The Human Condition
The Human Condition
The Human Condition
Over 400 articles
Articles by Series
Copyright © 1997 through 2006 by Dorian Scott Cole
Peace: Fall 2000 series -
Alienation: Pulling Apart, Putting Together - A series of articles about alienation:
Finding Meaning in Life: A series of articles about using meaning in characterization:
Religion and morality
These groups of articles emphasize the role of religion in today and tomorrow's world.
Ontology of God: A research project into what God is about
Change (growth) that takes place in religion
The "human condition" is what stories are supposedly about. So I try in these articles to talk about the length and breadth of the human condition and talk about it as much as possible from a holistic approach using relevant theories from the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and theology.
Motivation and character change are central to developing a story. Narrative psychology and meaning-making are closely related, are of special interest to me, and I enjoy finding relevant parallels that can improve story telling. I have very few biases about the various psychological theories, having come to realize that most of them have an application. On this page, you can find out more about my personal perspective, the definitions I use, and the limits of these pages.
The psychological and social aspect
Abnormal psychology will not be presented here; only the psychology of normal people. Therapeutic methods will not be presented here - this is a site for understanding personality for characterization, not a clinic for devising treatments. Additionally, I must mention that the views presented here are strictly for character development. People who want psychological advice or counseling should go to a qualified psychologist. I know enough about therapy to know that insight can often be misdiagnosed, and even correct insight into problems doesn't constitute a cure for problems.
Insight is good for helping people understand that there is something there that can be treated, and for helping them understand the nature of what it is, so that when they experience its symptoms they can recognize it and cope with it.
I studied the cognitive, behaviorist variety of psychology ~ 1980, with an introduction to other theories, and ultimately found the strong bias (then and often now) against psychotherapy to be a handicap when working with people - but cognitive is good for working with rats and doing basic research. Since there are a number of people with rat-like qualities, cognitive and behavioral psychology have wide application. J Behaviorist theory treats people like boxes that we can't see inside. It is only interested in the input that it takes to get an output. Cognitive psychology tries to understand people from the most basic neurological level, and presents excellent results. Cognitive is making steady progress at understanding people as complex systems. For example, Albert Bandura at Stanford University does studies from a very wide perspective and gets what I believe are excellent results.
Early in life I thought I wanted to be a psychoanalyst. I learned quickly that I have no interest in abnormal psychology (neurosis and psychosis). I went on to study psychology so that I could do counseling as a pastor - I emphasized healing and personal growth. Counseling is not psychotherapy, which is treatment of problems. I learned three important lessons from studying and using psychology in various fields.
The first lesson I learned is that the world of psychology is so divided, often to the point of contradiction and even antagonism, that you must waste four years in college trying to come to grips with all of the different competing theories before even choosing one that might be useful even for marriage counseling. Or so the state college says. There are over 250 different types of psychotherapy, and few practical ways to differentiate between them. (Also there are few ways to locate a competent psychotherapist. Give a psychotherapist's office a call, and the office probably won't tell you what kind of psychotherapy he practices and he probably won't return your call.) With no interest in psychotherapy and abnormal psych, I really didn't need to chase rats through a maze to acquire something useful, and being very disappointed that both learning theory and motivation were presented from the rat's point of view, I found very little useful in college classes. Fortunately college is an excellent resource for journals in the field.
The second lesson was much more difficult to learn, and much more time consuming. It required experience. Like Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Therapy, I soon had an inkling that insight doesn't cure problems. In other words, even if you help people discover the cause of their problem, they continue to have the problem. Life is difficult. Even giving people a specific avenue to follow didn't cure the problem. Most of them couldn't do it. I have long since ceased formal counseling, and turned to various other ways of working with people. But life continued to pound into me over the next twenty years that knowledge about a problem is helpful, but doesn't cure the problem. Even the person's struggles to overcome the problem often don't overcome the problem. Why? Read on.
