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.

The Things You Regret – The Inactive Form of Love

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I teach a course in multicultural psychology. It’s one of my favorite courses to teach. I marvel at the diversity of the human person but also that within that diversity there’s so much we share in common. I know it’s an overused analogy, but what a beautiful bouquet of flowers the human race is. I can only imagine God created it that way so he may “Delight in us” as the scriptures say. In the midst of this diversity I’ve come to marvel at one way we’re all the same and that’s how we view regrets. Studies in multicultural psychology demonstrate regardless of culture people regret the things they’ve never done more than what they have done, even if what they’ve done resulted in mistakes.

In more specific terms, psychologists study something called “Counterfactual thinking.” Counterfactual thinking is a hypothetical belief about your past that could have occurred in order to avoid or change a negative outcome. Basically, you use counterfactual thinking when you look back in your life and say to yourself, “If I had only done (or not done) ______ I might be better off.” Maybe it was a decision to enter a particular vocation, leave a particular city, or something as simple as having bought a particular type of car. In the end, counterfactual thinking often leads to feelings of regret. There are two categories of counterfactual thinking. The first group consists of those associated with actions. So, you might say to yourself, “If I wouldn’t have eaten that last piece of cake I might not be so sick today”, or “If I wouldn’t have majored in psychology I might be more likely to get that job as a business consultant.” The regrets you have are over something you’ve done. The second category of counterfactual thinking has to do with inaction items, those things you wish you would have done. Examples of this category might include thoughts like, “If I would have studied harder at school I might have made something of myself,” or “If I had been a better husband my marriage may not have ended in divorce.” Both of these categories are the types of thoughts that lead us to have regrets and people all over the world have them.

In multicultural psychology we look at these types of thoughts and ask ourselves, “Which category of counterfactual thinking is most prevalent in different cultures and which category do each of these different cultures experience the most? What we’ve found is all people, regardless of culture regret the things they’ve not done more than what they have done. Additionally, in every culture people regret what they haven’t done to the same degree. That means everyone, regardless of where they live, regrets not doing something to the same degree all over the world. We’re most troubled by what we didn’t do. I have a theological speculation why that might be the case.

If you look at how God created the human person, we were created for action, and in particular two actions that strike at our core. We were created to love others and to be loved. Whenever we do not create or experience love we suffer. In fact, love is so important to the human condition those who don’t experience or share love suffer disease much more prominently, recover from illness more slowly, and relapse into disease more frequently. When we cannot do what we were created for we crumble. Like anything created for action, inaction becomes the source of our slow demise. God, who is constant action (Pouring himself out for creation and continually renewing all he created through love) created us to be icons of his active love. Everything the human person does is intended to be an extension of the love of God for the created order. Our jobs, our marriages, our relationships, our leisure, all we do is intended to somehow love God above all other things, one another as brothers and sisters of the same father, and care for the created order. We were created for action, not to be inactive bystanders who do nothing. Because of that, when fear paralyzes us from making ourselves vulnerable to give and receive love we have a strong sense of regret. Mistakes are not our enemy, they’re part of learning to love more perfectly. Inaction and fear are our enemy. We can’t be comfortable in our inactive state, we must be stretched to be a more active agent for the kingdom of God. Innately people are aware of this and that’s why we regret what we didn’t do more than what we have done.

In my role as a minister I’ve had the opportunity to sit with people as they prepared to die. While the evidence is anecdotal at best, in the context of my pastoral care for them the feelings they share with me generally fall under two categories. They want to know if they were loved, but even more concerning to them is whether or not they loved others enough. They regret the love they didn’t show more than their attempts to actualize love. I pray all of you ponder whether or not you’ve become too comfortable in your attempts to actualize love; keeping yourself from “acting” in a more loving way. Never tire from finding new ways to stretch yourself and become more vulnerable for love’s sake. If you do this, your regrets will be minimized. In the end, you will find when you lay your head on your pillow for the last time the comforting voice of God saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

When Beliefs Become Unempowering

Most people don’t realize they have a constricted sense of their abilities simply because of the beliefs they carry around in their heads.  Beliefs are good, particularly when they accurately reflect reality, but they can work against you when they don’t.  It was once believed physiologically impossible for human beings to run a mile in four minutes.  In 1952, Roger Bannister, a British middle-distance runner and neurologist broke that limitation during the Olympics.  After that, numerous people began to break the four-minute mile that was “believed” impossible for the human body to accomplish.  Beliefs are powerful things.

