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Today and this last week Christians around the world celebrate the holiday called Easter. Because it is less commercialized and less about buying things, it takes a back seat to Christmas. That holiday just about everybody knows about even if they don’t know much about its Christian significance. But it is a shame, really, because Easter symbolizes so much more about what it means to be a Christian. So I decided today to attempt to explain to my non-Christian friends a bit about the meaning of Easter and what it is we are celebrating.
If you don’t know the story at all, I can give you just a brief primer. Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and is God incarnated (in body form) on the earth. We believe that Jesus was born and grew up in humble circumstances. In his young years (younger than I am now), he began to teach others about the nature of God and our obligations to each other. He taught people to love, to care for others, and to not return hatred for hatred, violence for violence. He taught that we should forgive all people their sins against us. He caught the anger of the established powers of his day and was eventually put to death, by crucifixion. Christians believe that Jesus was dead for three days and then resurrected (was alive again, risen from the dead) on the holiday we now call Easter. There is so much more to the story, but that isn’t the thing I am trying to explain.
So what does Easter mean to us? First, Easter is about hope. Because of God’s own self-sacrifice, we have hope. Hope of life (Christians believe we will all be resurrected), hope of forgiveness (Christians believe that we can be forgiven of our sins through the sacrifice of Jesus), and the hope of healing (from our own transgressions as well as the suffering caused by the actions of others). So the story of Easter is a reminder that there is hope in the world. No matter how bad it gets, and remember that the story of Easter is also the story of the suffering and cruelty of man, there is always hope. There is hope because God loves the world so much that He chose to suffer for us. Both God as Jesus who suffered death for us and God as Father who suffered, or allowed, His son to die so that we might be saved. So Easter is about the hope that is available to all of us.*
Easter is also about the celebration of grace. The term grace for Christians describes how God gives us more than we deserve. Have you felt before that sense of inadequacy, not being “good enough”? Sometimes that runs very deep. Modern American culture tells us that the solution is to think of ourselves as amazing, but for most of us I think that falls flat because we still feel that sense of not being good enough. The idea of grace basically acknowledges that sense of not being adequate, but responds in a different way. The grace of God, or the grace of Christ, means that we get more than we deserve. It means that all of us get more than we deserve from God. It is true that we are not good enough, but the price to be paid for that inadequacy is already paid for by God through this sacrifice we celebrate at Easter. This does mean that as Christians we are given grace in order to offer grace to others. Jesus taught that we must love even our enemies, and forgive others without exception. The question of fairness is not longer our main concern. We receive forgiveness by showing forgiveness and grace in order to offer grace to others. In other words, Christians are obligated to sacrifice their own needs and even their own sense of fairness in order to give others more than they deserve. So Easter is the celebration of grace, the receiving of the gift as well as the opportunity to offer it.
Last of all, Easter represents what is sometimes referred to as the atonement. If you break the words down you get at-one-ment. This is the bringing back together what has been broken apart. So what has been divided that must be restored? First, our connection to God. Our shortcomings and outright sins make us imperfect and separate us from God. The atonement of Christ brings us back together, as one, with God. We are also separated in our relationships with each other. We know that estrangement that comes because we act stupidly or cruelly toward each other. We find ourselves separated from each other sometimes because of what we do and sometimes because of the actions of others toward us. This reconciliation of person-to-person is also accomplished because of the sacrifice of God we celebrate at Easter. We are restored to our relationships with each other through forgiveness and grace.*
So Easter, for Christians, is the most significant of the holidays (holy days). It represents the opportunity for hope, the gift of grace, and the bringing together what has been broken apart in our relationship with God and with each other. So even if you are not Christian, I hope you will celebrate with us the joy of hope, grace, and reconciliation. Happy Easter!
* P.S. I want to add a couple of things that I think are unique to my own particular sect in Christianity because they are a significant part of the meaning of Easter to me, though they may differ a bit from other Christians. I am a member of a church called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (though commonly referred to as Mormons).