I learned two things from my experience with insight (or knowledge). First is that effective counseling about personality development issues does involve psychoanalytic psychotherapy (or something equivalent). What the person does after gaining insight is integrate the experience. Experience that is not integrated remains a thorn that constantly irritates the person. It remains a conflict and an obstacle that prevents the person from getting on with life. Integrating experience is a difficult (and sometimes controversial) issue that I won't go into here. It isn't something that I can't help others do in a counseling setting - I lack that kind of knowledge and experience. But the good news, and the other thing I learned, is that much about life itself is about integrating experience - it is about personal growth (personality development). Two examples: One, the spiritual and religion paradigm I have placed down the page consists of spiritual ideas (insight), experience, and integration. Two, writing is often an integrative experience. The writer offers a form of insight and experience and a conclusion. What the writer does is not real, but it can be compelling. The story is an effective form of inspiration to others, and can be influential. And of some concern: a story can also become a narrative (see narrative psychology) that is overly influential for some.
The third thing I learned from my experience with psychology was the most useful, and has served me well in several occupations. I'm not only a student of motivation, I have been actively involved with assisting attitude change in people in a variety of capacities. Again it was the theories of Albert Ellis that seemed to fit best. He thought that behavior is involved in a sequence of thought, then actions, then feelings. Erroneous thinking can lead to bad behavior, then emotional problems that support the bad behavior. Change thinking and you change behavior.
But this theory still erred too far on the side of insight. I was fortunate to be able to look at the research in the journals and find some startling insights into human behavior. You can change people's behavior and this will change the way they think and also the way they feel about things. You can also seek out the cause of why they feel the way they do, address that, and this will change their behavior. The way people think often has everything to do with how they feel about things. For example, people who are unsure of their abilities (cause) often fear (emotion or feeling) change, and typically will think that anything that requires change is faulty, so they don't have to use it. When they are forced to use the new thing (behavior), they soon conquer it and their thinking about it changes - it is now a good thing. And this is, in effect, treating the symptom (refusal to change) but not curing the problem (unsure of abilities). It is short-term therapy, but it is often essential in many environments because we have to get along with each other and do our jobs in spite of personal problems.
What is attitude change about? Recognizing what the obstacles to motivation are, and removing them. I'm a lot like Mr. Spock on Star Trek. I look at behavior and say, "It isn't logical." If I am about to act a certain way that isn't logical, I start trying to figure out why. (I can definitely be irrational.) I once thought everyone was like me - generally logical. On the contrary, most people seem not to think about their own behavior. Whatever they feel, they do, and they don't even think to wonder if it makes sense. Why? Well, their behavior is consistent with what they want, so where is the problem? It turns out that of the three components that make up a person's attitude, the emotional, the behavior, and the rational (thinking), the emotional carries more strength. In fact, a person can know that one set of facts is correct about a particular thing, but have a negative emotion about that thing, and form an entirely new set of negative facts about the thing. For example, a person who thinks a certain school or business is the best, but flunks out or gets fired, may form an attitude that the school or business is the worst, and change his behavior to telling everyone to stay away from it.
I found that working with attitude change to be a much more effective way of working with people than other methods, as a parent, as a pastor, as a manager, in sales, and on the job. Occassionally I had to directly change behaviors, but more often than not I was looking for the cause of impediments - emotion and erroneous thinking. But there are several things that attitude change is not about. It isn't about confrontation and arguing with people. That only creates defensiveness and hostility - the opposite of what is required for attitude change and motivation. It isn't about motivational speaking or speaking persuasively, although these sometimes help. It isn't about finding some new motivation to get people to do things or think the right way. It definitely isn't about befriending people and finding out about what they think, and then using it against them, or tricking people, or manipulating people. Manipulating people and being a traitor always fail because they establish distrust and suspicion. When you don't have trust you have no basis for any kind of relationship except fear and distrust, and these spell death to any kind of human endeavor.
The writer's edge
Writers are often recognized as having an excellent understanding of some elements of the human condition. This doesn't make them psychologists, and isn't a slur on psychologists. Psychology is a very disciplined field with strong focus on very specific issues. Psychology has a long history with abnormal psychology (neurotic and psychotic personalities), and has only recently turned to the study of normal people. The study of "normal" has often been limited to 20-year-old college students. Even though Freud recognized two main areas of human endeavor, love and work, and only recognized childhood as the developmental phase, psychologists have tended to only focus on love (sexuality) and problems that developed from childhood experience. So the typical view of many psychotherapists is that all human suffering is the result of sexual mistreatment or repression during childhood. Marital problems, career frustration, and anything else that comes up are seen as a result of childhood problems. Aargh!
