his reign. While admitting that the Second World War and the Holocaust were obviously terrible atrocities, they hold on to the belief that Hitler loved Germany and the German people and that he can serve as a role model for national rebirth.

Anyone who believes that Hitler loved Germany and the Germans is deeply deluded about his nature. As the above quote shows, Hitler used the German people as a tool for his self-interest, and vindictively and cruelly discarded it when it no longer suited his needs. He rebuilt Germany only because this would make it a more powerful tool for his own needs.

Most populist politicians, including Donald Trump, present themselves as conservative and patriotic. They claim to love their countries, and they claim to defend them against internal and external enemies. A closer look reveals that this is a lie, just as in the case of Hitler. Trump does not care about the United States and its society; he is willing to undermine democratic institutions, weaken the international position of the United States, and sacrifice societal peace, if that serves his needs. This is visible in how he treats veterans and in his mocking of John McCain’s Vietnam War experiences, in his questionable tax returns, and in his willingness to create social discord to garner support. For Trump, the presidency is only a tool to maintain his self-esteem – he has no interest in using it to improve the lives of his fellow Americans.

A patriot is someone who gives himself for his country. Fascist politicians sacrifice their countries for themselves. The two positions could not be further apart.

Opinions

In Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, the Buddha teaches the meaninglessness of holding on to opinions. This is the key part of the story:

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying in Savatthi, at Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. Then the wanderer Vacchagotta went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there he asked the Blessed One: “How is it, Master Gotama, does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is eternal: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is not eternal: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is finite: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is infinite: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The soul & the body are the same: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The soul is one thing and the body another: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

[…]

“How is it, Master Gotama, when Master Gotama is asked if he holds the view ‘the cosmos is eternal…’… ‘after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless,’ he says ‘…no…’ in each case. Seeing what drawback, then, is Master Gotama thus entirely dissociated from each of these ten positions?”

“Vaccha, the position that ‘the cosmos is eternal’ is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, & fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding.

“The position that ‘the cosmos is not eternal’ […] does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding.”

[…]

“Does Master Gotama have any position at all?”

“A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is perception…such are fabrications…such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.’ Because of this, I say, a Tathagata — with the ending, fading away, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsessions with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released.”

[©2004 Thanissaro Bhikkhu. From Access to Insight. The text of the above quote (“Vacchagotta Sutta: With Vacchagotta”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. To view a copy of the license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/.]

This is one of my favorite Buddhist teachingsIt teaches us about the meaninglessness of holding on to opinions and metaphysical speculations. The wanderer Vacchagotta approaches the Buddha because he seeks the Buddha’s knowledge. He wants to know about the universe and about whether soul and body are the same. We all are drawn to these questions: Does God exist? Is there a life after death? Do we have free will? Are people basically good or evil? What is truth? We want to know, because this absolute knowledge promises satisfaction in the sea of uncertainty we face in our lives.

Also on a more mundane level, we are obsessed with our opinions. What is social justice? Are poor people responsible for their misfortune or are they victims of society? Should we allow more immigration or restrict it? Who is responsible for economic problems? We all are very attached to our particular set of opinions, because we use them to build our ego. Unfortunately, we waste a large part our time hitting each other over the head with them. For this reason, the Buddha explains that holding on to opinions only leads to suffering.

Arguing with someone about our opinions is like fighting with wooden sticks: the sticks may touch, but we never touch the other person. A fruitful exchange can only take place if we accept that others have a different perspective, and if we try to understand why they have a different perspective. If we do so, and if we truly listen, we inevitably come to understand another facet of the other person’s personality and perspective, and the exchange becomes an experience of connection rather than of separation. Needless to say, the underlying motivation for doing so is love. We will succeed only if our motivation to listen and to understand is stronger than our need to defend ourselves and to protect our ego. If we do succeed, instead of a battle of opinions we have an encounter based on benevolent interest, an encounter that opens our mind and fosters growth. Such an encounter will always require us to let go of preconceived notions, to be open, and to be in the present moment, rather than in the library of our opinions.

If we go to the bottom of our need to hold on to a certain opinion, we inevitably see that it is born from suffering and from our need to hold on to something. Let’s take an example. Person A says: “People are basically good”. Person B disagrees, and says: “People are bad, fundamentally inclined towards evil”. You can imagine a long argument about this, involving a wide range of topics, from the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the Holocaust. For some reason person A needs to believe that people are good. There are several reasons why this may be convenient: if we believe that people are fundamentally good, we do not have to look too closely at our own flaws and the flaws of the people around us, because these are minor, negligible blemishes on the basic goodness. Person B, on the other hand, is very attached to the opinion that people fundamentally incline towards evil. Maybe person B has been abused verbally or physically. The belief could also serve as a justification for treating others abusively: if everyone is evil, I can cheat and betray them before they do the same to me.