One of the significant differences we believe is that the hope offered by the atonement of Christ is available to all people, regardless of where or when they were born. More typical of Christians is the idea that if you die without accepting Christ, you will go to hell. In the doctrine of my church, we believe that all people will get an opportunity, indeed more opportunities than any of us deserve, to accept God and be saved. We believe that some people will only get this opportunity after this life but that God’s grace extends to all people, not just those in our church or to Christians as a whole. In other words, God does not extend his hope just to those who accept Jesus or Christian church membership in this life.
Also, with regards to this reconciliation my particular church has something to add to the story. We believe that part of what is reconciled is our family relationships. While most people refer to marriage as being only an earthy institution (“till death us do part”), we believe that family relationships are eternal. In other words, marriage and family and children are part of the long-term, eternal scheme of things. This is why you find so much emphasis among us about families, marriages, and children. Because we believe that one of the effects of this holiday we celebrate as Easter is the reconciliation of our family relationships. After all, how could heaven be heaven without my amazing wife and sweet little daughters?
It is the night of weeks like this that I long for sleep. For the kind of sleep that is dark, warm, a kind of death from which I can awake in the morning having enjoyed the oblivion of not-being. As I leave Samara to sleep she tells me “I am not happy being in here by myself.” So I read Pessoa to her as she falls asleep:
Anyone wanting to make a catalogue of monsters would need only to photograph in words the things that night brings to somnolent souls who cannot sleep.
He is right, it is the tired man who wants to sleep, but either finds himself awake in the dark silence, or asleep consumed by the monsters of nightmares. Sometimes I cannot decide which to choose—as if it were my choice. Last night I dreamt, but I dreamt of a sculpture by Rodin. The man in the sculpture has his head down and he is being mobbed by bodies, flowing robes and anguish. He is being torn by the demons. I imagine, in my dream, the sculpture come alive. What is in waking life a beautiful if melancholy statue comes awake and becomes terrifying. The wailing, the anger, the desire for relief. The need for the darkness of sleep. I awake and find myself consumed by the images, not sure whether to try to sleep or to get up and sit like I do some nights, in the kitchen looking up at the sky through the window.
Samara’s breathing is slowing down and becoming rhythmical. That delicious feeling of sinking into the dark, like into warm mud. I keep reading Pessoa, now for me more than for her:
I would be happy if only I could sleep. At least that’s what I think now when I can’t sleep. The night is an immense weight pressing down on my dream of suffocating myself beneath the silent blanket. I have indigestion of the soul.
She sleeps, the sleep of a child. At least that what it seems to me now. But I remember sleeping at her age and the terrors of sleep even then. The dreams of being abandoned, of the monsters closing in with no one to save me. I wake now with my dreams of monsters, wishing I had a bed to run to, with stronger and bigger people who love me and soothe me as I fall asleep under the warmth of their comfort. But I am now the bed to run to, the giver of solace who himself begs for rest.
About two weeks ago I read an article on the New York Times website by David Pogue, the technology guy. He, like me, is colorblind and he described a new product, funded by the National Institute of Health, that created glasses for colorblind people. The company, Enchroma (http://enchroma.com), makes sunglasses that have to be used outside in bright sunlight to work. But they advertised that it helps colorblind people see colors that they had not before. I was really amazed to hear about the glasses and that Pogue said that they actually worked. He said poignantly that he actually felt some emotion when he saw a rainbow for the first time and saw all the colors.
