On Chen Guangcheng, human nature and despair

So you know how sometimes something enters your consciousness and lodges itself there until it consumes your thinking and forces you to pause and contemplate life for a moment? That happened to me a couple of weeks ago. For days, news and rumors about the whereabouts and treatment of Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese activist who escaped house arrest in Shandong province and came to the American embassy in Beijing seeking assistance, dominated Western media reports about China.

Something about the case fascinated and haunted me. I followed it obsessively on Twitter and scoured news sites for fresh information every day. I even ended up writing a piece on the Chinese media’s initial blackout on the situation.

Sometime during that week, I was walking along a crowded street in the middle of Sanlitun, a popular foreigner-friendly neighborhood in Beijing, pondering the fact that not far from where I stood, Chen Guangcheng sat in a nearby hospital in the middle of this diplomatic shitstorm, not knowing his fate or that of his family.

Suddenly, a wave of despair struck me and stopped me in my tracks. Contemplating the stories I had read about the situation — threats that Chen’s wife would be beaten to death, fears for the safety of his family and those who had helped him escape his unjust house arrest — I felt utterly sickened by the depths to which people can sink in their treatment of each other.

It wasn’t just about Chen. It was about the sadnesses and tragedies I witness all the time. Children chastised and ignored by parents who refuse to put down their phones even while they are out having a meal together. Couples screaming at each other to the point of tears. Drunk, irrational brutes tackling each other along the sidewalks.

It’s also not just about China. While abuse and irrationality thrive in this culture, the people here are not alone in their transgressions. Cruelty, unkindness and injustice exist everywhere. Chen Guangcheng is but one person who defied an unjust system and paid dearly for it. How many other people disappear or are murdered for a similar offense all the time?

Beyond that, I thought about the way people treat even those closest to them, the people they claim to admire and love. How many lies, hurtful words, cruel gestures are made to those closest to us all the time? How many times do I end up acting out and hurting those I care about the most? How much are we all products of vicious, wounding behaviors?

Generally speaking, I take an optimistic view toward humanity, perhaps because it feels so hopeless and depressing not to. I believe people are good and capable of beautiful, marvelous, inspiring behaviors. I know they are because I’ve witnessed a great deal of beauty in this world as well.

But there are times, as on that night, when I could not help feeling a deep, raw despair that even after so many centuries spent evolving and creating and advancing as a species, people still haven’t learned to live with kindness and warmth and generosity, and can still treat each other in unspeakably cruel ways time and time again.