Obviously, people are just the way they are, irrespective of our opinions about them. Some are predominantly good, some are predominantly bad. Good people may behave in bad ways from time to time, bad people may show a sliver of goodness from time to time. Opinions tell us much more about the people who hold on to them, than about reality. Ultimately, opinions are empty and meaningless, neurotic knots in our minds.

The Buddha explains that if we see impermanence clearly, we see that opinions are unnecessary, an illusion of our selfish minds. If we know who we are and what we have to do, if we are aware of the our own suffering and of the suffering of others, there is no need for opinions. We just act, without the need to hold on to opinions and to defend them.

I used to be very attached to my political convictions. Nowadays, I care less and less about political battles. I have become more tolerant, but I am still quite attached to some of my opinions. It can be very hard to be tolerant about matters that directly affect you; it is an ongoing practice. Which opinions keep getting you into futile arguments, and prevent you from connecting to other people?

On Narcissism

Donald Trump has sparked interest in the phenomenon of narcissism. The characteristics of narcissism are:

  • grandiosity
  • sense of entitlement
  • lack of integrity
  • lack of empathy
  • manipulation (lying, blackmail, gaslighting)
  • superficial charm
  • impoverished internal world, emptiness

Narcissists suffer from an inability to regulate their self-esteem, which leaves them caught between grandiosity and feelings of shameful inadequacy, always struggling to find external sources of validation. For this reason they are constantly preoccupied with status, power, wealth, and physical attractiveness. Developmentally, narcissists have failed to develop the ability recognize others as separate from themselves. They may know intellectually that other people are separate individuals, but emotionally, they are convinced that they are not, and thus feel entitled to transgress any boundary in their interactions with others.

Psychologists theorize that children grow up to become narcissists if they have narcissistic parents themselves, who use them as narcissistic extensions. This means that the parents use their children to maintain their own self-esteem. They effectively teach their children that only the outer appearance counts, and that their parents’ love is conditional and depends on the child’s performance. But it is also believed that unstable, abusive families, or alternatively parents who over-indulge and fail to enforce boundaries support narcissistic tendencies in their children. Nevertheless, it remains mysterious why some children from such backgrounds grow up to be narcissists and others do not. There are many factors that influence the outcome.

Narcissism is equivalent to a dreadful lack of maturity. Interestingly, maturity and intelligence are separate dimensions of personality, with little apparent correlation. Narcissists can be highly intelligent and professionally successful, but still at the level of a little child in terms of emotional maturity. Western societies are also quite forgiving when it comes to narcissism – the idealization of success means that there is less interest in how the success was achieved. In the United States in particular, there is a tendency to forgive any moral transgression, if it eventually leads to success – ruthless individuals may even be admired for their cunningness.

Narcissists are not nice people. They like to put down others, they laugh about them, and they belittle their achievements. They manipulate others into doing what they want, they lie and blackmail to achieve their goals. They attack other people’s psychological weaknesses to destabilize them. They try to convince other people that they are crazy. They cynically exploit goodwill and empathy.

It should not be forgotten, however, that narcissists pay a terrible price for their self-centeredness. Their relationships are shallow, and their ability to perceive beauty are stunted. An awareness of the beauty of life, as well as true love and concern for others, require us to transcend the confines of our self, and to extend ourselves, which is not possible for narcissistic people. At heart, they are terribly afraid of losing control, and terribly alone.

Now, it is individuals who exhibit high levels of narcissism who are labelled narcissists. But the truth is that we all are narcissistic, some to a larger, some to a smaller degree. We all have the need to cover our weaknesses and to support our self-esteem by convincing ourselves that we are special and superior, because we are all afraid.

To see the more subtle levels of our narcissism, we must look very closely at ourselves. Our narcissism shows up in our unwillingness to consider other people’s point of view, our need to be right, our need to judge others, to condemn them. It shows up in our attachment to our political opinions, our knowledge, our physical attractiveness, our position. It shows up in our willingness to lie and to distort reality to cover up our mistakes and shortcomings. It shows up in our aggression, our anger, and our jealousy. We feel that we are entitled to be successful. When someone else fails, we say that everybody makes mistakes, that it is ok, but if it happens to us, we find it unacceptable, and get angry and defensive. Often, these patterns are so deeply engrained, and so widespread that we are unable to see them, or we feel entitled to behave in such ways.

