The Quest to Graduate to Human Being

Wow! The more I get into this book on shame by John Bradshaw that I mentioned the more my mind is opening. This is excellent material. Even though I am only on Chapter Three I am already of the opinion that if it is not on your reading list I think it should be. In some ways this book makes me feel like I have been choosing to see the world through squinted eyes. Only now are they wide open. And only now are some of the big mysteries of life coming into focus.

Like: why are so few of us humans truly happy with ourselves? How many of us wake up excited to engage the world? If you are one of these people then count your blessings. You are a human being. John Bradshaw suggests that the rest of us are human doings, stuck in patterns learned early that squeeze a lot of the joy out of our lives. No wonder we are a nation where addiction runs rampant. For most of us getting up and tackling the day is about as much fun as getting a high colonic.

The irony is often times we delude ourselves. We tell ourselves we are happy with our family, or our marriage, or our employers, or the beliefs we subscribe to. But in fact most of us are not getting much out of life. Instead of living we are existing. We have allowed outside forces to direct our lives. It’s not just mommy who has attached apron strings to us. It is society. It is everyone we choose or inadvertently let slip in through our psychic front and back doors. We are unhappy because we are playing roles in our lives out of guilt and shame, not out of genuine desire.

In many cases we have taken our natural desires and stuffed them into a strong box. We have locked it in a dark closet or buried it underground and swallowed the key. And yet it tugs at us day and night. “Help!” it says. “You are living a false life! You are meant to be happy, not be the actor of your own life! You are squandering away your life!” We try not to hear it but occasionally the voice comes through. And when it becomes deafening we deal with it by deadening it. Out comes to booze. Or the cigarettes. Or the Bon Bons. Or we go out cruising for sex. Or we rush to church to hear from our ministers that God tells us we must never give in to the voice. Our life is to be used wholly in service to others. Yes, that’s the paradox of the whole altruism bit. You are supposed to make everyone happy but yourself. You supposedly gain the highest level of happiness only through abject misery which you delude yourself into thinking is actually ennobling.

Now I’m not going to go Ayn Rand on you and start preaching the virtues of Objectivism. I think altruism is fine. But as is true of any virtue or vice, altruism can be taken to extreme. It is okay to give of ourselves and nurture others along too. But I don’t think it is okay for most of us to become Mother Teresas and spend our lives doing nothing but helping others. This is not to diss Mother Teresa. Her life is an extraordinary accomplishment. I hope giving service to others was something she truly enjoyed. I hope she woke up every morning absolutely thrilled to help the poor and the destitute. On the other hand if she woke up every morning preferring to eat Godiva chocolates and instead decided she’d do nothing but help the poor from dawn until dusk every day of the week I would suggest that while she did great good she was also a woman with huge issues. To use Bradshaw’s words she would have been a human doing.

Now I know where all this dysfunction comes from. It comes from survival. I can pin it on bad parenting, or nutty religions, or the educational system where your worth as a human being is determined by your grade point average. But basically we survived as a species by deferring our wants to make sure our needs were taken care of. We are only now beginning to emerge from the lower reaches of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If we reach self-actualization, then that’s fine. Part of self-actualization is often altruistic in nature, but it is not just about altruism. It’s about finding our authentic self. It’s about becoming a human being instead of a human doing.

And that’s the hard part. Many of us don’t have a clue on how to find our authentic self. If we have survived in the jungle of life long enough to be at the plain where self-actualization can happen then we find that we lack the tools to get there. Instead we often feel guilt or shame when we reach. “I shouldn’t do X. Instead I should cut the grass, make love to my spouse, pound the beefsteak, dust the furniture and clean the kitchen floor.” And if we finish those things on our immediate To Do list, then we are told we should also spend the rest of our time doing things for others. We should be ushering at church, or going to PTA meetings, or doing Mormon missionary work, or tutoring children. We don’t know how to just kick back and take delight in things that may give us inward pleasure.

And I notice that some of us do things that genuinely do make them happy but they won’t cut themselves any slack for it. For example there is a significant other in my life who is this way. She will spend her days surfing the Internet reading stories written by others. And then the day will come to an end and she will berate herself for being such a bad human as to have actually spent the day having fun.

So many of us are stuck in these toxic patterns that are ultimately debilitating and self-defeating. We need escape. We need to find a way to say it’s okay to revel guiltless in the pleasure of doing things that feed our fancy.

I myself find myself stuck somewhere between the two extremes. I am finding lots of things that I enjoy. I don’t usually give myself a hard time about enjoying them, but I haven’t quite turned off that nagging voice in my head. It tells me what a horrible human being I am because I am blogging instead of removing cat gorp stains from the carpets. But with every passing year these feelings of shame recede more. I am too engaged. I have found activities that really turn me on. My list is doubtless not your list, but they are interesting enough where I find I am usually eager to take them up.

I even had a little fun today grading my students’ papers. Why? Because I chose to teach as an extracurricular activity, not because I needed the money. Between my job (which is about 50% fun, which is higher than most jobs), blogging, hanging out in electronic communities, biking, movies, theater, romance and even good dirty sex I feel pretty darn good most of the time. So it’s not so hard these days to laugh at those voices telling me what I should do. Perhaps one of these days my total liberation will be complete.

If you are a human being in the fullest sense of the word: congratulations. If you have a moment please reach down and pull me up. But if you are like me and you still hear those “shoulds” in your brain more often than you would like, then here’s hoping we both graduate to human being.

One response to “The Quest to Graduate to Human Being”

  1. Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book. [Too busy with another of your favorite authors, Brian Greene.]

    Still, from your secondhand interpretation, I get uncomfortable with an author whose underlying thesis seems to be “it’s ok to look out for yourself.” Of course there’s an underlying grain of truth, but isn’t there a lot more satisfaction in the things we do in life that aren’t purely selfish?

    Those of us in the developed world have SUCH an advantage. Mark, you are richer in absolute and in relative terms than probably all but 1 percent of the population of the world. Those of us (myself included) who have been gifted and self-driven do need to keep in mind that these gifts should not be taken for granted; we should keep in mind all those who have not had our good fortune.

    So, feel no shame about having your fun, but also keep your worldly conscience.



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