Being a Romantic Helps Me See the World More Clearly

I am a romantic. That is, someone who believes human nature holds more beauty and goodness than not. This is not a pithy sentiment, it is a view hard-won. Romantics do not ignore greed, dishonesty, war, nuclear weapons, torture, hatred or any of the other ills we are capable of. We acknowledge the full continuum of being human, from ecstasy to evil, all manifest in the world and demanding our attention.  All of this is true.

But to be a romantic is to see this truth in light of another truth – that even given our immense capacity for malice, our potential for virtue is greater.  The ledger tilts to the side of goodness. 

The other two options don’t make sense.  If humanity were more depraved than moral, or if the weight of depravity and morality were evenly split, society could not have evolved as it has. We have grown from bands to tribes to cities to nation states, each requiring higher levels of trust and cooperation. 

In the thirteenth century, the Magna Carta declared for the first time that the King of England was subject to the rule of law and granted rights to English nobles. Five centuries later, the US Constitution extended basic rights beyond the aristocracy to the populace.  The Constitution is a brilliant document but flawed in several ways, most notably in its heinous support of slavery.  But it may have been the best that could have been accomplished at a time when no democracies existed.  Monarchy and slavery were the established norm.  The genius of the Constitution is that it holds the self-sowing seeds of its own redemption. Its goodness is greater than its sin, eventually ending slavery, enfranchising women, ending child labor, enforcing civil rights, and more. 

There appears to be an innate human drive that pulls us constantly toward greater freedom and fairness.  From warring tribes to an interconnected global economy, each evolutionary step required a critical mass of common conviction that more freedom, more equality, more collaboration, more recognition that working together for a larger community was better for us all.  Modern society could not function if the vast majority of us did not act honestly, fairly, morally and with concern for our neighbors.

To be sure, human malignancy has come along for the ride.  Evil is not vanquished and our work is not done.  And with each technological advance comes the potential for greater misuse and destruction.  But it seems that at every stage of growth, the scope of evil has fallen back and something better has come forward out of the conflict.  

Even at its most insidious and wicked, when evil arises, it evokes our goodness in response.  Adolf Hitler, perhaps history’s most infamous example of genocide and atrocity, had many collaborators.  But there were also thousands who fought against him, protecting Jews at great peril to themselves.  For every Hitler there are a thousand Schindlers who rise to meet him.  In the end, he was defeated, and from the wreckage of Hitler’s twisted vision came a world more peaceful and unified than at any time before.  

Life has given us all some hard knocks. Many of us have suffered traumatic wounds that make it hard to accept that human nature is good. This view can sound like the trope of a Hallmark movie. But there is a practical wisdom here.

The mindset you choose on human nature colors how you live.  If you believe our basic nature is malevolent (or neutral), then that is what you will see.  You will likely be more fearful of the world, wary of people, less willing to take a risk for the benefit of others.  It will be more difficult for you to be generous, open-hearted, friendly to strangers. Others will sense that and treat you accordingly.

But if you believe in the basic goodness of people, then that is what you will see.  You will show more trust, give people the benefit of the doubt and be more open and available to what life brings you.  And people will reciprocate. I propose that your life will be richer.

I prefer the latter.  But then, I’m a romantic.

Photo by Edi Libedinsky on Unsplash

One Reply to “Being a Romantic Helps Me See the World More Clearly”

  1. This is beautiful and practical wisdom, Steve. I realize I need to read your blog more often, and a little bit less of the daily news. Thank you.

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