Now the glasses are really expensive. I caught them on sale (about 15 mins before it ended) and they were still about $450! I know, crazy. But they do have a 30 day guarantee where you can return them if they are still in new condition. So it seemed to me like something to try. I mean, why not right? I will describe here what the experience has been like and it has been both wildly amazing and really hard to handle. Let me explain…
First, the sunglasses arrived yesterday while we were eating dinner. I immediately left the table and walked outside with them, only mumbling my purpose to everyone else. I walked first to the strawberry patch, expecting to see bright red berries glowing there. Actually, you all know this (if you are normal color visioned) but the berries sort of hide underneath leaves. They did look brighter than usual and stood out a bit more, but I did know that strawberries are red before. I went wandering around the neighborhood looking at people’s flowers and again found that the colors were more obvious, brighter, as long as they were in direct sun. The minute they were in shadow, back to colorblind. I thought, “Well, sort of cool” and went back in to eat my now-cold-soup. The most striking of all was my daughter Asia’s dress. It is bright purple with a bright green pattern on it. Now I didn’t know the pattern was green until last night but it was quite cool to see purplish-pink right next to green. Never seen that before.
Today I actually read the insert. They told me that I should put the glasses on and keep them on for a long time while outside in sunlight. And they said not to keep peeping over the top of the glasses to compare the normal with the sunglasses. So I decided to give it a try. I had to pick up Eden from school and decided to wear the glasses, ignoring the many warnings that the glasses could make “colors distracting” and to use caution while driving. It seemed like one of those silly warnings like “don’t touch a hot iron” or something.
So off I go in the car, noticing only at first the brighter colors–especially of green. When I came to my first STOP sign, I was stunned. Who made red so red? How could one ever think that stop signs blend in with trees. Actually, there is a story there. In brief, I failed my first driving test when I didn’t see the STOP sign because there was a tree behind it. I have gotten better, don’t worry. Anyway, most of the way to the school I just kept saying outloud “Red!” to myself. Red cars, red flowers, red signs. Who knew there was so much red in the world? Well, all of you reading this for one. The few of you that are colorblind will know what I mean. Well, actually you won’t because you still don’t SEE, if you know what I mean. It gets confusing.
I picked up Eden from school and she was carrying this bright red shirt. Now I know what red is and can pick it out, but I have never really seen red like that before. Now that I had an audience, I kept saying to Eden “Look, a red sign! Look at the red car! Look at those flowers, they are pink!” She had a rough day at school and seemed quite unimpressed. But now I got the warning, I had to be careful to keep my eyes on the traffic because the world was suddenly turned up, like when you supersaturate on Photoshop. I decided to stop at the neighbor’s house to look at their raspberry bushes. There’s a story there too: when I was young one of our chores was to pick raspberries. I had the toughest time doing it and would often hear my sister complain “I hate picking with Matt, he doesn’t even look for them and I have to pick them all over again.” At the time I did not know I was colorblind and was amazed to see how other people could pick baskets of berries when I could only find 5 berries in 30 minutes. Anyway, sadly enough the berries were all gone or dried up so I didn’t get to have that victory.
When I got home I decided to try looking at photos to see if the colors in a photo album would be different if I looked at them with the Enchroma glasses on and in full sunlight. So I picked up the photo book I had made of our recent time in India. The minute I saw the front cover, I knew I was in for something. The picture was a family photo of us after the Holi celebration and we were covered in colored paint. It was stunning. As I looked through the book, I was just floored at all that I was missing. Eden was sitting there with me and I kept doing the same thing as in the car–Look, it’s red! Seeing colors made everything seem more separate. Large group photos looked different because everyone was wearing different colors and it made them stand out as separate people. One picture of the girls sitting on a painted elephant looked so much better with all the colors and I had a hard time believing that I had really missed so much. And that is the down side. And it is kind of a big downside. For Pogue, he was emotionally moved by seeing a full rainbow (I haven’t seen that yet) and that is one part of it–to see the vibrancy and separateness of colors after a lifetime of being colorblind is revelatory.
But to take the glasses off and know that you have missed that much your whole life is really painful. I felt like crying and only didn’t because I don’t really like doing that. But to have missed so much in my life! I would always tell people, “I don’t know what I am missing so it doesn’t bother me.” And now I cannot say that anymore.
This is an article I wrote for the journal here at Lady Shri Ram College for their annual academic journal, The Learning Curve. Theirs is the both the copyright and the inspiration.