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Once we believe something, even just a little bit, it becomes harder and harder to change that belief.  We frequently engage in something psychologists call “belief perseverance.”  We use belief perseverance to maintain personal congruity.  Personal congruity is simply the idea that when we say we believe something and act on those beliefs we will continue behaving and believing in such a way that our beliefs and behaviors remain consistent.  If they become inconsistent, we find ways to keep them consistent.  For example, if we believe something, we often unconsciously search for evidence supporting that belief and ignore evidence contradicting it in order to maintain consistency.  The more invested we are in a belief the less likely we are to change it.  This experience of staying with something because we’ve invested ourselves into it is referred to as the “sunk-cost theory” in psychology.  We’re less likely to move away from a belief, activity, or behavior we’ve invested in even at the cost of losing everything.  We become overinvested and delude ourselves into thinking if we just stick with it things will turn around.

Because we have this experience with beliefs its important to frequently review what we believe about ourselves, the world that surrounds us, and how the future will unfold.  Who are you, really?  Do you think you’re simply the person stuck in that job because you spent the last fifteen years doing what you do in order to scratch out a living?  Can you be something more than you believe yourself to be?  What have you made a core part of your identity?  When you make certain beliefs a core part of your identity, you immediately make them a powerful enabling force in your life or a limiting factor that keeps you from becoming the person you want to be.  When I work with clients and hear the words, “That’s just not who I am” or “I’m the kind of person who…” I pay a great deal of attention to what follows.  These comments are probably some of the most important things they will share in regard to what they believe about themselves.  Let me give you an example to help clarify my point.

I had a client that wanted to quit smoking.  It was bad for her health, caused her social grief, and kept her from feeling free as more and more smoking limitations became a part of everyday living in the United States.  When she came to see me, she described herself in the following way: “I love smoking, I have been doing it since I was thirteen.  It’s been my best friend when things are rough, and I smoke to calm my nerves when I get stressed.  Sometimes, I like a cigarette after I enjoy something like eating a good meal or after making love.  Smoking is my enjoyable vice along with a good strong cup of coffee.  I guess the best way to describe myself is that I am a smoker and that’s just how I like to live.”

That “I am” statement says it all.  How do you help someone who smokes when they identify it as who they are?  Some people break the habit more easily because they see it for what it is; an addictive behavior that through some discipline and basic behavioral psychology can be broken and overcome.  However, when someone tells you it’s what they are, they’re basically saying they believe smoking is a significant part of their identity.  A number of artists, musicians, actors, and other artistically inclined people frequently identify smoking as part of their identity.  The “tough guy” types also see smoking as part of their identity.  For both these groups smoking isn’t something they do its part of who they are.  Significant motivation is required to get people who think this way to quit smoking because in their mind you aren’t asking them to change what they do but rather who they are.  Beliefs related to identity are hard to change.

I want to share with you a way to explore your beliefs and investigate the level of limitations they’re placing on your life.  Once you have identified these beliefs you can begin to explore how to change them.  First, list several words that describe who you are and what you do.  List words like “smart”, “attractive”, “Hard working”, etc.  Then, ask yourself, “Are these words describing who I am or activities I perform?  Categorize them into groups.  Label the first group “What I can and can’t do” and the second one “Who I am.”  Then explore each of these and see how they either limit or empower something about yourself.  Many of them will do both.  When we say we’re “Hard working” we know that means we’re able to stick with something and hammer away at it until we get what we want from it.  That’s a great character trait when you need to learn a new skill but how might that trait impact your personal life?  Do you “hammer away” at people until they give you what you want?  Look at how the belief about being “intelligent” might play out in your life.  A belief like that might seem like something positive.  Yet for many people, identifying intelligence as a part of their identity means when they can’t show other people how intelligent they are, they experience a personal crisis.  When someone feels their belief about intelligence is under attack, they get anxious and fearful about making mistakes and only engage in experiences where they can demonstrate their intelligence.  More importantly, they avoid challenging and new experiences that can help them learn something new and become a better person (See Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets)!

So, if you want to start looking at changing your life, start with your beliefs.  Begin exploring what they do for you and how they impact your personal growth.  Discover what needs changed and have the courage to challenge those limiting beliefs.  Sit with a trusted friend and have them speak honestly into this self-discovery process.  An outside perspective rather than just evaluating them yourself from the inside out can be very enlightening when done with love and your best interests in mind.  We will explore some of this later, but for now, take the time to complete this “belief inventory” and see what your beliefs are doing to you.  Remember, beliefs can either be empowering or limiting, knowing the difference is a great place to start for building the life you want to create.

