Do you believe that humans are innately good or evil?
This question was posed to my class by a substitute teacher. We were discussing whether Hamlet was a good or bad person within the context of his mental state. It was not intended to spark a debate, just to make us think.
Are humans good at birth? Are they evil? Are they neutral? A clean slate awaiting the faded chalk marks of the world’s biases?
In my class, discussion is encouraged, even if it leads us away from the main topic. But on that day, only a few people raised their hands with an opinion. One was me. “People are good,” I said. “If not good, at the very least neutral. But not evil.”
The class’s devil’s advocate approached me after class. “Do you really believe that people are innately good, or at least neutral?” he asked. I replied that I did, which apparently blew his mind.
On the drive home, I thought about the conversation. It surprised me. I had previously thought that most people believed that people are good.
Later, flicking through Tumblr pages, I noticed a lot of cynicism about humanity. Pictures of war refugees and oppressed people filled my dashboard, with commentary underneath about how despicable mankind must be.
I closed the tab and watched an episode of “Drop Dead Diva” on Netflix instead. The show made me feel better because the protagonist tries to help people and always succeeds. She is a good person.
I eventually forgot the class debate. I had more on my mind than existential crises. My four-year-old cousin was visiting, and he wanted to watch “My Little Pony” with me; why would I want to think about anything else?
Fast forward a few weeks: I am sitting in a KFC waiting for my order, and the television in the corner is on. The sound is muted, but there are subtitles scrolling across the screen. CNN is reporting on something in Colorado, and at first I think they are rehashing the Aurora movie theater shooting. But then I notice they are talking about a school, and I realize that this is new.
Inexplicably, I remember the conversation I had months before. Just a few words, two minutes of conversation. “Do you really believe that people are innately good, or at least neutral?”
And the thing is, I do. As I stare at the TV, at a crying classmate of the shooter, I think about that conversation. I realize that even in such moments, I earnestly, passionately, and wholeheartedly believe that people are innately good.
It is no help to think that people are good in good times. It is a nice thought, but an unnecessary one. We know people are not evil: they are our friends and loved ones, our grocers and our sports instructors, our teachers and our accountants. They go to work in the morning and come home at night. They go to school in the morning and come home and complain about homework.
And then, on one horrific day, one person – one painfully human being – walks into a school with a gun. And we cannot believe it. We forget, in those moments, that humans are good. We see only blood and hate and fear and evil.
We see the Oregon shooter, the Arapahoe gunman, the Aurora shooter, the Sandy Hook shooter, the Columbine killers. And in those people, we see those who came before. The Unibomber and Ted Bundy and Hitler and Stalin.
And we forget.
This is when we need to remember the goodness and decency in people. We do not need to remember heroes. They are icons, but they are few in number. In times like these, we must remember that humanity as a whole is good. There will always, always be more good people than bad.
For every school shooter there are millions of teachers who will protect their students with their own lives. For every arsonist there are thousands of firefighters risking their safety to put out the blaze. For every serial killer there are millions of people transporting food and water to the desperate and needy.
There are hundreds of millions of good, honest, hard-working people. Thousands of teachers, accountants, friends, and loved ones. Hundreds of thousands of people who will let you under their umbrella in the rain, or lend you their supermarket MVP card when you’ve forgotten yours, or simply give you a smile when you’ve had a tough day.
The violent acts we hear about in the media all too often are awful, but I believe with all my heart that people are inherently good. I believe it because even after thousands of years of hatred and oppression and massacres and evil, we still live and laugh and love.
And in times like these, we still mourn. We feel for the victims we do not even know. Human beings grow accustomed to so much, but not loss. Not things like this. We are too good for that.
“Do you really believe that people are innately good, or at least neutral?”
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.