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The Human Experience

Human beings are cursed with a conscious awareness of their own mortality.

Human beings, unlike other species, are cursed with a conscious awareness of their own mortality. I believe that the tragedy of the human condition is that people's awareness and true self-consciousness concerning this existential issue contributes to an ultimate irony: Human beings are both brilliant and aberrant, sensitive and savage, exquisitely caring and painfully indifferent, remarkably creative and incredibly destructive to self and others. The capacity to imagine and conceptualize has negative as well as positive consequences because they predispose anxiety states that culminate in a defensive form of denial.

The tragedy is that the same defenses that enable us to survive the emotional pain of childhood and existential despair are not only maladaptive and limit our personal potential for living a full life, but they inevitably lead to negative behaviors toward others, thereby perpetuating a cycle of destruction. Paradoxically, ideologies and religious beliefs that are a source of spiritual comfort, relief from a sense of aloneness and interpersonal distress also polarize people against one other. Threatened by people with different customs and belief systems, we mistakenly feel that we must overpower or destroy them.

With all of the advances of science and technology, if one takes a proper look at the world situation today, one must consider it to be utter madness. Millions go hungry, genocide reaches epic proportions, ethnic strife and prejudice are omnipresent, there is mass killing in the name of religion and warfare remains a viable solution to our differences. With better, more efficient weapons and less reason, and technology outrunning rationality, human existence on the planet may well be extinguished.

Feelings and compassion are a significant part of our human heritage, but when faced with overwhelming primal pain, we develop defenses to minimize our suffering. Cut off from our feelings, we are desensitized to ourselves and are more likely to become self-destructive or act aggressively toward others. To alter this negative legacy requires a depth of psychological knowledge and compassion as well as the belief and fortitude to pursue this endeavor against all odds.

With deep insight and feeling that we all share the same fate, and recognition that death is the great leveler, there is hope for a one world view characterized by respect, love, and concern for all of our fellows. Our faith is that by learning how people are damaged and later defended, gradually eliminating faulty parenting practices and developing a better understanding of human nature and frailties, we can significantly influence the fate of mankind in a positive direction.

In this regard, comprehending the issues involved in philosophizing about an ethical approach to life necessitates a deep knowledge of human psychology and especially the importance of understanding defense formation. Defenses formed in childhood as a necessity for psychological survival also preclude to varying degrees the formation and living out of a truly moral existence. Personal damage caused by excessive criticism, rejection, or outright hostility on the part of parents predisposes children to become adults that are hurtful to others. There is no way to become innocently defended unless a person lived in total isolation. Whether we are aware or not, the ways we distrust and distort other people do significant damage. It hurts those closest to us, in particular our children, and then extends outward.

In conclusion, society represents a pooling of individual psychological defenses, and it is these defenses and their subsequent damage to other people that is perpetuated in the world at large. It is manifested in a failure to achieve empathy and compassion for others, outright prejudice, ethnic cleansing, and religious warfare. The appropriate education about our psychological defenses, how they are formed, and how they function is essential to achieving insight into the subject of ethics. People with an open orientation can shape a peaceful world that illustrates concern and equality for all.

More from Robert W. Firestone Ph.D.
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More from Robert W. Firestone Ph.D.
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