“Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!”
—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
This short exclamation is one of my favorite quotes of Dostoyevsky, and I find myself saying it under my breath all the time. The quote is arresting because it condemns as bad something we normally think of as good: human adaptability.
This adaptability—and adaptability is closely tied with intelligence—is what has allowed us conquer nearly every corner of the world. We can fashion clothes for cold climates, accustom ourselves to new technologies, and retain a childlike ability to learn new things throughout our lives.
Like anything, however, adaptability has a darker side. I know this from my own experience. When you live in New York—or Madrid, for that matter—you quickly grow used to passing homeless people on the street. At first, something inside of you rebels against this state of affairs. It is unconscionable that we can live such a heartless society, where the poor are simply left behind.
But then your outrage turns into selfishness when you are accosted for money; and your heart hardens when you pass them day after day. Soon the homeless have been completely dehumanized in your eyes, and the situation is regarded as normal.
I’m not proud of admitting that this happens to me, but it does. I simply get used to it. I can’t maintain outrage or compassion forever. The feelings dissipate, and numbness comes creeping in.
This is just an illustration. People have gotten used to more horrible things than homelessness. One need only read about some of the darker periods of history to see how far this process can go. Injustice and cruelty, if practiced regularly, become expected, customary, unremarkable. Humans aren’t always scoundrels, but too often are.