Reference: Whoolery, M. (2013). There are more important things: Questioning American psychology’s commitment to personal happiness and self-esteem. The Learning Curve, 2 (1), 6-10.
There are More Important Things:
Questioning American Psychology’s Commitment to Personal Happiness and Self-Esteem
While I hope I am still too young to write a retrospective of my career, I find myself reflecting on reoccurring themes in both my professional career as a practicing and teaching psychologist and my personal life. I hope that the reader will indulge a certain personal focus and use of the personal “I” pronoun even though this is a voice not used much in academic psychology. My focus in this article is on the commitment in American psychology to the ideal of personal happiness and self-esteem. While for most Americans these aims seem self-evident, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with and skeptical of these mostly unquestioned assumptions in my field. I hope that what I have to say can influence the reader both professionally and personally as you purse your academic goals and seek for living the right kind of life. I will focus on three primary assumptions made by modern American psychology: first, that human beings should or ought to be happy; second, that we should seek to be free of suffering; and third, that humans beings should (and deserve to) feel good about themselves.
Unhappiness is not a Disease
Whether we focus on research or psychotherapy, American’s psychology’s commitment to the ideal of personal happiness is overwhelming. This focus is not new and is based on a long history of European and British philosophies claiming this as the primary aim of human existence. Since this happiness focus is evident to any casual observer or experienced psychologist, I will not spend a great deal of time hammering out the history or details of this commitment (that is for another venue and paper) to personal happiness, but instead put my efforts into the questioning the familiar assumptions. This goes for the other assumptions as well: it is well established that American psychology seeks to end human suffering and to help others feel good about themselves. Indeed, these assumptions for most people are unquestionable and form the basis for an ethical and effective psychotherapeutic intervention. My argument is that these assumptions are not as self-evident or universally true as we usually accept them to be. And I genuinely believe that they lead us away from, rather than toward, the right kind of life. Stick with me.
As a freshman at university, I grew to enjoy the experience of watching international films in my university’s International Cinema program. It was refreshing and fascinating to see the stories and landscapes of other people and cultures. One particular Russian film had a profound impact on me. The film was directed by the critically acclaimed but largely obscure Andrei Tarkovsky. In his film Nostalghia, one character says to the other “You want to be happy. There are more important things.” I actually returned the next day to see the film again (this was before Google and YouTube) just to see if I had gotten this idea and quote right. It at once struck me as true and I found myself morally disturbed by its simplicity. Disturbed primarily because it seemed to be so true but in all my years as a student and an American I had never heard this truth before. When I have shared this quote over the years with my students, many of them have been similarly disturbed by it. Not all have agreed with it, but all have found it to provoke some questioning about what they have been striving for in their personal lives. I have even heard from students, years later, still mulling over this question: “Is personal happiness the right end goal to strive for in life?” Psychology, I believe, answers the question affirmatively. While there are notable exceptions (Frankl, 1992 for example), most psychologists and psychotherapists focus on the increasing of personal happiness as a primary goal. But is Tarkovsky right? Are there more important things?
I firmly believe that there are more important things, both personally and professionally. One of these is the search for meaning and purpose in life. By this I do not mean the search for personal meaning independent of others around us, but to find our purpose in what we can and should do in benefitting those around us. In a great story by Tolstoy, he tells of a king who is seeking to know the answer to three questions: Who is the most important person to know and consult? What is the most important thing to do? When is the most important time to act? In his parable, Tolstoy answers that the most important time is now. The most important person is the one in front of us. And the most important thing to do is to do good to that person. In working with clients and students struggling with depression, one of the questions I always ask them is what they are doing to benefit those around them. Some describe their feelings that they don’t feel like there is any reason for them to wake up in the morning. And the reality may be that in the way they are living their lives, there is not much reason for them to wake up and get out of bed. I encourage them to seek out ways to use their particular abilities or talents to benefit others. Even if it is just that they have an hour a day to spare to sit with elderly patients in an assisted living facility.
