Growing up, I heard lots of complaints from parents and teachers about children being conceited, proud, and arrogant. Looking back, it seems to me that most of these complaints were related to a failure to obey. We did have one or two kids who were arrogant jerks, but the rest of us received the same comments they did.
But whatever motivated the adults of my youth, they were mostly wrong – it’s not our overvaluation of ourselves that is the real problem; it’s our undervaluation.
Here is a passage from G.K. Chesterton’s The Defendant that makes this argument:
There runs a strange law through the length of human history — that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves. The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility.
I think Chesterton was entirely correct, and I think we have all been surrounded by, and influenced by, a “weird and horrible humility.”
Most of us, most of the time, fear making errors, think about our failures and deficits, and live in a sea of guilt. Not only is this dark self-image unnecessary, but it degrades us and is built upon falsehoods.
We are, since childhood, trained to view ourselves as dangerous creatures, teetering on the edge of error and harm. We absorb these ideas through what currently passes as “law” and by parts of modern religion… particularly the doctrine of “original sin.”
Even the definition of “good” is held to be “selflessness,” which clearly maintains that “self” is bad.
Bear in mind that I’m not saying all humans are good. Clearly, some of them are violent and vile. But these are a small minority, and we should not lump normal people in with them.
The System as It Is
The world system we were all raised in is built on the assumptions noted above: that people are dangerous, need to be controlled, and must be held in a permanent fear of punishment.
Furthermore, the system requires us to feel inferior, uncertain, and flawed:
- Free, confident people don’t just obey because someone in a particular costume tells them to; they require a reason.
- People who think on their own easily understand that when they are told, “The law requires this,” it really means, “Do this or we’ll hurt you.” And they also grasp that such statements are orders backed by violence, not reason.
- People who are free from guilt do not feel inferior and do not automatically comply with authority.
Whenever it is that a significant number of people develop healthy psyches, modern systems of rulership, including “law and order,” will fail. These systems assume that they will always enjoy instant and unreasoned obedience. Once that changes, they will be ill-suited to survive.
Under the modern scenario of rulership, a truly healthy person is the proverbial “square peg,” and ruling institutions are the proverbial “round hole.” The two do not fit together naturally.
Other Views of Humanity
While my disapproval of doctrines such as “original sin” stands, it’s worth noting (for believers and nonbelievers alike) that this low opinion of mankind is not really a biblical thing. Consider these passages:
You are gods. All of you are children of the most high. (This was first spoken by David, then repeated by Jesus.)
You have crowned him (man) with glory and honor, and set him above all the works of your hands.
The noted psychologist Abraham Maslow found the same thing as Chesterton, by the way. He writes,
Human history is a record of the ways in which human nature has been sold short. The highest possibilities of human nature have practically always been underrated.
And as Maslow went about to study the healthiest and best people, he ran into another problem:
Even when ’good specimens,’ the saints and sages and great leaders of history, have been available for study, the temptation too often has been to consider them not human but supernaturally endowed.
In other words, human nature has been depreciated, and when a clearly good case comes along, it is promptly identified as being something other than human.
It has been an imperative that “human” must equal “broken and untrustworthy.” This is a false, degrading, and cruel sentiment; yet our current world systems rest fully upon it.
In another passage in The Defendant, Chesterton writes,
Every one of the great revolutionists, from Isaiah to Shelley, have been optimists. They have been indignant, not about the badness of existence, but about the slowness of men in realizing its goodness.
If we could drop the dark images we hold of ourselves and accept credit for the good things we do, we would partake of pleasure without guilt, and we would have a greater capacity to experience beauty, awe, and wonder in our everyday lives.
Whenever it is that we come to understand ourselves and the true nature of the world, doing the right thing will cease being a burden. We will do the right thing simply because any other action would be stupid.
Give this some thought of your own, please.