Hryts on Human Nature

The View From Here by Volodymyr Kish.

I was pondering the vicissitudes of life one grey day last week while watching the rain assault the patch of earth outside my window, when it struck me that I had not had my dose of Pidkamin philosophy in quite a while. The source of this therapeutic enlightenment is of course, my vaunted and eclectic cousin Hryts who resides in the bucolic village of Pidkamin in Western Ukraine.

I had not talked with Hryts in quite a while and I must admit I missed his company. I should add that the verb “talk” is used here strictly in a symbolic sense, since any conversation with Hryts tends to be somewhat one-sided and usually results in the realization that I am sorely lacking in either wisdom or understanding of the ontological basis of my existence.

Nonetheless, I fired up Skype and was soon exchanging pleasantries with Hryts. Although I caught him engrossed in his annual pre-spring planning of the layout and content of his legendary garden, he was more than happy to pause and chat with his ingenuous Canadian relative.

I inquired as to how his preparations for spring planting were coming along.

“Well, my dear city bumpkin” he began, “It’s going to be a bit of a challenge this year. We’ve had very little snow this year, so the spring melt is going to leave the soil somewhat shortchanged in the water department. I am going to have to adjust what I plant. I will have to plant more beans, peppers, tomatoes and melons which grow well in dry conditions, and less corn, lettuce, cabbage and onions which require more water. Of course, no self-respecting Ukrainian garden can be without cabbages and onions, so I will get plenty of exercise trotting between the well and the garden! Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about the garlic I planted in October. It is pretty hardy and needs little water to thrive. Same goes for the horseradish. Its roots go down so deep it can always find water even if the surface soil is dry.”

Although grateful for the lesson in agricultural basics, I quickly changed the subject, somewhat embarrassed that my pitiful attempts at planting things in my backyard typically produced meager if any results and were a blot on my Ukrainian peasant heritage.

We inevitably turned to a discussion of the latest Ukrainian crises, prominent among which was the continuing reluctance of the current crop of politicians to stem the graft and corruption that still pervades the Ukrainian government at all levels.

“Really Hrytsiu,” I commented, “I just can’t understand how the people running things can be so consumed with greed, aggression and selfishness. Don’t they see that it will inevitably lead to chaos and self-destruction?”

“Oh God, what a lame-brained turnip you are my dear boy!” he replied. “Human nature is quite simple really. Physically, we are all animals and have inherited basic feral passions and emotions in which morality and ethics play no part. There is no right or wrong for animals. They are inherently selfish and self-absorbed, and do whatever is required to survive, satisfy their wants and protect what they consider theirs. Humans, on the other hand have been blessed with a gift from God called a soul or spirit. This is the part of us that recognizes that there is more to life and the universe than just us as individuals, and that to realize our full potential we must share and co-operate with other humans. This relationship with others is governed by an innate set of morals and ethics that is the basis of our social structures, religions and governments. When we live by them, we all benefit. When we don’t, we all suffer.”

“Yes, Hrytsiu,” I interjected, “I know all that. So, how do we control or eliminate those dangerous primeval instincts?”

“Aaah my young turnip,” he exclaimed, “It’s not a matter of eliminating those instincts, which is an impossible task. It can only happen through evolution, and evolution will take millennia to tame them to appropriate levels. What we need to do is channel them to productive uses. Remember when you were last in Pidkamin, I took you to the nearby Ikva River. Like any river left to its devices it will erode the countryside around it. But if you manage the river, dam it where appropriate, control its flow and divert some of it for irrigation purposes, it can serve a very useful purpose in enriching the surrounding countryside. The same is true with human selfishness, greed and aggression. If you can find ways of limiting that energy and passion, of diverting and channeling it to constructive purposes, then society at large can benefit from them.”

“That is well and good, Hrytsiu” I continued, “But how do we do that?”

“That can only be done by appealing to the soul that is within each of us” he replied. “It is only when enough of us are persuaded that helping each other is more profitable than competing and stealing from each other, that we will be able to change the course of that human river of existence.”

As usual, Hryts left me with plenty to ponder about.

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