Before I tell you about the superiority complex, and why understanding it can help us all develop more compassion, let me tell you the story of John.
Once upon a time, in the Black Hills of Wyoming, lived a 9-foot tall, 650 lbs black bear named John. One afternoon, John went on a stroll as he often did, looking for food. During his stroll, John came across a 5’8", 170 lbs human camper called Dominique. As John began approaching Dominique to maul and eat him, Dominique spurted up, and shouted at John: "STOOOOOP! I’m human. I’m superior to you. You cannot eat me". John perplexedly stared at Dominique, slapped him in the face and proceeded to maul him to death. John ate Dominique. John lived happily ever after until he died of natural death 30 years later.
One of the biggest problems we face when it comes to showing compassion is this superiority complex too many of us feel. Straight people want to be superior to gays. Men want to be superior to women. Whites want to be superior to blacks. Catholics want to be superiors to non-believers. Humans want to be superior to other animals.
Before I tell you all how wanting to be superior can hinder someone from feeling compassion, let’s put the idea of superiority into some context.
Language is like money. It’s a communication tool. When a person A (let’s call him Joe) gives a person B (let’s call her Jane), a $10 bill, they both enter into an agreement. They both agree that the value of that piece of paper is $10. Inherently, that piece of paper has no real value. However, both John and Jane agree on a value to assign to the piece of paper. It’s a method of communication.
Similarly, the word superior is part of the English language. As many languages, it is one of many methods of communication. So when John tells Jane that a creme brulee is a superior dessert to a muffin, Jane can understand what he means. However just like the $10 bill, the word superior doesn’t have an inherent meaning. In order for the word superior to mean anything, the two parties have to be in agreement as to what the word means. That is why when Dominique (the human) told John (the bear) that he was superior to him, John went on to eat Dominique anyway. To John, the word superior meant absolutely NOTHING.
One of the problems with this superiority complex is that even when two humans agree on what superior means, they don’t always agree on what criteria is acceptable. Sure, a bear might be physically superior to a human. Joe may be intellectually superior to a rose. The ebola virus might be a superior killing machine. Overall, who is to say who or what is superior? No one knows. Of course, as humans, we think we are superior because we are smarter. But if black bears could talk, they certainly would make the argument they are superior because they are stronger. If roses could talk they might make the argument that they are superior because they help create the oxygen many species need survive. Even Ebola could make the argument it is superior because it can wipe out species in a blink of an eye.
This superiority complex is harmless as long as it remains a mere belief. When people take actions based on this false sense of superiority, it can hinder us from showing compassion. In fact, I believe this superiority complex is the root of too many evils in our society. The need to be superior is probably behind the mistreatment of many blacks during slavery. The need to feel/be superior is probably behind some men refusing to give women equal rights. Finally, the need to feel/be superior is also probably behind many of the false beliefs religions teach us.
For example, many of us believe that humans have souls and that other species do not. I don’t know anything about souls, and I’m not arguing whether they exist or not. I know many of us, influenced by religions, believe that having souls somehow makes us superior. Again, when religious beliefs are mere beliefs, they are harmless and can be useful. However, too often religious believers use religious teachings as a reason to harm others and or to discriminate.
Though many religions have perpetuated that superiority complex, I believe it comes from a much deeper place. I believe it comes from a place of distress, discomfort, and fear.
I recently read a quote from Stanley Kubrick. The quote is from a 1928 interview with Playboy. The quote reads in part: "The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent". I believe this terrifying fact about the universe is what drove early humans to seek refuge in these false beliefs of grandeur. I also believe this fact about the universe is behind this fundamentally false belief that in the grand scheme of the universe, we matter more than we actually do. We somehow have ingrained in most of our minds that we matter so much that if humans were no longer alive, the universe would cease to exist. I have some breaking news for you: WE DONT MATTER. At least, not to the universe. There was universe without us before. There will still be a universe long after we’re gone.
If you don’t believe me, consider this: If a meteor was flying towards earth on its way to destroy it, that meteor wouldn’t stop and think: "But wait, there are humans there. I have to make sure I only kill other species. Humans are SO important". The meteor would hit the planet and wipe us all out the same way it did the dinosaurs. As with the extinction of the dinosaurs, the universe would go on… without us. The universe would more than likely live happily ever after until another planet somewhere could sustain life. Then, the whole process would start up all over again.
Some readers may think I’m against competing because I’m suggesting we see other races, genders, species as equals. I’m not. Competition is different than this superiority complex. The superiority complex deals with inherited abilities. Competition deals with skills AND inborn talents. The picture below illustrates it.
Competition is great. It pushes us all to always strive to be better versions of ourselves. Competition drives innovation. It is responsible for many of the greatest technological advances of the past few decades. Competition is good. Needing to feel superior is not.
I’m not saying this to make people feel depressed about how unimportant we are. I’m saying this to remind many of us of what really matters. Whether we’re superior to animals doesn’t matter. Whether whites are superior to blacks doesn’t matter. Whether men are superior to women doesn’t matter. None of this matters because the universe does not care about whether any species, gender, race is superior to another. What matters is to understand that though the universe is indifferent to us, we should not be indifferent to one another. In other words, we may not matter to the universe, but we can and should matter to one another. That is compassion. We are small, and though we might not be able to make a sizeable impact on the universe, we can certainly make a difference in each other lives. It starts with having the humility to see other races, genders, species, as equals. Compassion starts with understanding and accepting that we’re all just a minuscule part of a much bigger equation that is the universe.