The Complexity of Human Nature – A Lesson We All Need

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian novelist. His life story is as interesting as the novels he writes. He was raised Russian orthodox, became an atheist and supporter of the communist movement, and then later, he became one of the government’s greatest critics. Because of this he was put in a gulag to perform forced labor. After his release from the gulag, he once again embraced his childhood religion. As a very devout and philosophically astute believer, he wrote many novels that reflected his beliefs and worldview. I love these lines he wrote in “The Gulag Archipelago “:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an unuprooted small corner of evil.

“Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”

I sometimes wonder if we’ve forgotten this very point. Are we so arrogant that we believe we have everything right and the “other”, whether that be another political party, race, ethnicity, country, etc. has nothing good to offer our collective situation? Likewise, we have to ask ourselves are we so arrogant to believe that we have nothing evil within us that needs uprooted? I hear so many people today call one another numerous awful things and I want to say to them, “Are we sure that very thing you’re calling that person isn’t also a part of you?”

I’m a psychologist and if there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that people are complex. Most of our problems are the result of the fact we forget about our own and other’s complexity. They oversimplify people and call them good, or evil based on how much these other people agree with their own opinions and beliefs. Likewise, they simplify themselves by investing their whole identity into a political party, sexual preference, race, gender, or any other category they choose to describe their whole existence. We’re way too complex to root our whole identity into one basic category. In fact, that’s a very unhealthy attitude and can lead to some unhealthy ways of understanding ourselves and interacting with others.

Let’s just look at my life for a moment. I‘m from a working-class family in Pittsburgh Pa. I’m also an academic and enjoy that life and the type of work it entails (Which is often strange to my hard-working blue-collar family). I’m a Christian and enjoy my faith and the community that’s part of the faith. Yet, I am a musician and spend a lot of time at open mic nights in bars with people who are very much not Christians. I’m so many things but mostly, all these things converge to become Dominick. Dominick enjoys being all these things and not totally any one of these things. I’m a husband, a father, a brother, a grandson, an uncle, a cousin, a nephew, etc. Above all, I am complex. I pray on Sunday with the saints and can be quite the spiritual person. I drink bourbon and sing the blues on Mondays with the rougher fringe of humanity and enjoy my time with these wonderfully quirky people. All of this makes me who I am. I am capable of being quite the servant and person of Christian virtue, but also one of the greatest sinners the earth has produced. The point is, I am complex and knowing this keeps me from being too judgmental about others.

In the end, there are very few people I see as completely evil or completely saintly. Certainly, no politician or person in power has ever been one of these things completely (although some have come close). My point is this. I hope all of us consider the wisdom of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and remember, this line that separates evil from good is much more a line inside the human heart than between human beings. Let me close with this observation. I just finished watching the HBO series “A Band of Brothers” that follows Easy company from the 101st Airborne as they move through Europe during WWII. In each episode they interview the men who were at the battles. One of these gentlemen said something that really captures this idea of where the line of evil and good lies. I am paraphrasing what he said, but it was generally this; “In any other circumstance I believe I could have been friends with some of the Germans I killed. Maybe we would go fishing together or hunting, but I had a job to do just like he did.”

That’s a powerful testimony that shows a real recognition of the complexity of our nature as human beings. He knows those men across the field of battle were simply men. Each could be good, and each could be bad, and some more than others. I wonder if we might start to see other people we encounter the same way. Maybe we should explore our own hearts and recognize we’re dealing with devils and angels like everyone else. Maybe we can use that insight to be a little more understanding of the people we know.

How Life Can Have Meaning and Purpose – The Wren Method

Most of us, whether conscious of it or not, want our lives to have meaning and purpose. We want who we are and what we do to matter, and we want it to be valuable. So much psychology speaks to this innate human desire that it’s not something we can ignore. Just read the work of any philosopher and psychologist and in some fashion, you’ll find they all believe human beings need to have meaning and purpose in their lives. Victor Frankl wrote his famous book “Man’s Search for Meaning” and in it demonstrates how survival in a Nazi concentration camp came from his ability to make meaning of the most tragic situation a human being can face. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson believes all human beings come to a point in life where they ask, “Did my life matter, did I contribute to the world somehow?” This need to have and create meaning and purpose is an essential element of the human experience. The question becomes, where do we get this sense of meaning and purpose?

Frankl believes it comes from several aspects of human living. The main areas Frankl mentions are purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty. These cover a significant amount of the stuff human life is made of and I agree it’s wise to think about these things from the perspective of how your life matters and has purpose. It’s exceptionally important you face difficulty with purpose. Why do you suffer? Why must you persevere through disease, disaster, and the loss of loved ones? For many people, it’s to pass on the story of their family, country, and community. Some persevere through disease to help others learn more about that type of suffering. Some through disaster and war so that the country and people they love can pass on their story and the principles they believe are important. Both take great courage and perseverance through any of them witnesses to the greatness of the human spirit. The third one, however, is somewhat interesting. Meaningful work is often misunderstood because its value is believed to only benefit the one doing the work. People think meaningful work is work that satisfies the person doing it but there’s so much more to meaningful work. Some people do meaningful work that no one ever notices or involves the most mundane tasks you can imagine. What makes it meaningful? The fact it serves something valued by the community in which it is exercised. It transcends the individual.

There’s a story about the janitor at a NASA facility in the 1960’s who found significant purpose and meaning in what he was doing. He believed by keeping the facility clean, by mopping, cleaning toilets, and emptying trash cans he was contributing to the effort to put a man on the moon. Do most people enjoy that kind of work? Certainly not, but for this man, it spoke to a greater purpose and served the community he valued. The key to doing meaningful work is to do that which you believe matters for the greater good. In short, it’s discovering how your life uniquely contributes to those around you. Anyone who finds work meaningful discovers very quickly that it’s not the glory of the tasks that make it meaningful, it’s fulfilling a personal mission to serve the community they value.

Most people in the United States have no idea who Christopher Wren is and perhaps a number of people in London don’t recognize his name as well. However, Christopher Wren is the architect that developed a significant number of buildings in London after the great fire of 1666. One of those buildings he helped rebuild was St Paul’s Cathedral, a beautiful and very famous church in England. It took 45 years to complete his renovations, the dome he designed extends 365 feet making it one of the tallest in the world. In the crypt at St Paul’s are monuments to many famous people who contributed to English society and culture. However, you will not find a monument to Christopher Wren. Instead, there is a plain marker on the crypt wall that reads:

“Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, nor for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you.”

That’s a powerful testimony to a life that had meaning and purpose. You can have that as well, but you need to ask yourself how you can use the gifts and talents God has blessed you with to serve the community. It doesn’t have to be the world and you don’t even need to be recognized for it in any grand way. Simply love and serve your family, neighborhood, church, and community in a way that uniquely reflects what you are good at, no matter what that thing is. By doing this, the monument you create reflecting your contribution will be reflected in the many lives you touch. Who needs a marble statue when the positive impact you have on generations of people will always speak to that which mattered most, even if they can’t remember your name.