Part of this push comes from my own experience. In my late adolescence I found myself in this “dark” time and couldn’t seem to find a way out. I had read the books on self-love and self-esteem and had found them ultimately lacking. No matter how much I examined myself or tried to convince myself that I was a “good person” I still was left with these feelings of gloom. Maybe it was Tarkovsky’s film, I don’t remember, but one day I decided to seek out ways to serve in my community. I didn’t have any specialized skill to offer, but I ended up spending some hours each week working with children with physical and mental challenges. It’s not that in doing this community service I thought “I am a good person because I am helping others.” The change that took place in me was that I started to lose the self-consciousness and concern for my own well-being. Being with these children who approached me with simple love and affection just left me to not be worried about whether I was happy, good, or experiencing meaning in my life. The self-forgetfulness that came from working with these children was exhilarating. I finally didn’t care anymore about my problems and as a result “found” others around me. The relief from myself was wonderful.
This is the meaning I am referring to: the meaning found in the engagement in doing good in the moment we are in and for the person we are with. This is more important than being happy. Happiness may come (sometimes but not always) from living this way, but need not be pursued as a goal. Indeed, happiness as a goal is unattainable—for as long as we seek personal happiness we find ourselves always falling short because suffering and sorrow are inevitable parts of the human condition.
Healthy People Suffer
Much of modern psychotherapy sets the goal for a healthy individual to be free of suffering. Measures of mental health are almost always organized as “symptom checklists” which add up negative symptoms (like feelings of unhappiness or anxiety) to give you a score reflecting the “amount” of suffering you are experiencing. In other words, each symptom of suffering is counted against your mental health. This is universal enough that it must seem to most psychologists to be self-evident that suffering is bad and a sign of poor mental health. I myself helped create one of these measures and also worked in a clinic that used such a checklist to track the progress of psychotherapy. I was certainly committed to ending the suffering of my clients and believed that problems needed to be fixed so that a person would be free of suffering and problems.
As an example of this in modern psychology and psychiatry, take the controversy over the so-called bereavement exclusion in the diagnosis of major depression. Until recently, the DSM-IV-TR (the diagnostic manual used by American psychiatrists and psychologists) gave an exclusion from the diagnosis of depression to those who were in bereavement for the death of a loved one. It was thought that it was normal to have sorrow, difficulties in eating and sleeping, and other symptoms when a loved one passed away (by the way, the exclusion was for only two months). Recently the controversy became more important as American psychiatrists and psychologists began the revision of the DSM for the fifth version. Members of the committee were psychiatrists and psychologists in good standing in the field, even if also in close relationships with pharmaceutical companies. The final decision was to remove the exclusion altogether! Now a person who is only two weeks away from the death of a loved one (since the diagnosis of depression requires 2 weeks of symptoms regardless of cause) can be diagnosed with a so-called mental disorder. The reasoning was that since people in bereavement are “suffering,” to not diagnose them with depression would unnecessarily leave them to suffer.
In the years since I began practicing and teaching psychology, I have continued in greater earnest to question the assumption that suffering is bad or avoidable. In other words, I have come to believe that suffering is an important part of being a human being. While most or all human beings prefer times of ease and happiness over times of stress and suffering, these latter states still play an important part in a normal human life. Existential philosophers like Soren Kierkegaard (1969) argue that anxiety is essential to the meaningful human life. A human being free of anxiety would have no motivation to do anything, be happy to sit still. Anxiety and suffering move us in ways that moments of satisfaction and happiness cannot. Suffering in the case of bereavement, rather than being seen as a symptom of disorder to be fixed, may be seen as a healthy and normal way to deal with significant loss. These are not symptoms to fix, but meanings waiting to be fulfilled. More and more frequently I find myself advising others to refrain from trying to “fix their problems” and instead find ways to have a meaningful life accepting these parts of themselves.