The cognitive branch of psychology, which produces excellent scientifically valid results about human personality, has a history of studying 20-year-old college students. Most of us think we would like to be 20, but the problems, experience, knowledge, body chemistry, attachments, and other factors of those at 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 - are radically different. In the forties, while the eyes are beginning to lose flexibility and cell replacement begins to lose ground, the synapse connections and nerve lengths in the brain more than double. What does that mean? In the fifties, body and brain chemistry radically changes and continues to change. The great balance of life is spent after age 20. I have seen much more personality development after age 20 than anything like those developing years that form a rudimentary personality. These facts alone should have wide implications for research in psychology. Much more research is now being done on more mature age groups.
Writers, in contrast, often have wide experience and generally don't so narrowly limit their field of vision. And just as importantly, writers are much closer to the mind and behavior of us as "free agents" who determine our own destiny, than to the sickness, rat, and child mentalities more typically dealt with by psychotherapists. (Psychotherapists do deal with some very normal people who are seriously affected by their environment, such as difficult marriages, families, and work situations. Nothing here is meant to denigrate psychotherapists, whom I hold in high esteem, or their clients, for whom I have great sympathy.) However, just as psychologists get stuck in their constructs (theories), writers also get stuck in mindsets, and experience, and popular theories about psychology. That is a lot of what this web site is about - being more free to think, and challenged to write. (What I think isn't very important.) Thus, the name of my first article in this series: A character motivation primer: becoming free to explore.
I personally take a cognitive constructivist, and social view of humanity, which is useful for understanding a lot about behavior. But there is a danger there in dehumanizing people to the level of artificial intelligence and overlooking the impact of the less quantifiable variables in life, like spirituality, altruism, etc. I view personality development as a continuum in which we begin in chaos on the more reactive side of life (more like a rat - not very responsible for our behavior or destiny), and develop to the more ordered and proactive side of life (free agents which take part in shaping our own destiny - fully responsible for our behavior and destiny). I also think the psychoanalytic branch describes some of the most important basic mechanisms of the mind, and is probably more useful for understanding personality development than the other systems, particularly if you disregard the overly sexual aspects of it. (Fred emphasized the sexual, Adler emphasized power, Jung emphasized metaphysical, and Frankl emphasized meaning. - each explored a unique and valid aspect.)
I immediately clicked with John Bruner's work, Acts of Meaning1. That was my first exposure to Narrative psychology, which is a relatively new movement in psychology that is gaining interest and use. Narrative is telling true events or experiences as story. Narrative is the stories that we tell about life, whether folk wisdom passed down generation to generation, or some wild idea we concoct that justifies our behavior. It is something we all frequently use and do. Uses are being found for narrative in psychotherapy (reforming the meaning of mini-stories), however I am personally more interested in the wider roles of narrative in our society. Those roles include narrative in understanding and using life stories, meaning-making, and the role of personal and cultural narratives in creating, or mis-creating, the world of our endeavors. This is one of the driving forces in establishing this web site. See the mission statement for this web site.
Most psychological theories have useful application, and they all have their shortcomings. Modern psychotherapy focuses on Solution Focused Therapy, which tries to shorten the therapeutic process toward a specific goal. It is good for acute problems, adjustment problems, and for insurance purposes. Classical Psychoanalytic psychotherapy has more to do with problems related to difficulties in personality development. Psychotherapy can take years - people often aren't ready to integrate problems and won't recognize the source of their pain until they are ready to accept it. That doesn't mean the method is no good. Problems from the past must be dealt with sometime - they will continue returning and causing problems until they are dealt with, or until maturity prevails.
On the other hand, the cognitive branch is correct in that dwelling on the past, especially blaming the past to the point of refusing to take responsibility for the present and future, creates enormous problems where none were. As a practical matter, just getting on with life is often a faster and more effective solution. Getting one's mind off one's self and onto helping others does wonders for fixing many problems. But the danger with quick fixes is that they can be nothing more than a coping mechanism that skirts the real problem. But then we all need a little coping mechanism from time to time, and many problems have no roots in the past. Even finding the most effective approach to treating a psychological problem is a complex task, and fortunately psychotherapists are better than the systems they represent.
The views presented on these pages will be from a holistic point of view instead of just from a psychological point of view. People have also always been social and spiritual creatures. To me, ignoring these aspects is like studying only the south pole of a magnet. Without the north pole, the south pole has no effect. It is meaningless. In fact, if you cut off the north pole, it is still there - it is inherent in the metal. It is the molecular alignment in the metal that creates the magnet. The alignment is consistent everywhere in the magnet. You can't cut off the north pole - it is. It's the same with people - the influences that are within man are so related to society that you can't cut society out of man.
