At his core, what is the nature of man? Are we good or bad? What drives our actions? They’re age-old questions, and ones I’ve had the occasion to think about this week. It’s a funny coincidence, really, as I happened to pick up a book this past weekend that seeks to explore this same question. That gets into a whole other conversation about the nature of coincidence and if they actually exist, but we’ll table that for another time.
Carl Rogers, the humanistic psychologist, taught that at their core, humans are inherently good. I believe him. At least, I’d like to. But when situations occur that seem to indicate otherwise, how do we account for that? Fact (and spoiler alert): the world is not all good. Bad things happen, terrible situations exist, and sometimes, people do horrific things. If Rogers is right, and we are good at heart, what explains the presence of the “non-good” in the world today?
My first thought is to blame society. It’s an easy enough scapegoat. Somehow, somewhere along the way, society gets in the way and corrupts us. But, how? By definition, society is made up of humans. If humans are good, society should be a reflection of the people it encompasses. But I propose that definition is incomplete. Society is not just a compilation of people. Rather, it’s how we as humans interact with – and how we think we interact with – others, oftentimes based on how we think others expect or want us to act. Society then encompasses humanity, yes, but it also includes the perceptions and notions that we create for ourselves.
The answer then evolves into, humanity’s inherent goodness is marred by our own perceptions.
What makes humanity “bad”? Ambition. Power. Greed. Hate. The list goes on and on, and they all stem from something deeper.
Greed, from a fear of not having enough.
Ambition, from a sense of not being enough.
Power, from a desire for something greater – control, recognition, or something else entirely.
Hate, from choosing not to love.
All of them come from how we choose to interact with and see the world, which then begs the obvious conclusion: if humans are good and society is bad, we should all pull a Thoreau and peace out to the woods. Get rid of society, live as happy, good individuals, and frolic in the meadows.
Because in order for the healthy, good self to fully emerge, Rogers also says it needs positive regard, which he defines as love, warmth, energy, affirmation, and care received from others. Yes, a self must be able to stand independently, but if complete independence is the ultimate goal, we lose so much. Our connections with others wither. Opportunities to grow are lost. We erase any chance we have to become our best selves, for a soul in isolation can never be complete.
Is humanity good or bad, then? I have to agree with Rogers still. We are good.
Is society good or bad? To quote one of my favorite characters, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Perhaps, then, the question needs to be reframed. Instead of “Is society good or bad?” what about, “How can we utilize society to help us become who we are meant to be?” While that’s not as catchy of a question, it may be the better one to ask. The answer is simple.
By looking at something with the right lens, and acting accordingly, we have the power every day to choose how to let others affect us. How much to let our own preconceptions shape our actions. (I said the answer was simple. Execution of that answer, though, can be a tad more difficult.)
Because really, when you get down to it, life is beautiful. Everything else is just details. As long as that’s the context we choose to operate from, everything else will fall right where it needs to.