A Short Treatise on Human Nature

I’m going to let you in on a little secret (that won’t be so secret once I tell the whole world about it, but such is the cost of blogging).

I don’t believe that humans are basically good.

In my current circles, saying such feels about as close to blasphemy that I can get to without belonging to a religion. In mental health and social work, the Rogerian view of basic human goodness is practically prerequisite.

But to me, trying to say that humans are basically good requires the same underlying philosophy as the more Christian view of original sin—a concept I also adamantly reject for somewhat obvious reasons.

So what do I believe about human nature?

I’ve been thinking over the answer to that question ever since I realized that Carl Rogers and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye. The short answer is that I believe humans are neutral, neither good nor bad. But that’s somewhat of a cop out.

People aren’t really concerned with what an infant’s natural state in the moral universe is; rather, they are searching for a way to explain human behavior and motivation. The view of human depravity explains why people do the shitty things they do, thus why they need limitations. The view of human goodness explains why people do good things, turn around their lives, have a change of heart, etc., thus why we shouldn’t give up on them.

So how do I understand human behavior? I wouldn’t even be able to do it justice in a book, much less a blog post. However, I will give an attempt at codifying where I find myself in my current views of humanity.

  • Humans are meaning makers: I think I sort of steal this thought from Gestalt psychology…but then Gestalt psychology probably stole it from someone else. People seek out patterns and look for meaning. Our brains are wired for it. Do we discover patterns or invent them? I don’t know. On some levels, I don’t think it matters. The point is that we look for ways of making sense and meaning out of the things we encounter throughout life. In the process, we tell ourselves stories about how the world works.
  • Humans are selfish: And this isn’t a bad thing (when balanced with the next point). We have an internal drive for survival, which means that we have a drive to seek out that which we perceive as good for us, “perceive” being the operative word. While I fully believe that each individual can be the best expert on themselves and what they need, I don’t think that every individual actually embodies that. Sometimes our compass gets fucked, and we end up pursuing that which hurts us.
  • Humans are social: Duh, right? But seriously, we are social animals. We need others to survive. We have an internal psychological and biological drive to bond. Hence, even though we are selfish beings, we are also not entirely selfish beings. The Age of Empathy does a great job of laying out the evolutionary imperative for us herd animals to have an emotional connection to each other and nicely counterbalances the typical capitalistic version of survival of the fittest.

It feels like there should be more bullet points, yet that’s pretty much the nutshell version of my view of human nature in this moment: basically neutral in the beginning, with a drive to survive and bond and an incredible capacity to make meaning. From this perspective, there’s room for people to be motivated to do good things and bad, prosocial and antisocial, self-caring and self-destructive.

I guess ultimately, I don’t disagree entirely with Rogers.  Give people a healthy environment, and they’ll probably turn out basically “good.” Give people a way to adjust their stories and relationships to self and others, and they can change, heal, grow, self-actualize, whatever.

I just don’t think that once they’ve been programmed with certain stories and views of themselves and others that it’s a mere process of removing them from a negative environment and giving them lots of love. Bad stories, survival mechanisms, and relationship patterns don’t just disappear because someone enters a new environment.

The modern love affair with unconditional positive regard (a concept I secretly believe is grossly misunderstood in our day and age) looks appealing in the same way that positivity looks appealing. Like positivity, though, it’s too simplified. Ultimately, it betrays the people it purportedly helps because it doesn’t actually provide them with the tools and resources they need to change.

 

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Losing Access to One Emotion Causes the Whole System to Malfunction

I just saw Disney’s newest Pixar film, Inside Out, a movie which I had been waiting to see for months. If you’ve followed my series on reclaiming negative emotions, I’m sure you can understand why I was psyched out of my mind. If you’re familiar with the way that society tends to demonize shadow emotions, you’ll also understand why I was slightly apprehensive.

Spoiler Alert, by the way, for this post. I’m going to be discussing the significance of the plot.

I knew from the previews that Joy gets lost, and I suspected that it would be a movie about depression, where Sadness takes over running things because Joy is missing. I was equal parts hoping for some positive representations of what sadness does for people but also prepared for it to be all about having to find one’s joy again.

To my surprise and delight, that’s not the way that plot goes.

Joy does get lost, but she gets lost with Sadness after the two of them have a fight in head-quarters about whether Sadness can produce a core memory shortly after Riley has to move away from her home and friends.

Nobody likes Sadness, especially not Joy. Joy tolerates Anger, Disgust, and Fear because she recognizes they have a valuable job to do (yay that they weren’t demonized!). But she doesn’t see the point of Sadness. When they get lost together, she’s even willing at one point to leave Sadness behind in order to get herself back to headquarters because she sees herself as the most important emotion for Riley to have.

Meanwhile, back at headquarters, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are trying desperately to cover up the fact that two of the emotions have gotten lost, but it’s not their jobs to be either joyful or sad, so they mess it up. Big time. They end up planting an idea in her head that sets Riley off on a destructive and dangerous course.

The longer Joy and Sadness are gone, the more things fall apart inside Riley until the emotional control panel in her head begins to shut down and turn gray. With horror, Anger, Fear, and Disgust realize that they can’t make her feel anything anymore.

Eventually, it becomes apparent that Sadness has a really important role to play for Riley. Only Sadness can turn the control panel back on. Riley needs to grieve for her friends back in her former home and the fact that she feels completely lost in this new place.

Once Sadness is permitted to do her job, the other emotions are able to start doing their jobs again.