Although I embrace the usefulness of all psychological approaches (especially social psychology), particularly for character motivation, I personally am interested in the role of narrative in our society, in motivation, and in personality change and the integration of experience into the psyche (development). These things are usually what an entertainment writer is working with through the course of a story.
The spiritual and religious aspect
We are all to some extent spiritual beings. Very few people claim not to believe in God, but the variety of ways people integrate the spiritual side of life into their lives is as numerous as waves on the ocean. So I'm going to define what I mean by spiritual and religious. My definitions are broad and well grounded in various theological camps.
Spiritual is a land of ideas. It is also the way people encounter (know) God. Spiritual ideas challenge and lead people to a greater awareness and experience of the human and deity worlds. These ideas find expression, proof, and fruition, in human behavior. People take ideas and live them. The ways of knowing God (encountering God) commonly include reading inspirational or religious literature, meditation and prayer, philosophy (reasoning), mystical experiences, religion, and combinations of these. Spiritual refers to the individual's encounter with God, not the collective. Although the orientation of ideas is vertical - God/man - the experience of ideas more commonly has a horizontal orientation - a person's relationship with other people, and person to world. The spiritual aspect of life seems to say, "pay attention to God to learn to live effectively with people."
Organized religion is often the beginning of spiritual awareness in people and assumes a larger role of collective spiritual direction. Religion is a social (collective) encounter with God, and has a structured framework. Religion codifies ideas about God into a useful framework for working with groups of people. Most religions are usually somewhat flexible in allowing for the varieties of religious (spiritual) experience of individuals. Religions are concerned both with the spiritual growth of individuals, and with the collective expression of spiritual ideas in the larger world.
Some religions (or branches of religions) have extremely narrow definitions regarding personal conduct, beliefs, and interpretation of holy writings which are viewed as written by God's own hand, and emphasize only portions of those writings. These religions are called fundamentalists. I understand and appreciate fundamentalists, however I avoid extremist viewpoints in my writings except when it is necessary for explanation.
Literature - the revelation of God. Religions usually tie themselves to a book of religious literature which reveals God. Revealing God means presenting religious wisdom that instructs people on how to live with each other. Most religions also show stages of development. They present different aspects of wisdom at different ages. On the surface they sometimes appear contradictory. The God who cleared the land of native people in Israel in 2000 B.C.E. for his own people, bears little resemblance to the God extending a hand in brotherly love to all people in 200 A.D. Yet as a world today, no matter how good we are we still find it necessary to keep others from destruction by going to war with them. We are an imperfect world doing imperfect things, but we have religious examples leading us toward perfection... if we will be part of it.
Faith means trusting God. It doesn't mean to believe that there is a God. It means buying into spiritual ideas and living them. Living spiritual ideas comes at a price. You know you are going to be better for it, and the world is going to be better off for it, but it often comes at some sacrifice. Most of the kind things we do are not a sacrifice. We exchange gifts at Christmas, we give to business acquaintances, we give perks to employees, we give time and other things to friends and family, but we know that all of these people will give back to us in some form or another. In contrast, you give to the poor and expect nothing in return. You help the sick, you may get sick in return. You stand up for the oppressed, you may be oppressed in return. You resist striking back at someone who steals from you, and you may get stolen from again, but you may also win a friend (be discerning - many people are sociopaths for whom this gesture has no meaning). Faith leads one to do these things (or guilt, or ego - we all want to think well of ourselves). The act of faith is transforming. We begin doing what we think we should, and end up doing what we want. (Fortunately acts based on guilt and ego can also be somewhat transforming if they haven't become neurotic.)
Many religious people emphasize a more personal walk (relationship) with God. Faith is often an empowerment that helps them through the difficult times of life, and is a source of continuing joy. Some even go so far as to blame God for every bad thing that happens to them, and praise Him for every good thing that happens to them. I don't pretend to prescribe the measure or meaning of people's faith, nor do I pretend to limit God. But I do think that God responds according to each person's way of faith - according to their need.
Evil. Religions recognize that there is evil in the world, but don't really define it. There is evil around people, and evil within people. It's a movement (my words) - an ever-present influence. My definition is this: evil is the willingness to to harm other people, usually for personal gain, but especially for non-worthy reasons. From this definition it follows that, evil ultimately is opposition to spiritual ideas. There are people who are completely evil.