One example is of a friend who talked with me a few years ago about the sorrow he and his wife were experiencing as they struggled to have children without success. The reality that they would not be able to have children of their own was a great source of suffering to them and their families. Interestingly, they went to seek help from a psychologist and were told that they were both “suffering from depression” which led to a prescription for an anti-depressant. There seemed to be no room for the idea that this suffering was genuine and an outgrowth of their love for one another that they had hoped would be expressed in having children together. Instead, their genuine suffering was interpreted as a disease that needed to be cured. While I certainly did not hope for their continued suffering and sorrow, I believe that it was a necessary and healthy mourning of loss rather than a problem to be fixed. The fact of the matter is this: life has times of unavoidable suffering. It seems to me that learning to find meaning in these times of sorrow is far superior to a frantic avoidance of pain. Psychology has done great harm in presenting human suffering as simply a disease to cure.
Feeling Good about Oneself is to Encourage Illusory Thinking
Perhaps the most provocative of my professional disagreements has to do with the way that we should think of ourselves. American psychology has long had an obsession with positive self-esteem and working to help psychotherapy patients “feel good about themselves.” This kind of positive self-image is encouraged regardless of the kind of lifestyle or decisions the person is making in their lives. People are encouraged to think positively of themselves even if they are failing miserably in their relationships, career, and personal lives. One of my colleagues worked at a mental hospital where they treated youth who were convicted of violent sexual assault. Even these youth were taught to love themselves more, disregarding or separating themselves from their horrific behavior. I believe that this focus in psychology is counter-productive and I have a feeling that most of us know that it is ultimately wrong. I will explain.
While I have known a few truly exceptional individuals in my life who I might think should esteem themselves quite highly (though I find they rarely do), most of us are quite aware that we are fundamentally flawed in one way or the other. And not just in ways that we can blame on our parents or society, but in ways that we know very well are due to our own poor choices. We are taught to repeat self-affirmative mantras when deep down we know that we really aren’t that wonderful. The problem isn’t that we find ourselves lacking in important ways, but that we are told by psychologists (and sometimes our mothers) that we should think that we are wonderful. Self-criticism is seen as a problematic behavior and something that should be avoided. We are taught by psychologists like Carl Rogers that our problems are fundamentally due to the inputs of others who teach us that we are only conditionally worthy. The goal of these kinds of therapies is to have us have unconditional positive regard for ourselves (Rogers, 1947). It was no surprise that a blockbuster hit in the 1980’s (and the song that became the theme song for the Atlanta Olympics) claimed that loving yourself was the “greatest love of all.”
When I say that I think most of us see through the illusion I mean that most of us feel the conflict in this. We are told by psychologists that we should feel good about ourselves in every way but we recognize, quite acutely at times, that we really aren’t that great. We see in ourselves character flaws and behaviors for which we feel embarrassment, shame, and guilt no matter how much our society says that these things are okay. We tend toward self-criticism not because we are experiencing emotional problems, but because we are being honest with ourselves. While most all of us have some traits that are admirable, we are all aware of the many ways in which we fail to meet up to standards of the right kind of life—even if we define that personally. When we find ourselves honestly evaluating our lives, we are frequently faced with ways in which we know we are failing. What are we to do with these feelings? Are we to avoid them and drown them out in self-affirmations or should we face up to them and accept ourselves fully as flawed people?
In my own life I have found great peace in accepting that I am simply not a great human being. I don’t feel self-pity about this, but feel that an honest look at myself leaves me with the truth that I am lacking in significant ways. This self-criticism does not have to lead to a kind of wallowing in our faults, but can be an important way to move ourselves closer to the life that we want to live. Self-criticism is an essential part of being an excellent scholar and scientist. A willingness to admit one’s own scientific and moral fallibility helps us to be more careful in what we believe and more able to see our own mistakes. The famous psychologist Alfred Binet spent a significant portion of his career staking his reputation on the idea that the volume of a person’s cranium is the determiner of his/her intelligence. He even said that this “truth” was scientifically proven and irrefutable. In an act of scientific and personal humility, he later admitted that he was wrong. Binet went on to make significant and long-lasting contributions to the field of psychology while many of his compatriots never recanted and have faded into history as examples of pseudo-scientists.
