Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967, famously characterized the human mind as a storehouse filled with two kinds of seeds: good and bad. Humans have the capacity to be both good and evil, he pointed out, and it’s the seeds we water that ultimately grow. Think about that. When we look around the world today, we see a lot of evil sprouting up all around, and we wonder where it came from. We scratch our heads, we point fingers, and sometimes, in frustration, we join in the fray. Based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s insight, we should really take a closer look at how we are watering the seeds of the very evils we decry and detest – incivility, hate-based conflict and violence, and even basic intolerance.
Human Rights Day on December 10 gives us the opportunity to think about the ways in which we are dehumanizing each other, and to find our way back to affirming – and, indeed, watering the seeds of – one another’s full humanity. Isn’t that the point of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed 70 years ago? This is a tall challenge right now because we are very much in an “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” moment. This polarized point of view is now an emotional trigger affecting every single policy issue and every single attempt at public discourse. It’s even dividing families and weakening friendships.
The truth is this: Human beings yearn for the water of connection and the sunshine of goodness. Like the seeds of any plant, human being-ness takes root in rich soil and stretches its leaves toward the light. If you doubt this, just look at babies and how they thrive in the presence of love, care, kindness, helpfulness, connection, validation, and education. When these forms of goodness are absent – or worse when the opposite kinds of conditions prevail – little ones fail to thrive. Often, when watered with the bad things, children are traumatized, and they carry these traumas with them throughout life, where they become far more susceptible to extreme degrees of fear, anger, and hate. We have the power to shape their world, to water their world with goodness. We hold their future in our hands, beneath the water in our watering cans. This understanding – and this responsibility – is enshrined in the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year, in addition to the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.
If we wonder why people are engaging in conflict, erupting in violence, exhibiting intolerance, and expressing incivility with such ferocious abandon, we need only to think about how we are re-traumatizing each other, over and over and over – interpersonally and systemically, in ways both small and large. As we fray the threads of the social fabric with vitriol and ire on the one hand and exploitation and indifference on the other, we undermine the progress we have made across the decades towards a world in which human rights are universally recognized and upheld. If we truly want to transform the situation, we need to start watering different seeds ASAP.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – revered, even if imperfect – provides a roadmap for bringing ourselves back to sanity and full humanity. What are some of its pointers? First, we are urged to recognize the inherent dignity of all people. Second, we should protect human rights with the rule of law. Third, we must stay connected to the truth that everyone wants social progress, better standards of life, and larger freedom. Fourth, we must remember that we need to teach people about these rights so that they will be more widely affirmed and enacted. From these initial suggestions follow 30 specific articles, crafted together by the nations of the world, to create a common footing for justice and human wellbeing. If there’s only one thing you do for Human Rights Day this year, just read it, from beginning to end.
Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. An expert on Womanism, her scholar-activist work interweaves threads from the social sciences and the critical disciplines, incorporating basic and applied platforms around a common theme of integrating identities and communities in peaceable, ecologically sound, and self-actualizing ways.