Obviously, the world is just the way it is, regardless of our opinions and judgements about it. If we fail, we fail. If we succeed, we succeed. If others have different opinions, they have different opinions. No need to make a fuss about it.

Put in another way, to the degree that we are narcissistic, we sacrifice others for our selfish agenda. For example, if I assume a judgmental attitude towards someone, I use his/her situation to feel good about myself. With this judgmental attitude comes a sense of separation, a feeling that I am here and that other person is over there, and that it is impossible to connect. I also hurt that other person.

Note the difference between making a judgment and being judgmental. Making judgments is necessary: we have to judge people, situations, institutions, jobs, etc. to take good decisions in our lives. If someone is toxic and destructive, it is a good idea to stay away from that person to protect yourself. If someone is aggressive and hurts other people with his/her behavior, we should oppose them and prevent them from doing so, but without hate and contempt. If we are judgmental, we condemn that person to feel better about ourselves, to solidify our idea of ourselves as a “good person”, and that is something “extra”. Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen teacher, said we should be like a clean, pure flame in everything we do. The flame should be so pure that it utterly consumes itself and does not produce any smoke. If we judge and act without condemnation and attachment to our opinions, we burn like a pure flame, without smoke. Any need to condemn and to be opinionated is “extra”, and produces smoke.

The problem is that we are all constantly sacrificing each other for our selfish agendas. Being sacrificed hurts and leads us to sacrifice others in turn, and this gives rise to an endless cycle of aggression.

Please help to stop this cycle of aggression and counter-aggression.

Morgan Scott Peck and the Path of Spiritual Growth

Morgan Scott Peck’s book “The Road Less Traveled” is a popular self-help book. The book is Peck’s attempt to condense the main insights he gained from his work as a psychiatrist into written form. What makes it compelling is that he conveys psychological insight in a language that is accessible to readers who are not trained in psychology. Some of his observations are articulated in such powerful, crystal-clear language, that it is impossible to not be impressed.

In the first part of the book, Peck gives explanations of basic elements of his understanding of psychology and the human condition:

  • Life is suffering
  • Life is about solving problems
  • We want to avoid problems, because confronting them is painful
  • avoiding problems causes neurosis
  • to the degree that we avoid problems, we are sick
  • the way we approach problems is shaped by the experiences we made in childhood with our parents

Already here is an important insight. Most people believe that there is a sharp line separating the “sane” from the “mentally ill” or even “crazy”, and believe themselves to be safely in the “sane” camp, but this is an illusion. To the degree that we embrace lies and blindness to avoid problems, we are sick, and we all do this, some to a greater, some to a lesser degree. Mental health is a continuous spectrum, ranging from essentially healthy to completely crazy, with various shades of madness in between. Most people are somewhere in the grey area between the extremes. In explaining how we avoid problems and how we face and overcome them, Peck points out that to a certain degree, depression is normal and healthy. As we grow and evolve, we have to let go of our old selves. Giving up old ways of thinking, habits and coping mechanisms is painful, and requires periods of depression during which the loss is mourned. Peck outlines four principles of sanity: disciple, dedication to truth, openness to challenge, and balancing. While these principles seem easy to understand, their application is an endless challenge.

The second part of the book discusses love. Peck speaks about “romantic love”, about the illusion that there is a perfect partner who will make a relationship effortless, and emphasizes instead that love is hard work, that it requires a constant effort to extend oneself for the sake of another person’s growth. The notion that love is about receiving something, that it should make you happy, is widespread, but love is rather about giving something. Extending oneself for someone else is joy.

In the last part of the book, Peck becomes more speculative and moves into the realm of spirituality. He believes that spiritual growth is the reason humans exist, and that our ultimate destiny is to become like God, in the sense that we overcome our flaws and selfish desires until we become pure beings, in harmony with creation. Here, Peck leaves the realm of self-help he covered in the previous chapters, and attempts to provide an all-encompassing framework for the practical advice given before. He sees love as the basis of spiritual growth and our striving towards God, laziness as our inclination to avoid growth (sin), and evil as active resistance and hostility to growth. Peck’s clinical experience led him to believe that there is a benevolent force that furthers growth and acts in mysterious and beneficial ways, a force he calls grace. Whether or not the reader agrees with this worldview, it is an interesting idea and worth thinking about.