I believe honest self-criticism is also important for experiencing personal growth. If we are really so wonderful and amazing as the self-esteem psychologists attempt to convince us, there is not much more for us to do. But if we are what we often fear, flawed and bruised human beings, there is a work to be done. Realistic expectations are fostered when we recognize as well that being less than stellar is to be human. Following from the example I gave earlier, when I realized that my personal feelings of doom and gloom were largely of my own self-ish creation, I was able to find a way out. As long as I kept trying to tell myself that in reality I was a great person I could not find the solution. The fact of the matter is that many of my own problems come from short-sightedness, selfishness, and willful disregard of the things I know and believe to be true and right. This is not self-pity, this is simply the truth.
Permit me one last example. One of my daughters was talking with me on the sidelines of her football (soccer) game about how she felt like she wasn’t a good player. I simply agreed with her, not to be unkind but to be honest with her and encourage her ability to be self-critical. The fact is that she wasn’t really very good at that sport even though she excelled in other parts of her life. I told her that the teammates and opponents that were better at football than she was had worked very hard to get that way. They had spent hours every day playing and practicing in order to feel confident and succeed on the playing field. I asked her “Do you want to be good if it requires that kind of work? If so, I will help you to achieve it.” Her answer somewhat surprised me. She said “No.” I asked her how good she wanted to be and she replied “Good enough to have fun.” From that we decided to practice some more in order to help her feel more confident and to enjoy her games more. As you might imagine, when I recounted this conversation with some of my American friends, they were horrified that I would tell my daughter (or at least agree with her own conclusion) that she wasn’t good at playing football. They felt that I should have told her that she was “good” or “improving” even though neither of those were necessarily true at that time. This is the problem, we teach our children the same self-affirming and self-deceptive practices that lead us to the paradox of trying to feel all good about ourselves with the recognition that we realize it just is not true. Honest recognition of our faults is an important aspect of a healthy and mature human being.
While I believe that American psychology has good intentions and that most practitioners are acting in good faith to help others, I believe that our enterprise is fundamentally flawed. Indeed, I believe that psychology may be doing more to further unrealistic expectations of happiness that leads to feelings of shame about unavoidable unhappiness that is natural to the human condition. By perpetuating the idea that we can be free of suffering, people flock to their doctors and psychotherapists to help them fix what in reality are normal parts of the human condition. And by pushing the notion that we should feel good about ourselves we are leaving people unable to be self-critical in ways that will help them toward genuine self-improvement. Maybe accepting life as something more than self, sprinkled (sometimes heavily) with suffering, and ourselves as the incomplete creatures we are will lead to something like an improvement of individuals and society. Consider it, maybe there really are more important things.
Frankl, V.E. (1992). Man’s search for meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Kierkegaard, S (1969). The sickness unto death (W. Lowrie, trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Rogers, C.R. (1947). Some observations on the organization of personality. American Psychologist, 2, 358-368.
We often discuss in my field of study, psychology, what it means to be human. Or what sets us apart (if at all) from other animals. While I do have some sympathy with those who view us on a “continuum” from lower animals, it seems pretty obvious to that we are something significantly different from other animals. What has struck me in the past few days in particular is our ability to imagine ourselves being something or someone other than what or who we are. Notably has been my thinking about the people I see very day and wondering what they are like and wondering what it would be like to be them.
On my walk to work, about one mile, I see people of every variety from the upper caste and wealthier to the slum-living lower caste. I imagine most of you have felt this way as well, but I look at them and wonder what it would be like if I were them and they were me. What would it be like, for example to have underdeveloped, skinny legs that seemed to not bend the right way? To not be able to work, to be judged as less of a person for my disability? To be begging for coins on the walkway under the street? To sleep there? What would I think every day while I sat there? Would I be bitter and angry or resigned to my fate? Would I feel grateful when people stopped and gave me money or would I feel resentful if people didn’t stop?
