Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
January 2016 - Volume 16, No. 1
The Human Condition (Part 2 of 3)
In Part 1 of this series, my December Newsletter, I began exploring the question of “the human condition” - whether it is itself innately good or innately bad. I wrote it primarily from my religious background, especially from the Christian tradition in which I’ve been raised and nurtured.
In this part (Part 2) I will approach the question from the within the psychological and humanist (secular) traditions in which I’ve also been nurtured and greatly influenced.
My Own Life History
Back in 1961, in my college sophomore year, I made the decision to enter the ministry, and prepare for seminary (I was a Methodist at that time). I knew instinctively I wanted the rest of my undergraduate work to be in the most secular school I could find available. I didn’t want to go to any of Iowa’s religious colleges (where I would be financially welcomed due to my father being a Methodist minister). So I chose and was accepted at the University of Iowa - a true “holiday for the mind” time in my life. Then afterward I chose and was accepted at one of the academically best Protestant seminaries in the country. That inner balancing between the religious and the secular has always been a hallmark of my professional and personal life.
Living in Two Different Worlds
It was in Iowa City where I first really explored my native ability (or well-planted desire) to live in two different worlds at the same time. It would take me a long time to even begin telling you stories of the fascinating places this gift has taken me, and of the many teachings I’ve absorbed and experiences I cherish.
And you can begin to imagine how it’s kept me sane in some marriage counseling sessions!
I rarely use religious language outside of holy space. I know the primary emphasis these days is that all creation is ‘holy space.’ But for me it continues to be important to mark the boundaries. And in like manner, I seldom use psychological language outside my office. There’s an integrity in each world that needs to be honored, and there’s a language in each world that honors that integrity. When one of those languages presumes to represent the entire world of one’s experience or life, things can begin to get fuzzy. And in the presence of such fuzziness, I often become quiet - and known as a man of few words.
There is one language, a universal language to my thinking, that can emerge whole from under these contentions and differences - the language of the heart.
And in the final analysis, that’s the only language that can effect the difference and offer hope in any discussion of the human condition. But I am getting ahead of myself. That’s for next month.
Psychology and the ‘human condition’?
I’m defining psychology as "the scientific study of behavior and mental processes". Early psychology (as it emerged as a new science in the 19th and early 20th century) discovered (or rediscovered) how little we humans are in charge of our lives. It’s research continued to illuminate how enslaved we are to forces beyond our control. A new lexicon emerged which defined our problems but offeredlittle to change them. A psychological practitioner primarily could diagnose and commit. And commit meant to take the patient out of the general population into place that kept both the patient and the general population safe from each other.
Today the purpose of many mental health practitioners, primarily through psychopharmacology (the primary source of most research these days), is to get people to ‘behave’ normally. We have become the ‘moral police’, a job previously relegated to religion and public education.
A psych professor friend of mine once said to me, “Bill, I could never do what you do. When people tell me their struggles and problems, all I can say to them is ‘You’re simply an excellent example of the human condition.” (His expertise is developmental, not clinical, psychology.)
Positive Psychology (and its cousin Positive Religion)
Then, to counter the gloomy outlook of the early psychologists, there emerged a more “positive psychology.” This merges much more comfortably with education, religion, business, marketing & politics. Perhaps the poster child of this movement was the “I’m OK, you’re OK” of Transactional Analysis. It made psychology marketable to the masses, and gave it an aura of the ‘search for happiness’ which is also, coincidentally, the engine of our capitalist economy.
Also a comment on Psychopharmacology. Where and when psychology could only map the territory of human horrors, there came a savior - Psychopharmacology (psychiatric medication). Where the “human condition and circumstance” was helpless, chemistry came to the rescue. Remember “Mother’s Little Helper” (Valium, ‘that little yellow pill’)?
I’ll sometimes call positive psychology and religion “happiness psychology” and “happiness religion.”
The worship of happiness
Positive psychology and positive religion have developed in parallel paths. Both are rooted in the worship of good feelings, success and positive thinking. This Religion is marked by the decline of sin, and the eradication of the confessional. Like positive psychology, sin becomes just ‘wrong thinking’ (unless it’s someone else’s sin, and for that we build prisons). Both religion and psychology have become ‘entitlement’ generators. Both are rooted in the ability to chop up any authority into palatable chunks for personal advantage. Like my preacher father would say, ‘anything one wants to support or believe can be found and proof-texted’ in the Bible.’
Both modern religion and modern psychology (including some psychopharmacology) have become the instruments of moral relativism. If we are born good, then we can trust our basic instincts and enjoy the fruits of prosperity. We don’t have to guard against greed, we can trust it. And we don’t have to care for the poor, for it is their own fault.
Adam Smith, the 18th century Scotsman who laid the foundations of classical free market economic theory, noted that capitalism is our best working economic model, but that it would take about 200 years for its proponents to become able to fully place it in the service of human greed.
I’ll judge each, not on behalf of the good they can do to those who fit their thinking. I’ll judge them on behalf of those whose experience and needs fall outside their frames of reference. The God of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New Testament posit a final judgment primarily on how each of us treat those among us who are separate and need our help. In the Old Testament a society or state was judged on how it cared for the widow and the orphan (those who had no legal rights of their own). And in the New Testament that powerful 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel spells out how each of us individually will be so judged.
Those who divide themselves from the world, will be themselves forever divided (separated) from the fullness of the world, from the fullness of life.
To Answer the Question
So what is the Human Condition from the perspective of psychology and the secular perspectives?
In simple terms, we need to recall the story that each of us has an angel and a demon on our shoulders. And we will continually struggle with the various potency of each. Our greatest danger, and when we become of greatest danger to others, is when one or the other in that shoulder drama disappears.
This may sound contradictory. Both in the world of religion and the world of psychology, the fullness of life emerges when we fully engage in the human struggle, both our own and that of others. What can emerge is the glory of being human, and the joy of being a part of a caring society.
The next Part
My next and final part of this series, Part 3, will be about the language and working of the heart, human and divine.
Until then, continue to
 The massive Mental Health Institute, one of four in the State of Iowa, was situated just a mile outside of my home town of Independence.It was initially opened in 1873, and its buildings and grounds were designed to be the best of its time. (They both still have a magnificence to them.) I’ve read that the Iowa Legislature approved the full expenditure unanimously. In the late 1930’s and again in 1947 it housed as many as 1800 patients. It’s resources to care for this population were the best available.
It’s sad to compare with the availability of public resources and care available today for the mentally ill.
 Much of my early clinical training was in Transactional Analysis, which I still honor due to the rigor (four years) of its credentialing program, and the genius of its game and script analysis insights. It has fallen out of favor with the general population due to the apparent over-simplicity of its surface structure, and the decision of ITAA (International Transactional Analysis Association) many years ago to abandon it’s US sphere of influence and focus more on an ‘international’ presence, which continues today.