It should be obvious that if we are to live the good and maximally beneficial life, we have to know who we are and what we need. Without this knowledge, we do not know how to take care of ourselves. It’s like maintaining anything. If we don’t understand our car, we will destroy it. We have to know that the gas goes in the gas tank, and the water goes into the radiator and not into the gas tank. We also need to know where to find the gas pedal and where to find the brakes.
Knowledge is necessary for the care of anything, even our clothing and the kitchen stove. This is uncontroversial! However, when it comes to understanding humanity and human nature, this understanding is often overlooked, as if there is no human nature at all.
Strangely, we do not forget that our cat, parakeet, and goldfish have their own nature and therefore require care in accordance with their nature. We do not throw our parakeet in the fish's bow; nor do we place our fish in a bird cage. Each creature has its own optimal environment.
However, we show even less attention to our human nature, assuming that our individual differences represent the totality of who we are.
We encounter one example of this disregard for human nature in the last place that we should expect it – in the study of clinical psychology. This study has been dominated by a preoccupation with the pathological, the human differences, not the commonalities.
Myopically, to determine what is pathological, clinical psych has adopted a medical model. According to this model, the pathological is what causes pain or symptomology like sores or swelling. However, when we apply this model to psychology, whatever causes long-term pain, discomfort, or interferes with personal fulfillment is considered pathological. Consequently, the optimal human state is to be pain-free, without unpleasant symptoms, and to be maximally fulfilled or happy. For most psychotherapists, the goal is to reduce unwanted symptomology. (Just look at how they advertise their services!)
However, there is much the matter with this analysis. Pain is also a good thing. It tells us when we have to remove our hand from a hot stove. Likewise, guilt tells us that we might be doing something wrong. To be without pain-receptors is to be a leper. To be without a conscience and guilt feelings is to be a sociopath. Pain is often necessary!
This raises the questions, “What is our common human nature? What is normalcy (if there is such a thing)? And how do we live in accordance with our human nature?” Failing to answer these questions makes it impossible to talk about pathology. Is it pathological to have a sensitive conscience? To not feel bad in the context of injustice? To be concerned about what others think of us? To live our lives for our family at the expense of our own fulfillment?
In comparison, medical issues are relatively simple. Sickness is something that interferes with our maximal physical functioning. But what does it mean to be mentally sick? In order to answer this question, we need to understand what it means to be mentally healthy – something psychology knows little about.
At a secular discussion group, one participant stated that our purpose is to “glorify humanity.” Central to this glorification is our freedom of thought to question everything without any limitations, moral or otherwise.
While I agree with many aspects of this assertion, I think that we need to further explore what it means to be “free.” Is freedom the absence of limitations or rules, as many are prone to believe today? Just try to play chess with complete freedom to move our pieces any way so want and at any time. Complete freedom represents chaos and a meaningless, unsatisfying game of chess.
Complete freedom can also represent supreme bondage. Take the goldfish in his very limiting fishbowl. He eyeballs the great world outside of his bowl and concludes, “I need to be free of the limitations of this bowl.” With a great effort, he jumps out of his bowl, flapping helplessly on the floor below.
The goldfish had maximized his freedom within the limitations of water. Perhaps we too need to learn about our human limitations and to live in accordance with them. Perhaps, as with any other creature, we were created for a specific environment or set of lifestyles that maximize our freedom and well-being.
Let me suggest two sets of limitations within which we should live – what we believe/think and how we act.
WHAT WE BELIEVE/THINK
Thinking accurately is essential. Our thinking must be limited by the truth or wisdom. Our thought processes largely determine if we are going to navigate successfully through life. If we are not accessing and responding to accurate data, we will cash our car. As we drive, we need to know precisely where the other cars are. Anything less will produce catastrophe.
Does this insight also pertain to the gushier aspects of our lives? Definitely! If I think that my mailman is canvassing my house in order to find the right occasion to kill me, this will adversely affect my feelings towards him and my behavior.
More to the point, I used to think that others didn’t like me and was convinced that, in order for them to like me, I had to become a different person. Such a belief was not only inaccurate, it was also costly, alienating me from myself and from others.
Everyone has their areas of blindness. One dear friend believed that most women were terribly attracted to him, even those who told him “no!” His blindness in this area proved costly, including several arrests.
Blindness is always associated with crashes, costs, and even arrests. This means that maturity and growth must entail growth in understanding the truth – seeing reality as it is. This realization suggests that we are constrained by the truth of reality. While we are free to create our own reality, to can only be done at the price of a costly collision with reality.
This same principle applies to human nature. We might decide that we are free to recreate ourselves – and to a certain extent, we can do so – but there are human constraints to which we must adhere.
HOW WE BEHAVE MORALLY
In another way, we are constrained by our human nature. It seems apparent that our human nature is also a moral nature. If we live contrary to our moral nature, we will crash. Of course, we can choose to live in conflict with our moral nature, but only at great cost to ourselves.
A friend had recently confided that, as a young man, he had become the “mascot” of some mafia-type guys. My friend now calls them “monsters.” They had everything – power, money, respect, women – but they were miserable. There was no joy in their lives. Why not? They were living in opposition to their moral nature. They knew better, but they rejected this knowledge.
Meanwhile, many studies have shown that the most satisfied people are those who live according to what they know within themselves. They know that being other-centered is right, and they live that way.
When I live selfishly, I feel most uncomfortable. However, when I center myself on the needs of others, I experience the greatest joy and peace.
What then does it mean to be free, and how do we maximize our freedom? When we live in accordance with the truth, whether external or internal! This means living in accordance with the limitations of our human nature.
CAN A PILL BE INVENTED THAT WILL ALLOW US TO LIVE FREE FROM OUR CONSTRAINING NATURE?
A pill will not enable us to circumvent reality, no more than an anti-anxiety drug will enable us to drive blindfolded.
Even more to the point, why would anyone want to circumvent reality? Only a superficial view of reality would cause us to ask such a question. Some believe that reality is nothing but change. In this case, human nature and moral reality is nothing to be reckoned with. Better to be a trend-setter!
However, if human nature is such by the design of a superior Intelligence who has created us with a moral nature to understand Him and to enter into a loving and eternal relationship with Him, our nature is to be cherished and not changed.
Yes, we are glorious, but how so? As we walk in sync with Reality – our Creator - first in belief and then in action!