I no longer think humans are innately good. This is a new belief, developed over the last 10 years. For the longest time, I believed in our goodness. I believed, if given the right opportunity, education and socialization, we could be a kind, compassionate and thoughtful species.
But this was naive. I overlooked our worst atrocities. I had read plenty about 20th-century horrors like Nazism, American slavery, The Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s regime, or Stalin’s purges, but I ignored its implications. I could not believe the obvious truth in front of me.
But something began to change in the last 10 years. Perhaps it was the rise of Trumpism. Perhaps it was my career in psychotherapy where I began to study individual psychologies more closely. Or perhaps it was reading more pessimistic but realistic views of human nature. Take Freud, the father of my field. It strikes me as odd that my field is filled with superficial and positive psychology when the father of the field was such a pessimist. Look at this passage from his masterpiece, Civilization And Its Discontents,
. . men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule, this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.Sigmund Freud
This is not a man who sees human nature as innately good. He sees that morality is a matter of circumstance. Underneath the veneer of polite platitudes and niceties, something is brewing in the darkness of our souls. There are many names for it in world history. Judeo-Christians call it original sin. Buddhists might call it deluded mind. Freud called it the death drive. Jung called it the Shadow Self, a term that I have wrestled with more in this past year.
I’ve wrestled with my own shadow self my entire life. When I am at my best, I am loving and selfless. I can put aside my fears and be kind, patient and thoughtful to the people I love, my patients and strangers. My ego has been sublimated, channeled into other ways of handling my anxieties and rage. Meditation helps. So does writing as I am now. And spending time in nature has recently done wonders for sanity.
But beneath the mask of everyday life, I sometimes feel rage. I sometimes feel my need for power. I sometimes feel my jealousy and constant comparisons to others. My childlike id screams for love and adoration. I become narcissistic and think of myself first. I’ve tried to repress these feelings or rationalize them. After all, why shouldn’t I get what I want? Why shouldn’t I dominate and be in charge?
This is my shadow self, my darkness. It is the same darkness which looms in all of us. It is the same darkness we must all wrestle with. Most of us don’t wrestle with it because we don’t know it is there. We want to deny our ugliness, only see ourselves in the best light. Any criticism can be anathema to death. Our ugliness, our shadows are an indication that we are deeply flawed beings. But instead of letting in our darkness, we need to expel those feelings of self-hatred on to another.
Think about the current American political discourse. Everyone thinks they’re on the right, moral side. I’ve heard dehumanizing slurs about liberals and conservatives from both sides that are not grounded in reality, but serves the purpose of “othering” or “scapegoating.” Every society has a scapegoat. As Ernest Becker and others have speculated, scapegoating is a way to expel self-hatred. Our darkness, our shadows, all the ways we feel powerless and inadequate need an outlet for our aggression. It is why anti-semitism still pervades even after the holocaust. It is why Asian-American hate crimes on the rise. It is why the Twitter mob cancels people from all sides of the political spectrum. We need fresh sacrifices for the altar. We all need a place to put our guilt. We all need the bad guy to take the place of our self-loathing.
I don’t really see any way out of this for humanity. On an individual level, people can find some peace and acceptance with their inner demons. They can recognize their shadow selves and work not to expel outwardly but learn to sublimate it into healthy, creative outlets. It takes a lot of self-reflection and therapeutic work, unfortunately, more than most of us have room for. But even though our egos will still try to get in the way and seek power and a way up the social hierarchy, an individual can work to become a decent, selfless person. But something happens when we’re in groups. Groups always need someone to hate. And hate inevitably leads to violence and destruction. This is the way of humanity. It is the way I have come to accept begrudgingly.