At the end of the 1937 film The Man Who Could Work Miracles written by H. G. Wells, three gods discuss the value, or lack thereof, of humanity. One, known as The Giver of Power, concludes that humankind is worth keeping around. Though puny and weak, people are more than just apes. He says: “No, there is something in every one of those creatures more than that. Like a little grain of gold glittering in sand—lost in the sand—a flash of indignation when they think things are false and wrong. That’s godlike. Dirt is never indignant. That is why they interest me.”
That flash of indignation when we think things are wrong and false shows up early. Toddlers hate to see other sentient beings hurt. They know cruelty is wrong and it hurts their hearts. When one baby cries, it is likely the next one will cry too knowing that something is wrong; something is not as it should be. Empathy can be strained out of humans. It can be lost in the sand with its close cousin indignation, but it is there at the start.
Our indignation may cause conflicts among us, even to the point of war, but it is also a source of good. It moves us to serve the good, to relieve suffering, to imagine a better world and to act to that end. The indignant join the army or march for peace or gather medical supplies and take them to refugees. They build schools and hospitals and design better cities.
Frustrated indignation can lead to cynicism, which rarely leads to constructive action. The cynic focuses on the problem and accommodates to it. Cynics can be very funny, but are they happy? Sometimes indignation burns in our minds and we see no relief for the pain. We know about the falsity and wrongness of conditions, but we seem powerless to change them. Stuck in frustrated outrage, depression sets in and the light of life grows dim. When we focus on our own frailty and weakness and the immensity of what is wrong with the world we can feel hopeless. When we look instead at what we can do and then begin to serve, hope grows, as does our sense of being effective and worthwhile.
So let us consider our own sense of indignation, and honor it, and focus it, and act upon it. Let our indignation be infused with the compassion that lies near its original source. Let it be a reminder that we are born with wisdom, an innate knowing of what is good and fair and right.
© 2003 Tom Barrett