What is The Meaning and Purpose of YOUR Life?

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I often write about the need for people to live with meaning and purpose to be psychologically well.  Because of that people often ask me, “How do you discover what your life’s meaning and purpose is?”    I do understand It’s an elusive concept and not very easily captured when asked to tell someone what you think it is.  To speak of living with meaning and purpose can sound so abstract when we do talk about it, we feel like we’re attending a philosophy course.  Because of this abstract nature Let me see if I can give you some guidance to help you discover what your life’s meaning and purpose might be.  You may find you’re already living it in ways you never expected, or you may find it’s time to make some changes in order to live a more flourishing existence.

To get started you need to develop the habit of self-reflection.  Frequently we mistake finding meaning and purpose in life as simply discovering what you love to do.  That’s not true, although it can be something you love doing more often than not.  No one loves to do anything all the time.  In fact, when you do something meaningful, you’re often working hard, failing, and learning how to improve what it is you do to be the best at doing it!  There have been plenty of times doing what I feel is my life’s purpose is downright miserable.  Yet, when I have had to do difficult things and these things are understood in the context of my life’s purpose, they are much more tolerable than just doing something because it must be done.  What you need to spend time reflecting on is the themes and trends in your life where you flourished.  When were you doing things that not only felt like you were made to do them, but that you had a proclivity toward doing them well?

For example, in my life I have a knack for listening to people and helping them develop solutions and solve their own problems.  I am not saying I am good at solving problems, rather I seem to have an ability to listen to people, ask them questions, engage them in dialogue, and then facilitate a type of discovery that leads them to do better at whatever it is they need to do.  In my life I seem to bring a calming atmosphere to personal engagements.  I’m told I’m easy to talk with, seem to empathize and care about what people have to say, and generally show insight into other people’s problems.  When I look back on my life, I can see this theme emerging in a number of ways.

Within my family, I am told I was an easy child to be around.  As I got older, the opinion of my family members was that having me at home made the home feel full and comfortable.  When I went away to college people would come to my dorm room and share things with me they weren’t comfortable sharing with anyone else.  When it came to employment my first job continued to reflect this theme.  I became at IT consultant for several different consulting firms.  As an IT consultant I was often tasked with being the person who interacted with the customer to clarify their goals and objectives that the project we were working on needed to meet.  The team of IT engineers I worked with often said customers seem to “open up” and engage with me better than the others on our team.  Lastly, I am both an educator and therapist in my present vocation.  In these roles I find that I continue to be someone that helps other people learn, grow, and solve their own problems.  Again, I’m not a problem solver, that doesn’t seem to be my purpose in life, rather I’m one who facilitates problem solving in others.

Now, I have the benefit of looking over the past 54 years of living to talk about my life’s meaning and purpose.  Some of you reading this may be in your early twenties and don’t have as much experience to reflect upon.  That’s okay.  Self-reflect, spend time thinking about what you discover, and look for what might be a common theme in your life up to this point.  If you can start to see some meaning and purpose emerge, you’re starting to get a sense of what you are meant to do with your life.  Try finding any work that allows that purpose to emerge and be tested.  Think creatively, it doesn’t have to be directly related to what you’re discovering about yourself, but it should provide you with more experiences to reflect upon.  Who would think an IT consultant would reflect a life’s purpose of helping others solve their own problems?  People hire consultants to solve those problems for them!  Whatever it is, start finding things to do that seem to reflect that purpose and continue to evaluate it over time.  Even if you’re a little off base and haven’t nailed it down perfectly, eventually something more will emerge and your life’s meaning and purpose will continue to make itself know.

As a last point, ask people you trust and who know you well what they think about what you’ve discoverer about yourself.  People you can trust will be brutally honest and you need that feedback to stay on track. We frequently fool ourselves believing one thing about ourselves when in reality, we’re nothing like what we think.  Self-delusion is a problem easily solved by interacting with others and letting them tell you what they think about who you are and the gifts and talents you have.

So much psychological research teaches us that people who live meaningful lives and do what they believe is their purpose in life thrive and are successful.  Over the next few posts I will help you do that very thing.  For now, practice some self-reflection.  If you want, send me a note and let me help you dig a little deeper, I would love to hear from you!