Peck himself is a controversial figure. Despite the fact that he continuously emphasizes the importance of discipline and adherence to truth in his books, he himself was not able to conform to these ideals to the degree one would expect from his writing. There is evidence that he had affairs, that he was a less-than-ideal father; his wife and children distanced themselves from him in later years. These personal flaws show up in the book at some places. One should, however, not dismiss the insights in his book because of his personal flaws; it is quite possible to correctly see and articulate truth, and at the same time be deeply flawed oneself. It is more appropriate to see him as a warning and an exhortation to humility, showing that intelligence, education and insight do not make us invulnerable to making mistakes and being deeply flawed, and blind to our flaws.

Charlotte Joko Beck and the Truth of Ordinary Experience

Charlotte Joko Beck was one of the best-known American Zen teachers. Her book Everyday Zen is her attempt to convey the gist of her teachings in writing.

A large number of books about spirituality and meditation exist, and all of them are plagued by the problem that it is intrinsically difficult to write about something that is, fundamentally, a practice that has to be experienced. The quality of a book about spirituality is thus dependent on how well it bridges that gap, on how much insight it can provide to a reader with a given level of understanding of meditation. Everyday Zen bridges the gap very well. The book is suitable for beginners as well as those who are familiar with meditation and spirituality. Whenever I read  Everyday Zen, I understand something I did not understand before.

Beck describes the dissatisfaction we experience in our daily lives, and our elaborate attempts to escape it, as well as our aggression and violence that is hidden beneath the surface. She traces this suffering back to our inability to accept life, and to our constant effort to fix it and to find some remedy outside ourselves. Obvious manifestations of these efforts are all forms of neuroticism that can be encountered in people: substance abuse, overeating, hedonism, verbal or physical abuse, obsession with opinions and judgements, etc.. She clearly analyzes the evasive quality of all these behaviors, and how we are all endlessly spinning in this loop of compulsive evasion.

Beck then goes on to present meditation as a practice that is aimed at stopping this struggle, emphasizing the amount of hard work that is necessary. Meditation is a practice that slowly wears out the illusion that our attempts to manipulate life will be successful in the end, and at the heart of this wearing-out process is disappointment and disillusionment. When all our illusions and hopes will have died, we will finally be able to rest in the present moment. An awareness of fundamental oneness as well as a deep compassion for the suffering of other beings are the natural results of the removal of our selfish attempts to manipulate life.

Almost inevitably, at some point during one’s practice, spirituality itself is distorted into a strategy to manipulate life. We meditate because we believe that this will make us happy, calm, wise, and psychologically resilient. What makes this so seductive is that disciplined practice and true understanding will lead to positive effects, but if we meditate only for the sake of these positive effects, we are back in our loop.

Beck outlines very clearly the decision every one of us must take: we can either continue to evade, which may be easier in the short-term, but will ensure a life of dissatisfaction, or we can face life fully, which is difficult, but not impossible (obviously, we are all somewhere in between these two extremes – even the most diligent avoid problems from time to time).

What distinguishes Beck’s writing is its groundedness, her refusal to indulge fancy, romantic ideas about practice, and her persistent emphasis on the application of practice in everyday life. With great psychological understanding, she connects practice to the sense of entitlement we all have in our relationships and when we face problems in our lives. A spiritual life means that we stop complaining, that we stop trying to manipulate life and the people in our life, and that we stop hurting ourselves and others. Can you follow this path?

Hannah Arendt and the Banality of Evil

A while ago I re-read the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt. In the book, Hannah Arendt, a Jewish philosopher who studied in Berlin and Heidelberg and who emigrated in 1933, describes the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Eichmann was a subordinate organizer of the Holocaust; he had begun his career in the SS organizing the emigration of Jews (for horrendous fees, which virtually disowned the victims). Later, he became responsible for organizing the transport of Jews from all over Europe to the extermination camps. After the war, Eichmann emigrated to Argentina. The Israeli secret service abducted him, and brought him to Israel, where he was put on trial and hanged.

