Striving to understand…me
Striving to understand human nature as a psychologist is like torture. You would think it would be the opposite, that constantly observing and surmising would be full of pleasure, but no. Torture, pure torture. Then there is trying to figure out why it is torture. Because even I would think that sitting around and using all of my education, both formal and informal, would bear fruit with sweetness and succulence, but no. Sour, bitter sour. So, to what human nature are we talking about here? The long and short of it is really what we do to each other and how we treat one another, and this observation is triggered daily for me each time I muster the strength to look at the news. During this difficult time in our world, what sticks out is the negative and so I work to deal with the impact it delivers. The positive is under there somewhere, just a little covered currently. A heavy sigh is followed by a shaking head, confused eyebrows, all accented by some gesture involving the hands and the cupping, catching, trying to contain the mind and all the painful misunderstandings rolling around in it.
Human beings are animals. Literally, we are animals. Sure, we are the most advanced animal, well, not sure all the other animals would vote yes on that if we gave them a vote but supposedly, we are. We certainly have the most advanced brain as measured by language and the frontal lobe, giver of all things creative, inventive, and abstract. Part of the deal with being an animal is the whole survival thing. I say this repeatedly and will until I can’t any longer: we are designed to survive. Mammals, as a rule, are herd animals. We need a herd, which humans call a tribe, to survive. We hunt in packs, like other predators such as wolves or big cats. Think children on a playground surrounding and teasing one poor soul. Each member of the tribe fills a different role in the tribe. Some are good at climbing, some are good at designing, some are faster, some are stronger, some see distances, some see numbers, some see art, some tell great stories… If we are designed to survive together, why are we so easily torn apart? This is the sort of question that keeps me up at night: Why we fail repeatedly, regularly, and historically to be able to survive one another.
Darwin noticed it differently than anyone had before when he talked about survival of the fittest. Somehow, we turned this theory and observation of our elemental nature into a culture of competition. Even though we are wired to compete to keep us alive and procreating, it is not the essence of what he observed. Darwin’s brilliance was in seeing the amazing capacity for an organism to adapt to its environment. The “fittest” survived because it adapted the best, not because it kicked the other organism’s ass. A problem with our evolution, for lack of a better word, is that survival is not as limited anymore. In the world of people reading this (or able to read this), a limited survival prognosis is, well, limited. I don’t know anyone personally who struggles to find water, shelter, or food regularly, do you? Yet, we are controlled by a drive for competition, our insatiable need to win, to be better than, to have more than, to know more than, to be fitter than. We compete at everything and have absolutely no idea we are completely and utterly run, like a machine, by it and are slave to the incredible consequences. When someone wins, someone else has to lose. This is not a Darwinian position but a completely made up one. Is this innate or cultural? Maybe we are innately driven to create this cultural inclination.
Years ago, during a personal growth seminar, I had the most amazing insight and it has stuck with me every day since. In striving to understand the way I can react so strongly to some people, I uncovered an interesting mental habit. This is about as transparent as it gets: whenever I meet someone, whether for the first time or the hundredth, I look at them and decide if they are better than I am or worse than I am. My truly human human nature. If they are deemed better, the peacock in me emerges and I notice my brain coming up with things to talk about that make me seem more awesome as my mind searches for a place to insert this fact into a conversation that has nothing to do with what I desperately want them to know. I have to constantly, manually shut my mouth to keep me from becoming a braggart about my most recent accomplishments so that I can recover some feeling of importance or “better.” In my younger days, this filter didn’t exist because there was no awareness around this peacock and its need to fill some inner void that my childhood brain created out of who knows what experience. Now, when I feel the need to be “better,” I have a series of red flags I look for to notice it and work as hard as I can in the moment to chuckle and tell my less-than-feeling self to be quiet and listen to what this better person has to say.
The person whom I deem “worse” doesn’t make me a better person. The need to continue to dominate or even up my better-than status doesn’t disappear with my positive assessment of myself, to my terrible, emotional misfortune. This can be so ugly, I struggle to not only come to terms with it but curb its insatiable appetite for power. The salve I work to apply for this side of the wounded self is to think about the person who led the personal growth seminar and her comment that led me to this epiphany. She said she always looks for the gold in people. This seemingly innocent comment fell out of her mouth and knocked me over because it was something I didn’t really consider then. See, I was so busy worrying about myself that thinking about anyone else didn’t even register. I still shake my head in disbelief that we are so consumed by our failings, status, power, ego, and the like, that we have forgotten to look for the gold in others. “Everyone has gold inside, some try harder than others to hide it, but it is always there, waiting to be mined, or waiting for the right miner.” This concept still moves me so deeply, I can feel the simultaneous tears of sadness and joy when I allow it and remain eternally grateful to Candace for bestowing me with this. Looking for the gold in others lets my inner void off the hook and creates that feeling of, and fulfills the need for, connection, whether it is with my best friend or someone in the grocery store. This is the fittest me, and not just because I am surviving, but because in that moment, I am being truly alive.
Around the same time, one of the best and perhaps worst things I ever heard was from my friend, Pam, a brilliant lawyer and mentor during graduate school. As I was lamenting my personal growth struggle and really just beginning to develop this terrible habit of striving to understand human nature, she quipped, “I would rather be a miserable Socrates than a happy pig.” Her smile was like a blanket, enveloping me and my misery, soothing me and protecting me. There was no going back after that period of time with the one-two punch from Candace and Pam. The blessing and curse of introspection could fill an encyclopedia’s worth of pages, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. As I stumbled into my profession of psychology, I fell in love with the struggle, the process, the people, and the possibility it holds. Each time we learn something about ourselves, it allows us to learn something about someone else. What might you have learned about you as you read about me? Each time I look for the gold in others, I find a nugget or two in myself. It disables my “threat” button and softens my need to compare myself with another while simultaneously increasing my ability to connect with them. This is my calling, my mission, my passion, helping to find ways to connect with the self so we can discover the ability to connect with others. So look, look inside of you first. Get to know what you do when you become threatened because it happens more than you realize. What does it feel like? What does it look like? Who do you become? What do you do and how can you create a way to recognize it as quickly as possible so you can go back to mining gold? We are all on some sort of path towards better or “fitter” and perhaps this will clear a bit of the way. It is work but the very best kind because everyone I know wants to do better and be better. The only way we will ever learn to treat one another differently is by striving to understand what drives how we treat ourselves. And so admittedly, I highly recommend the torture…