I was crying so hard at the end of the movie, not just because it was a tear-jerker. I was crying because it felt like someone finally understood the importance of emotions and had codified it so well in this children’s movie. All of the emotions are vital. But when we try to distance ourselves from one, we distance ourselves from all. When we try to cover up one with another (Anger is great at covering up sadness), we only make it worse. If we try to operate without one entirely, the whole system eventually begins shutting down.

Kali: Tears of Anger, Dance of Grief

A year and a half ago I made my unexpected acquaintance with Artemis and wrote a post about how intimidating, wild, and chaotic she was as a teacher. I laugh this week at how scary it felt to encounter her. She seems like a pussy cat compared to the new Goddess who came dancing into my spiritual practice—Kali.

19th Century lithograph of Kali by R. Varma. Public Domain.

19th Century lithograph of Kali by R. Varma. Public Domain.

Kali is most often depicted in her warrior stance. As far as chaos goes, Artemis might thrive in it, but I’m pretty sure Kali is the mother of it.

I’ve always admired Kali from a distance as a beautiful archetype of anger and destruction, but to actually work with her is not something I would have put on my bucket list.

Had she entered my life in all of her wrathful glory, I might have made like a Yip Yip and said “Nope!”

Instead, it was I who was lost in wrath. My inner activist was all riled up with righteous indignation over something this past week. I was in a royal rage, blindly throwing out shards of anger at anyone who happened to get in the way, which happened to be none of the people who actually deserved those shards.

Rather than joining in my anger, Kali came capering up in this goofy dance, tongue lolling out.

I thought, “Oh good. I need a Goddess of destruction right now”…as if she were a guard dog that I would send to chase down and maul my enemies.

Instead, what I got were hot tears swirling up in my eyes.

Tears did not fit with my anger! I fought them off vehemently, but they were determined to come. When they finally escaped, Kali was there, wrapping her arms around me to comfort me with all the tenderness of the most nurturing mother.

In a way, it felt like she was scolding me for my indiscriminate hostility.

She’s not the type of deity that requests the suppression of emotion. She recognizes that anger and destruction are vital energies, especially to the oppressed and wronged. But there is a difference between righteous wrath leading to the dismantling of that which harms and the blind frenzy of bloodthirsty rage.

Kali knows well how heroic anger can transform into villainy.

In her legend, she is the savior who comes to defeat the undefeatable demons, devouring them and drinking their blood. But at one point, she loses sight of her purpose and gets lost in the exhilaration of her destruction, requiring Shiva to step in to recall her to herself.

Accounts vary about how Shiva stopped her.

In the most common one, as her husband, he lays down at her feet. When she steps on him, she comes to her senses and stops her rampage.

In another, he comes as a baby. His cries break through her bloody trance, again ending the rampage as she stops to comfort and nurse the baby.

Both times, it’s her connection, love, and relationship to another that prevents her anger from destroying the whole world, which is a striking analogy of the importance of relationship within activism.

The activism conversation came after though. What was primary was Kali demonstrating her maternal side. Kali needed to remind me that anger is always accompanied by grief, and it’s the denial of that pain and grief that makes anger so monstrous.

Although the infant was technically Shiva, I secretly think that the infant was an aspect of Kali herself.

I believe that beneath the terrible Goddess of destruction is a small child scared, hurt, and longing for comfort.

Like Kali, I was blinded by my anger this week, pushing away the pain that was beneath it and losing my sense of connection and relationship both to myself and to those around me. She came to guide me to my own tears—tears that softened my frenzied heart so I could take the time to nurture myself.

Kali, though as uninvited as Artemis, came into my life at an opportune time. As I continue to explore the meaning of power (especially the reclamation of it) and become more comfortable with my own anger, she seems like an excellent guide to have along.

For more readings on Kali:

http://sites.lafayette.edu/rel101-sp12/2012/03/02/a-discussion-of-hindu-myths-or-why-kali-is-the-coolest-mythical-character-ever/

http://www.ancient.eu/Kali/

And for a gorgeous belly dance about Kali, check out this YouTube clip:

Ritual of Release

I don’t typically practice releasing rituals/spells because I often find that they are meant to release the emotions surrounding a situation, which is counter-productive in my opinion. The only way to release difficult emotions is to go through them.

However, there are times when releasing rituals are appropriate because the emotions of grief or anger are blocked by a tenacious hold on a dead wish or desire.

If you created a womb wish box or make use of another kind of wish box, then it is occasionally good to go through and check to see which wishes have come true, which still need gestation time, and which ones should be released. Leaving a dead wish in the wish box not only takes up energetic space that could be devoted to other intentions but can also serve to distract from processing the emotions surrounding a lost wish.

The following ritual is designed to help with the releasing process and to create the space that allows you to acknowledge your loss and start to move through those difficult emotions.

You will need:

A candle
A fire-safe dish such as a small cauldron
The wish/desire removed from the wish box (alternatively, write down a description of what you intend to release)
A bit of dried sage
The tools or things associated with your work towards that wish.

Light the candle and place the tools of your project on or around your altar or working space.

Using a fire-safe dish, burn the written wish with a bit of sage. As it burns, say out loud, “I release _____” (e.g. “I release this project/job/relationship/person”). Envision the energy that has been holding you and any others to this path that isn’t working for either of you disappearing in the smoke. I like to think of an invisible cord of light that gets severed.

Sit and meditate on what had made that wish so important. Acknowledge the work put in and the loss of letting go. It’s okay to feel the grief.

Towards the end of the meditation, begin going through the tools associated with the project, recycling or discarding what seems appropriate, repurposing what you can cleanse and redirect to another project.

Later, either bury or cast the ashes into the wind.