There Is Nothing To Understand

We are blinded by “name and form.” We are hooked to our understanding that is limited by our limiting definitions.

We are appalled by the brutality, bestiality, inhumanness of humans; say a serial killer, with no ethical constraints whatsoever. “How could he?” is the common phrase, that causes one many a sleepless night. This inability to “understand” other people’s crimes is a great cause of pain in our lives. We are baffled and keep trying to understand why some people do what they do. Is such understanding possible?

The serial killer baffles and disturbs us because we have already classified him in the category of “humans.” His behavior is outside the human norm and makes no sense to us. But the world is full of living beings of myriad forms and behaviors. Just because we name or classify them by assigning them to a group, does not mean that we exhaust their infinite variation. Most importantly, naming is not understanding. On the contrary, it is the naming that is at the root of all of our confusion.

If we were to place the serial killer into another category, another class of beings, the “mystery” would suddenly dissolve. Would one ever speak of a lion as being a serial killer? – yet, a lion, and every carnivore in nature is just that. We too kill millions of other animals for our food. We simply consider that normal, for we have a “good reason” for it, called sustenance. It may not help to go as far as considering our killing for food to be similar to a serial killer’s obsessive acting out of his passions and degenerate mental cravings – even though seen from the point of view of the cows or chickens we consume, we are simply that. Yet, if we see the serial killer as belonging not to the human species, but to the animal kingdom, and being similar to a lion, a hyena, a crocodile, or even as belonging to the sub-set of beasts, we may then relinquish once and for all our need to explain to ourselves his actions. It is in the nature of a lion to kill. Similarly it is in the nature of a serial killer to kill many people – acting out, that is, his specific animal impulses. We are not here concerned with how a born human has ended up becoming a beast. We are only concerned with how things are and how we view them.

Since Plato, many writers and philosophers have associated humans with many animal characteristics, as we do when we say of someone “he is a snake” or “he eats like a pig.” In such cases we use metaphors to suggest a similarity, but we still maintain our view that the other person is still a human. Yet, in as much as a human is an amalgam of disconnected and disparate behaviors that come together under a loose mental guidance, each person is actually composed of many personas. Some of these personas may end up being non-human since they resemble more the behavior of animals or imaginary beasts. Bestial elements may actually coexist with benign characteristics in any person. Even serial killers are known to have been kind and loving to many people … they decided not to kill, just as a lion is loving and kind to his own siblings. When we radically shift the way of seeing such people, many so-called mysteries of human actions vanish. The moment we cease to place a serial killer into the category of “human” (although externally he looks and might occasionally behave like one) we relinquish our need to understand him as a human. Placing him in the category of  hyenas, his actions cease to require any further understanding. Albeit residing in a human body, walking and talking, he is a hyena: His nature, to which he unwittingly succumbs, is to kill. He does not think and act; his thinking is simply subservient to his instinctive impulses. His actions are not that of a moral agent, but that of an animal succumbing to Nature.

We may even go a step further and completely de-vitalize both animals and the serial killer: The lion, the hyena, and the serial killer are Nature acting spontaneously, without a name, without any ethical rules. Function and behavior precedes our definitions – name and form. Thus, the behavior of these living beings may be seen to be akin to that of a storm or a tsunami that may kill thousands with their blind might. A serial killer may then be viewed as an unusual Natural Force – inanimate, neutral, aimless and meaningless. Like a tsunami, he too is carried by the waves of the blind Force that moves the universe. Would we ever be baffled by our inability to understand “why” a tsunami or an earthquake acted the way it did? Nature is the way it is. Simply put: there is nothing to understand.

One may retort that the renaming of something we cannot comprehend does not really make us comprehend it, and that inhumane acts by humans still remain a mystery. This is partly correct. But we would in turn respond that this latter mystery is of another type. It is not the mystery of “the why of an act” anymore. We would never assert that there is a mystery in why a lion kills or an earthquake destroys – we know and understand why these things happen. The question is transposed from one that has to do with the particular agent and its action, to a more general and philosophical one: why do lions exist that kill antelopes, and why do earthquakes and tsunamis exist that can bring so much destruction and death to living beings? This is almost an identical question to the why of it all: why is our world the way it is? One then, need not isolate the “why” of a serial-killer, but incorporate it into the general big philosophical question of Life itself.

But the reason we preoccupy ourselves with the problem of the understanding of such “unexplainable” and extreme human behavior, is not to substitute one type of mystery with another. It is not simply a philosophical, a theoretical issue. It is a practical one. The most important reason for shedding light on “name and form” is to expunge the sting of our suffering. As we said at the beginning, a big part of our suffering is not suffering itself, but our inability to understand and explain it.

Applying this whole approach to our everyday life, we may begin by seeing people as beings of Nature, rather than as well-defined humans to whom we attach preconceived ideas of how they ought to behave. Thus every human being becomes a strange animal, so to speak, with whom we have to deal with both love and caution. There is no absolutely predictable human behavior, in as much as there are no absolutely predictable natural phenomena. Just as an earthquake may strike without warning at any moment, similarly (or more so!), a human being may react to any circumstance or to the behavior of any other human being in a most unpredictable way.

Acknowledging beforehand that it is one’s behavior that defines one’s nature, and not the other way around, we may slowly begin to accept the reality of the variation of real beings that inhabit our world and cross our life’s-path. We may then stop trying to understand why a person is who he is and acts the way he acts, but accept that he is such as who he is and behaves such as he behaves. It is this acceptance of the suchness of the behavior of other people, an acceptance that goes beyond name and form, and is identical with the suchness of Nature itself, that in the end affords us the only true understanding of human behavior possible to us: that there is nothing to understand.

© 2017 Nicos Hadjicostis