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Being human in the 21st century

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As society becomes more complex and technology evolves to make our lives more convenient, we’re also being pulled apart more and more.

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By Dr. Drake Spaeth

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Famed psychologist Carl Rogers used a powerful analogy to describe the human longing to be whole. If potatoes are left alone in a dark cellar, they will still do what potatoes will do. They will sprout! Even in the dark, they will grow in distorted ways, toward whatever light they can find. It may result in a very mutated looking plant, but nevertheless they long for the light.

This is a great analogy to what it is that we, as humans, long for: wholeness. It is what humanistic psychology has always been about—coming into wholeness out of an experience of feeling broken. When we feel like we are only allowed or permitted to be pieces of ourselves in relationships, in workplaces, and at home, we feel claustrophobic and small, and we desire to be more of who we are, genuinely and authentically. We may never be completely whole our entire lives, but we are always moving toward that end, carried by our longing. Intimate, healthy, and loving relationships provide the light that we need to nourish emerging wholeness. When others can accept us non-judgmentally for who we are, we give ourselves permission to do the same with ourselves. We then change in ways that align with our longing.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

-  Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy

This longing has been present since we awoke into self-awareness. I think of the existential psychologist Rollo May and how he emphasized that we have self-awareness, acutely aware that our time on this earth is finite. Rollo felt that only humans have this awareness, although the mourning behaviors and apparent rituals for the deceased by elephants gives me pause to wonder if we are truly the only species that knows about the apparent finality of death.

Nevertheless, one might say that human beings are distinct in their potential to channel the intense anxiety of being finite into creative potential. We suffer because we long for more time, but this suffering drives us toward greatness in the time we have. It pushes us to be our very best self.

However, it can also immobilize us. Our capacity for freedom of choice also means that we can choose to waste our time. We addictively engage in activities and pursuits that merely distract us for a time from the awareness that we have one chance to live well. Rather than face the terror that we might choose poorly, we take escape routes, numbing ourselves to the intensity of human feelings and experience through excessive engagement with substances and entertainment pursuits. Ironically, this avoidance seems to engender the outcome most feared—not living fully and well as human beings.

I also think of Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, who contributed a somewhat more spiritual and mystical piece to this existential perspective. In Frankl’s view, we are all born with unique gifts. We must be able to search and grapple for a sense of personal meaning so that we can contribute these gifts in the unique way we are each called upon to do in only the way that we can.

Frankl emphasized that to find the true meaning of our lives, we must confront the “existential vacuum”—the sense that life is meaningless and that inside, we may be without any real substance. We can experience despair in the face of rampant materialism, consumerism, environmental devastation, violence and hate crimes, and isolation engendered by the breakdown of intimate relationships. In order to feel like we are living a worthwhile life, we feel pressured to live up to societal expectations while not even being completely certain of the exact nature of those standards, or how to navigate them when they are contradictory.

The challenge of the 21st century is that we are being completely pulled apart—to an unprecedented extent—by all the things that we feel the need to be for so many different people, in so many different circumstances. This fragmentation is counter to our longing for wholeness and authenticity. Moreover, our bodies are still wired as if we were living in atavistic times. Unfortunately that means biologically they have difficulty distinguishing between minor hassles and life threats. We are flooded with cortisol as if we are facing all types of dire threats to our survival, though they are in fact a steady stream of trivial stressors such as traffic or being late to an appointment.

By embracing an existential humanistic perspective we can begin to gain a deeper sense of how we can nourish ourselves through relationships and connection more effectively. There is an invitation here to look honestly at our insecurities, facing adverse circumstances with directness and courage, to spend more time experiencing the beauty of the natural world in order to re-establish a sense of our place in it, and to have difficult conversations with those we love rather than constantly avoiding our fear of loss, abandonment, and isolation.


Confronting the existential vacuum

This struggle is one we have encountered in every age, from the Industrial Revolution onward, maybe even before. However, as society becomes more complex and technology evolves to make our lives more convenient, we continue to be pulled apart more and more.

So where do we get to be that whole person? Where do we get to call “home” in a psycho-spiritual sense? It is no wonder that many of us seem to have a sense of spiritual homesickness. Where do we get to be utterly free and completely ourselves without judgment or pressure to be something we are not? We long for a place that we do not feel like we can only express certain parts of who we are, in certain ways, at certain times.

If we think about the evolution of our humanity in the terms of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, many of us try to meet the esteem need—the need for respect, self-esteem, and confidence—through work.

The consequence of our obsession with work as an avenue toward esteem is that many of us have difficulty understanding who we are apart from what we do; therefore our selfhood is invested in activity. Unemployment is devastating, because it is as if our selfhood has been ripped out. This, of course, is really an invitation to confront the existential vacuum—the fear that ultimately there is nothing there and everything is meaningless. It can be an opportunity for what Maslow calls self-actualization, which empowers us to validate and value ourselves apart from what we do and from the recognition and esteem of peers. At that point, our relationships with cherished others becomes about mutually sharing the gifts of who we are with each other, not clinging through mutual neediness.


Embracing connection

Clearly, connection is very important in our longing to be whole. And while technology has empowered greater connection, it has also seemed to distort our authenticity. I think of the way we tailor ourselves for social media to come across much differently than the reality of our lives. There’s something tragic, bittersweet, and poignantly human in all of that.

If we want technology to work toward our humanity, we need to find ways of enhancing what the philosopher Martin Buber calls the “I thou” connection. In an “I thou” moment, we know each other as full human beings and have an empathic understanding of each other; we have genuine investment in who the other is.

These moments are fleeting because we cannot sustain that kind of intimacy for long. Therefore, we spend most of our time in “I it” interactions, which is where we relate to each other through our roles in life. For example, at the grocery store we may relate to others as customer and cashier; at the bank as client and bank teller; or in the classroom as student and professor. But sometimes, when those boundaries break down enough to allow for that deeper connection, even those interactions can become rich “I thou” moments of shared humanity.

There is a question here about the role that advancements in technology—like virtual reality—can play in enabling us to make this “I thou” connection from a distance, when we are not in each other’s physical presence. Can we achieve soul connection at a distance? Or does it simply construct an illusion of I-Thou, further contributing to fragmentation? Will technology be our undoing or our salvation, addressing ravages of climate change and bringing us together to solve the global issues that we face while offering humanity the opportunity for deeper connection?

While there are no clear answers, perhaps our ability to face these paradoxes with integrity is an invitation from the deepest part of our longing—our existential imperative to live fully out of our best potentials.


Continued evolution

Tragically, there are many people and groups of people who do not ever encounter any opportunity to benefit from the growth-promoting benefits of healthy relationships and connection to achieve wholeness or any approximation of self-actualization.

When large numbers of us are invisible due to homelessness or marginalization imposed by a privileged few (based on race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, ability, or religion/spirituality); the collective fullness and richness of the experience of shared humanity in the 21st century will elude us. In a very real sense, none of us can be fully authentic and whole while others are not; none of us are truly free unless all of us can be.

This outer fragmentation will be mirrored inside of us, and vice-versa. Working on ourselves necessarily requires work in the world, within the scope of our ability, and our construction of the world we live in together springs organically from our inner being. As Carl Rogers said, “The degree to which I can create relationships, which facilitate the growth of others as separate persons, is a measure of the growth I have achieved in myself."


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