It was Eichmann’s personality that led Arendt to speak of “the banality of evil”. Those who attended the trial expecting to see a monster, a psychopathic killer, were disappointed. Eichmann’s most outstanding characteristic was how ordinary he was. Those who had worked with him said he had been professional and polite in his dealings with them, and he seemed to have been a normal husband and father. Nevertheless, Eichmann unquestioningly accepted the murderous framework provided by his superiors, and he was solely interested in being as successful as possible within that framework, without ever questioning the validity of the framework itself. He was enclosed in his limited perspective, which was only directed at the next step, and which never paused to contemplate the big picture of which his behavior was a part. At the core of this seems to be a profound disinterest in the moral dimension of his behavior – in his interrogation, Eichmann talked again and again about the fact that he was not promoted further, while he seemed rather unconcerned by the fact that had taken part in a genocide. His evil deeds were not the results of a villain-like character, but of the simple willingness to do whatever was necessary to be successful. And he was not alone in this – a gigantic undertaking such as the Holocaust required the cooperation of many government agencies, many of them led by officials who had already been working there before Hitler came to power, and who were no Nazis. Eichmann himself explained that what soothed his doubts the most was that none of them raised any objections against the extermination of the Jews. This allowed Eichmann to convince himself that he was in no position to criticize what was going on, since everyone else supported it. His behavior (and the behavior of many others) shows that under circumstances in which murder is normalized, few people are able to protect their critical judgement.

Contemplating the big picture, recognizing the fact that his actions were part of a genocide, would have cast Eichmann into a profound conflict between his self-interest (being promoted) and morality. By avoiding to think about the big picture and his role in it, Eichmann avoided this conflict. His statements betray a wildly incoherent mix of mutually exclusive and contradicting beliefs, convictions and justifications, and the effort to keep it all together. He made a constant effort to look at himself from a certain, fixed distance and angle: Had he only slightly changed his perspective by getting closer or moving further away, or by looking from a different angle, it would have become evident that each of the individual elements was hopelessly broken, or that the whole construct in his mind was a fabrication. 

As Arendt pointed out, probably the greatest problem of the trial, that escaped many observers, was that Eichmann did not recognize that he had done something wrong and that he was guilty. He declared that he had never murdered himself, and that he merely carried out what was law in Nazi Germany. His motives were not base, and he declared that he was no antisemite. From his point of view, he was used as a scapegoat for the crimes others had committed. The judges pointed out that in the political realm of adults, obedience equals agreement, and that while it may be true that many others, had they been in his position, would have behaved in the same way, there is a unbridgeable gap between their hypothetical guilt and his actual guilt. Eichmann had to die because he had taken part in an undertaking that was aimed at eradicating a people from the face of the Earth, as if he and his superiors had the right to decide who is allowed to live and who must die.

Eichmann’s evil was of a very ordinary kind: he may not have been a sadistic killer, but he did act out his aggression on those who were in his power. He had not finished school nor had he been professionally successful before he joined the SS. Psychologically, he was dependent and in need to submit himself to an absolute authority. The Nazi movement both accommodated his dependency issues by providing an absolute authority to submit to, and it allowed him to wield power over others to soothe his inferiority complexes. As Arendt noted, Eichmann only remembered those Jews that had been utterly in his power – everyone else he quickly forgot.

The book is relevant to the political developments we can observe today. One of the main arguments of Donald Trump’s supporters in the Republican Party is that he was democratically elected, and they use this argument to ward off any attempts to point out Trump’s obvious corruption. For them, politics is a contest, it is about winning, and they want to be as successful as possible. They are not interested in the big picture of what is moral or immoral and what helps to build a healthy society and what destroys it. If Donald Trump is the candidate that is most likely to lead the Republicans to victory, they will support him, irrespective of his questionable behavior. If serving in his government furthers their own careers, they will do it, because they are interested in maximizing their success within the framework they are a part of, not in the moral dimension of the framework itself.

Michael Cohen described in his second congressional hearing how intoxicated he was by Trump’s grandiose agenda. He also directed his aggression towards others, which can be seen in how he treated a reporter of the Daily Beast, who enquired about allegations that Trump had raped his former wife; Cohen threatened the reporter very aggressively. The pattern of blind loyalty towards superiors, being intoxicated with the importance of one’s position, and acting out of one’s aggression on others is one that can also be seen in the case of Eichmann.

Hannah Arendt’s writing reflects her single-minded determination to understand. She carefully peels away layers of preconceived notions, attempts to use the trial for a political agenda, or to use it to give absolution to those who were part of the bureaucracy of Nazi Germany, until she arrives at the core of the problem. In times when facts have become a matter of convenience and political affiliation, Arendt’s clear thinking can serve as a important aid to orientation.