What about the guy giving me a ride on his rickshaw? If I were him would I enjoy the physical effort of my job? Where do I live? Am I married, with children? What do I hope for in my life? What do I eat? What do I think of this pale skinned guy that I pick up in my rickshaw? Do I think of him as a real person with real thoughts, feelings, hopes? Or might I see him as a symbol of something and not as a full human being?
This ability, besides being about empathy, is also the source of the creativity and destructiveness of envy. Since we can imagine a life other than our own, we can wish to be or to have something that some else has or owns. We see someone with expensive possessions and we can imagine ourselves with that instead of them. We see someone with some physical or intellectual or social characteristic and imagine ourselves with that quality. That makes us feel, somehow, that they took it from us–since we can imagine it with us or belonging to us we feel like it could be ours. So if they have it maybe we should have had it instead. It is a strange feeling and so very painful for some people. I feel fortunate in my life (I am fortunate in so many ways) that I don’t feel envy all that often. But when it does, it burns.
The positive side? That same empathy can lead us to want to raise up others in the ways we might see them as struggling in comparison to us. We may want them to have the advantages that we have, the joys that we experience. We may be led to try to relieve some of their suffering because of how good our lives have been.
This last weekend we had the opportunity to go to a village called Dhani Bhadan in Rajasthan for a wedding. We went with a couple of friends (they are a married couple who are our friends—couple friends, friends couple?) called MacArthur and Ved. MacArthur we met something like 8 years ago when we were living in Cairo. We go to the same church and we met her there and invited her to stay with us. We also had a mutual college friend—maybe that is partly how we met, I don’t remember. Anyway, at church here in Delhi we see her and find out that she now lives in India, married to an Indian man named Ved. We hadn’t met Ved until this last weekend when we were all traveling to Rajasthan together. We had a spectacular time and I will have to include some photos here of the experience.
While the wedding was amazing, I am more interested in this space to talk about the school we found there. We stayed at the house of Colonel Ramautar Singh who seems to be a leader in the village. As you see by the name, he is a retired Colonel from the Indian Army. He showed us some awards and things from that era of his life. But the amazing thing about the Colonel is the decisions he has made since. He has a nice and spacious home and was so welcoming to all of us. He even gave us his room to sleep in (though he didn’t mention that). After retiring from the military, he decided to invest his life savings and his life in educating girls in his village. He believes (and I agree with him) that this is the one way to lift families out of poverty and increase the opportunities and empowerment of women. We were welcomed at his home by a group of the older students and the graduating class of girls from high school. They were happy and beaming on that great day and many were planning on attending college next.
The school has grown from a starting point in his own living room to larger buildings and now includes boys as well. Unlike some other village schools, this one seemed to be overflowing with hope and cheerfulness. The children were all in uniform and were happy to meet us. We asked about how we might help in some small way and the Colonel informed us about a system he has where people can sponsor the child of a poor family who cannot pay for school fees, etc. For just $200 (10,000 rupees), you can sponsor a primary school child all the way through her education. We met a young girl named Meena who comes from a poorer and lower caste family and chose to sponsor her. The Colonel sends sponsors a school photograph and progress report each year as well as a letter from the child. When the child is old enough, she will send a letter as well. It is great to have been able to been to a place that is doing such good and making a difference. You could really feel it there. If anyone reading this is interested—and I hope that all of you will be—please contact me and I can give you the information regarding the school as well as how to sponsor a student. If you can’t afford the $200 yourself, maybe get a few other people to join with you in making a donation. The information I have for you has an international routing number where you can wire your donation. This is a chance for us to do something small in money that can make a dramatic impact on a young girl and her family and children for generations. Email me at: email@example.com for more information.