Sin. I avoid sin. The definition of sin can be extremely broad: "missing the mark." Sin is closely associated with a sense of guilt, which can be useful for those who don't recognize the pain and suffering they cause, however guilt is more typically destructive - socially isolating and personally demotivating - and is a poor choice for working with people who are proactive in their approach to life. This paragraph is probably the only place you will find the word sin in my writings. (See: Carl Schneider, Shame, Exposure, and Privacy, 1977. Helen Lynd, On Shame And The Search For Identity, 1958.)
Acquiring understanding - the experience of religion. There are several methods used by religious people to acquire understanding. Experience is primary - it comes first (in my opinion). Experience and core values3 are there for spiritual knowledge and reason to appeal to. After you have stubbed your toe for the fifth time, then an instruction to lift your foot means a lot more. The other ways to acquire understanding are prayer, sharing experience, meditation, study, listening to inspirational speaking, reading of religious writings, and mysticism (ecstatic trance - this is rare). In mysticism and meditation there is no new knowledge that is acquired, but only a better understanding of current knowledge and experience. These two methods are much like the insight and personality integrative process in Freudian psychotherapy. Transcendental meditation, unlike the foregoing, is said to transcend experience and contact the Godhead. Any spiritual experience can be said to potentially involve God at some level.
Existentialism is mourned, cursed, and ridiculed by some, and welcomed and praised by others. Part of the problem is, it can mean just about anything. Some can use an existential outlook to say that there is no meaning in life and that there is nothing but despair. We are all adrift in a sea of nothingness. Life is empty and hopeless. But to me, Existentialism is connected with the freedom for personal growth and to understand life more fully. Far from denying meaning or religion, Existentialism embraces meaning and makes more meaning possible. It is expansive, not restrictive. Dynamic and growing, not static.
Others in life tend to dictate how we see things. Our parents dictate our religious preference, and our religion dictates our morals and religious conduct. Our schools and jobs dictate what we learn and why we should have specific knowlege - they find it useful. The legal system and the courts often dictate how we are to conduct ourselves and what it means if we don't. Psychologists and sociologists often dictate what we believe about ourselves and about what others think of us. We are seen by others as systems and objects. We are known as they want us to be known. We are made to fit in the mold they have created for us. Most of the time, that is probably just fine. But what about the days when we don't fit?
The existential perspective is not a model of man at all, but a perspective that allows seeing individuals from their own experience. Take away the lens of industry, and a person is not a failure if he has difficulty coping with job requirements, while the person who excells at business may be seen to have serious personal defects. Coping and job requirements come under scrutiny. Take away the lens of schooling, and the person who does not do so well may be seen to have many other attributes, while the person who excells may be found deficient in important areas. Things that are considered worthwhile come under scrutiny. Take away the lens of psychological/medical models, and the person who is struggling to cope is no longer seen as a neurotic disease that must be matched to a therapeutic model, but as a person who is protecting themselves, which can be addressed in other ways.
The existential perspective does not deny the models, but looks beyond them at the world of the individual to, in the words of Rollo May, "...analyze the structure of human existence... should yield an understanding of the reality underlaying all situations of human beings in crises," and to see the becoming, because existence is dynamic and mankind is always becoming, which means "potentially in crisis."
Discourse and recommendations are welcome.
Email: Primary Contact.
1 Bruner, Jerome. Acts Of Meaning, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1990. (Note: A new transforming view of psychologies that refocuses on cultural (folk) psychology as providing society with its meaning framework, with much emphasis on narrative (story) as the vehicle for meaning. Art mimics life. Life mimics art.)
2 Although I have much respect for Freud, Jung,
and Adler, I think their constructs with the heavy emphasis on sexuality
- or more to the point, repressed sexuality - were influenced by the puritanical
times and doesn't fit the typical person in modern society (although it
does some). Freudian psychology was excellent psychology for an era. It
revealed the basic mechanisms of the mind, and those mechanisms are still
fundamental, it is the content that has changed. I look to material with
a more balanced approach, such as:
3 Andreas, Connirae. Core Transformation, Reaching The Wellspring Within, Utah: Real People Press, 1994. (Note: Ten steps facilitating personal change related to relationships, anger, illness and abuse.)
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