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Stories of Our Lives and 'The Human Condition'

Being human confers on us dramatic life stories, both joyful and painful.

Key points

  • "The human condition" is used ironically to refer to the state of being a human, with both the wondrous and the woeful feelings we experience.
  • We are the only species that can describe in words and works of art our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings to ourselves and to others.
  • We all have diverse and unique life stories, but each one of them depicts times love and loss, communality and loneliness, joy and sadness.

The phrase "the human condition" has always fascinated me.

It was coined in 1958 by the political thinker Hanna Arendt, and summarizes for me the complexities, and both the rewarding and difficult experiences of being a human being.

Of all earthly creatures, only we humans can describe through words our sensed perceptions, thoughts and feelings, and convey the touching stories of our lives. Our cognitive and verbal powers enable us to consciously experience, exult, and endure.

Our life stories are unique and diverse yet they all contain compelling narratives of drama and romance, pain and disappointment, joys and achievements.

There are oft-asked questions as to whether the “human condition” is a serious affliction with which we cope or endure, or conversely, whether it is a privilege and blessing for which we should be grateful and enjoy? The answer is, of course, “Both.”

We have wide ranges of emotions at different times, from love to hate, camaraderie to rancor, generosity to selfishness, and celebration to sadness.

We can keep our personal feelings and thoughts private, ‘locked’ in our private cerebral 'vaults,' or we can choose to share (or not) our stories with chosen confidantes.

As a psychiatrist I am interested in diagnoses and treatments, but I’m particularly moved by the varied stories of peoples’ lives. My career has allowed me the privilege of learning about others’ fears, loves, hopes, and meaningful relationships.

I was motivated to work with and help people with psychological and emotional challenges. I was also captivated by the mysterious workings of the human mind (my own included), the places it takes one, the emotions it stirs, and the dreams it produces. It is an intellectually challenging area of study, enabling clinical work, education, research, and writing.

Personal experiences also influenced my career choice: I had a brother born with severe autism, my mother had recurrent depressions, a close classmate had committed suicide, and to be sure, I harbored my own self-doubts and anxieties.

I first became interested in life stories from my parents whose lives were like multicolored tapestries, dark narratives of early poverty, antisemitism, immigration, and strife, as well as later colorful tales of family, accomplishments, and generativity.

I’ve thus been fortunate to ‘accompany’ people on parts of their journeys, which are always moving stories. I am always struck by the uniqueness of life stories, the diverse personalities we inhabit, the dramas and challenges we face, and the loves and joys we experience. Our brief life journeys are unpredictable, complex, and moving.

We humans are a social species, and in these roiling times of conflicts, viruses, and uncertainties abounding in our lives, we need each other more than ever. An important paradox (and sad tragedy) is that at the very time in human existence when we are “hyperconnected” by the internet and social media, we frequently lead intensely private and even lonely lives. The sad fact is we are now less emotionally connected, more alienated, even estranged from each other.

We are a social species, and we thrive on “social cohesion,” our relationships with others. (This is admittedly more difficult when the pandemic necessitates “social distancing.”) Our mutual sharing of feelings and ideas are vital to our well-being, but we are too often isolated and disconnected that we have little meaningful time to spend with each other. We are so preoccupied that we haven’t the time or the interest to listen and really hear each other.

The human condition is complex: We can live in atmospheres of isolation, camaraderie, or enmity. We can experience mutual cooperation, tolerance, and love, or we can succumb to the negative parts of our natures, like intolerance, aggression, racism, and hatred. We can live our lives in an avoidance bubble, in relative solitude and private discordance, or we can live in social atmospheres of communality and harmony.

Our human condition is a blessing that can bring psychological, social, and spiritual sustenance and meaning to our lives. But that same ‘condition’ can at times bring us major distress.

The ‘condition’ (painful) part of the human condition, however, is existential, and not a psychiatric disorder that necessitates treatment. Medication and psychotherapy are not the answers to the challenging aspects of the human condition.

What humanity needs for the prevention and mitigation of the demons in our nature are more education, egalitarianism, and exposure to the better angels in our midst and our souls.

It will take commitment and hard cooperative work to engender our human resilience so that we maximize our strengths and overcome our intrinsic human quandaries.

“The human condition” can be our salvation or our curse. I yearn for when it is less a metaphor for a psychological ‘mixed bag’ of both the supportive and the difficult parts of being human, and more a description of how we have transcended our harmful frailties and faults. We have shown that we can evolve to better versions of ourselves.

In spite of human antipathies and conflicts, I believe we can achieve a mutually humane and benevolent existence, and leave a positive emotional footprint. The very nature of our life stories depends on how we live, work and play together, or how we fail to do so.

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