Chapter 6: Applying Humanism To Personal Problems
Applying Humanism to Personal Problems
The General Approach
Humanism is practical. It motivates us to understand complex situations and to make decisions. If this were not true, humanism could not be the basis for an upbeat, constructive way of life. Although it provides no ready-made formulas, it gives a specific point of view. This view makes it easier to work problems through to solution. It prevents us from creating new problems in the process of meeting old ones. This approach to difficulties is made up of at least two elements.
In the first place it is a certain state of mind. This is one of self-reliance and confidence. People act as they do from perfectly natural causes. As these are natural causes rather than occult ones, there is hope of understanding and perhaps even of controlling them. Success or failure does not depend on the conjunction of Mars and Jupiter, on whether it is our lucky day, or on the configuration of crystals. It depends on whether we can see the chains of cause and effect leading up to the present situation and whether we act on the basis of this knowledge. This is both a disciplined and an encouraging philosophy. We are allowed no transcendental alibis and are freed from insoluble riddles. We are encouraged to feel that there is usually some kind of answer to a problem if we could but find it.
Secondly, this approach involves reliance on a common-sense realistic method. There is willingness to use this method on problems whether routine or serious, clear-cut or vague, practical or emotional. This procedure is basically the thoughtful scientific method. It consists of observing keenly, gathering facts, questioning traditional authority, and carefully checking assumptions. It favors keeping the mind open for new knowledge and being ever reluctant to jump to conclusions.
Fixed convictions, prejudices, and dogmas are tested against experience and the objective findings of others. To a humanist, this can be done whether buying a computer or deciding what one’s attitude should be toward an alcoholic relative.
The method requires that when there is time and opportunity to gather information, as much should be collected as seems practicable. On the basis of this, temporary conclusions can be drawn and tested. This course can be followed whether choosing a weight-reducing diet or a political candidate. Where there is no time for this, as often in everyday life, we can at least keep ourselves open for new and better ways of meeting difficulties. (That is, if we meet difficulties!)
Problems Involving Other People
Many of the concerns of everyday life are easily resolved by coupling confidence and curiosity. We must admit, however, that more is usually needed when there are complex relationships with other humans.
A humanist tries to look at problems in social relations from a characteristic perspective, that is, as problems in human happiness, problems in working out what will be best for the people concerned. There is no asking who is or is not right or wrong. As a practical person and as one who recognizes no immutable, hard-and-fast categories of good and evil, the interest is in workable solutions and happy relationships. There are not thoroughly good and thoroughly bad people, merely good and bad behavior; and behavior is likewise judged by its effect on oneself and on others. Situations are approached with confidence in, and openness toward, the people involved. The point of view of others is respected; humanists realize that those others have an equal right to their special slants. The aim is to be non-dogmatic, good humored, in a word, democratic.
Humanists try to have more than a broad perspective. From their mental kits are taken the tool of scientific method which can be used on personal as well as on other problems. This tool is particularly useful when dealing with people, for each of us is psychologically complex and subtly different. We know that each has inherited a different genetic makeup—a slightly different DNA—and that this bundle of characteristic traits has in turn been molded by very different life experiences. We understand also how important it is to recognize that people change. They may react very differently when applying for their first job than when applying for their old-age pension check; they respond differently to a domineering in-law than to an attractive potential mate. The humanist concludes from this that the reasons for people’s behavior and changes in behavior are peculiar to each person and to each person’s history. They realize that people often have no inkling of why they act as they do—and that friends often know even less.
Here, if ever, is a field where the facts are complex and hidden and where it is difficult to check on suppositions. But armed with their point of view, humanists will humbly be prepared to keep their minds open for new insights. They will refrain from laying down hard-and-fast rules as to how friends and relatives will or should act. They will try to understand rather than to judge.
We can easily summarize this general approach to human relations. It is only by accepting people as they are and by trying to understand them that we can live with them successfully.
Some problems involve clear-cut disagreements, impasses, where the people concerned are at cross purposes. Perhaps relatives are disagreeing as to the distribution of inherited property, or perhaps one neighbor is disputing with another the right to keep a rooster in his backyard. (Let us assume that no one follows the impulse to flee!) A suitable approach to these disagreements would be a good-humored, cheerful concentration on finding some kind of acceptable compromise rather than an insistence that someone is wrong and to blame. Facts would be gathered and communication shared. There would be great interest in finding out what was really “eating” the various people involved and why. There would be willingness to explore several possible solutions and confidence that because of the potential good will of everyone, some mutual understanding could be found.
There are times when one has to make an important decision about another person. A humanistic method consists in bringing into focus what is known about this individual. But it does not necessarily end with this. Because we have faith in people, because we realize that they often mature with experience and learn from their mistakes, because we know that past actions are the result of special circumstances, we do not make hard and inflexible judgments on the basis of past actions alone. As Agnes Hocking, founder of Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, once observed, “One shouldn’t make negative comments about personal habits because one never knows whether they are now struggling to change them.”
A Practical Example
Let us consider a very simple situation where this flexible point of view is put into practice.
Joanne is in her second year in a college fifty miles from her hometown. Last week she met John, a guy she had known in high school. He was wearing the uniform of an express company for which he now works.
Joanne hesitated when John asked her for a date. She said she would call him in a couple of days and let him know.
In high school she had liked John and had enjoyed being with him. But John had got into a scrape just after graduation about two years ago. Joanne never was sure what the whole story was but it included his being arrested in a massage parlor which was also a front for drug dealing and prostitution. John had to spend the weekend in jail because his parents did not help by providing bail, saying he should take responsibility for his own actions.
Joanne’s parents had forbidden her to see John any more, and had told her he was a good-for-nothing. John’s family was not financially well off, and he went to work rather than to college.
Joanne, after this chance meeting, got to thinking whether she should follow her strong emotional desire and make the date. She tried to consider the matter within a broad framework. In her reading she had come across the thought that “nothing is more certain in modern society than that there are no absolutes.”
She began to realize that laws and codes and customs as well as institutions are made for humans and not the other way around. And what human good or end would be served by not associating with John?
Then Joanne might have thought of another principle: that we have an inherent capacity for development. We grow and change. What is true at one time may not be so at another.
John, as any other human, is neither all good nor all bad. And, after all, what is meant by good or bad as applied to a person? There is no hard quality of goodness or badness within people. Each person behaves in many different ways—ways which have different consequences.
Joanne probably frowned when she thought for a few moments of a friend whose behavior was not admirable but who nevertheless felt in the clear because she regularly went to confession.
Joanne went to the telephone and made the date.
A few days after the date Joanne’s telephone rang and her mother tearfully reported she had heard that Joanne was seen in a mall with John.
Joanne was tempted to shout back some accusations but she caught herself and said that she would explain everything when she came home that weekend.
This gave her additional time to think the matter out and to ponder the varying points of view concerned, including that of her parents. She decided it would be foolishness to talk with her mother about any relativity in morals but she could discuss other phases of the situation.
When the time came, she told her mother how hard it was on the proverbial dog that had been given a bad name. She mentioned that, while John’s behavior may have been bad or that the situation may have been different from what appeared, he did have many good qualities, and that people do change.
Because she recognized the human capacity to change she was able to think of John as an individual. “Goodness” and “badness” are verbal abstractions, though useful verbal shorthand for describing how we feel about the behavior of someone else.
This little anecdote about Joanne and John illustrates that the idea of accepting others, of trying to understand people, involves sometimes the taking of a chance. We take the chance that people will act as we, in our friendly confidence, expect them to.
Living with Others
Most of the time disputes or important decisions about people are not our main problems. Our daily concern is our adjustment to those with whom we work and live. Often we want more than merely to get along; we want to build rich and happy friendships. How does a humanist achieve these with a child, a spouse, an in-law, a neighbor, a boss, an employee, yes, even the plumber?
In the humanistic approach, each individual is accepted as he or she is. Given this person with particular habit patterns, particular slants on life, what is a workable way to get along or even achieve a satisfactory relationship?
Another’s right to be different would be respected. Realizing the complexities of humankind we would attempt to understand. We would reroute energies from irritation, boredom, or anxiety into efforts to interpret why a cousin is so irritating, a neighbor so boring, or employees so difficult.
Happiness cannot be brought to those you love unless you accept them and understand them. We need to discover why something upsets, frightens, or irritates. If a spouse is nervous on ladders or mountain roads, there is no laughter, criticism, or lecture on how irrational and neurotic the spouse may be. One tries to understand that the attitude may only change slowly, if at all, as its genesis is learned. Change, if any, often lies in giving the feeling of friendly acceptance.
The humanist’s acceptance is not passive. One does not see others merely as they are in their present circumstances or state of mind—of irritation, perhaps! One thinks how the individual might be, free from those tensions, hostilities, fears, which influence individuals to act as they do. Also, the individual may be struggling to correct the very habit or behavior.
If the humanist gives others the kind of understanding which has expectation in it, this is encouragement to help a change in attitude for the better.
But it is not enough to accept and to understand the other person; we must try to accept and understand ourselves.
In any real dispute or disagreement the humanist tries to feel respect for self as for others. There is respect for one’s own personal point of view. There is little interest in brooding on whether one is to blame for a past or present difficult situation.
Nothing is of more importance in relationships with others than self-knowledge. Here as nowhere else is the personal value of the scientific method vindicated. One can discover more about self than can ever come in knowing other people. Self-knowledge will produce improvement in relationships more quickly than any insight about others. After an unnecessary quarrel, a reunion with an old friend spoiled by awkwardness on both sides, or after an exasperating inability to stand up for what one believes in front of others, we can ask: Why did I act as I did? This self-examination can be very fruitful.
Living with Oneself
Lying behind the problems of daily life there are often deeper ones, problems of hostility and fear. These are basic attitudes which are reactions to past experiences even dating back to infancy. In this case the search for self-knowledge must be carried on with more persistence and patience.
Within each of us are these fears, tensions, frustrations, and hostilities. It is as though inner demons were urging us to self-destruction. Such is the picture psychiatrists and mystics have often given of humankind.
To free ourselves from these hostilities and fears we have a humanist orientation which gives self-respect and security, inspiration, and independence. This, of course, is not unique to humanists.
As one comes to be tolerant and understanding of oneself there is increasing personal maturity. Frustrations become fewer, hostilities lessen in intensity. By thinking rationally one is better able to master the inner demons. Creative abilities become released. One more nearly approximates the person one desires to be. Deep inner problems surface and are resolved. Anxiety, boredom, and loneliness become less frequent callers. The individual becomes more of a person.
Julian Huxley shared with others his vision of a world available to those who are sensitive to possibilities. In his book The Faith of a Humanist, he explained:
Many human possibilities are still unrealized save by a few: the possibility of enjoying experiences of transcendent rapture, physical and mystical, aesthetic and religious; or of attaining an inner harmony and peace that puts a man above the cares and worries of daily life. Indeed, man as a species has not realized a fraction of his possibilities of health, physical and mental, and spiritual well-being; of achievement and knowledge, of wisdom and enjoyment; or of satisfaction in participating in worth-while or enduring projects, including that most enduring of all projects, man’s further evolution.