Human beings are fascinated by stories. It’s part of our nature, as much as breathing, and our brain learns best through the telling of stories.
Simply put, we are born storytellers. We fashion a story about ourselves from the time we are born, if not earlier.
Our story contains an array of verbal, visual, and other felt sensory elements, in addition to a storyline that can endure a lifetime.
This storyline forms an inner dialogue of thoughts, a stream of consciousness, or ‘self-talk,’ that explains and interprets our life, self and situations – to others and to our own mind . We have an average of fifty to seventy thousand thoughts a day, most of which are repetitive in nature, and not conscious thinking, but rather under the control of the part of the mind that runs all the systems of the body that we don’t have to think about, often known as the ‘subconscious,’ ‘unconscious’ or ‘non-conscious’ mind.
Paradoxically, we are the creators of these running commentaries, and at the same time, the stories we fashion turn around to shape us and our lives in profound ways.
Decades of studies show language shapes the way we think, to include what we think about and also sets limits to what possibilities we can think about or imagine. This is especially true when our stories operate subconsciously, hidden from our awareness.
Not all stories that we have learned to tell ourselves inspire the best within our human nature, however. Some are disempowering at best, and yet others can turn the mind into a prison of doors locked by fear.
Good therapy can provide a safe context, and a holding relationship to safely enter dark or scary places, to find the keys that restore our hope, and free us to energize the courage to love with our whole heart.
The power of language and cultural stories?
Language makes it possible for us to share and to get to know our self and one another, through the meaning-making exchanges of our stories. We are wired to create and communicate our stories verbally and nonverbally.
Emotions are what give meaning to the experience of stories, and stories are inherently emotionally charged. This means that even the simplest logic cannot be separated from our emotions.
Our brain and body are one vast and sophisticated communication network, and emotions are the chemical messengers. Without emotion, we could not make the simplest decisions.
Emotions are molecules of energy that move the dynamic processes of the body in one of two overall directions: safety and love, or anxiety and fear.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, our stories create emotionally charged images in our minds that in turn shape the emotional energies inside us, potentially, even alter the very structure of our brain. Thus, stories have life shaping power that on the one hand can enhance clarity, and enrich our connections with one another – or on the other hand can limit and disempower them.
In the words of Albert Einstein:
“The single most important decision any of us will ever to make is whether or not to believe that the universe is friendly.” ALBERT EINSTEIN
Why do so many of us hold limiting stories replete with toxic thinking patterns? Why do we find it so challenging to be caring and accepting toward ourselves? Why the high rate of addictions and people seeking ways to avoid or numb painful feelings?
While complex, the answer may may have less to do with genes, and more to do with familial patterns that are highly influenced by the larger culture, wittingly or unwittingly, and how these cultural forces have shaped our personal stories. The discovery of truth is in large part about identifying and breaking free of the power of certain lies and illusions.
For centuries, in unique yet similar ways, cultural institutions in the West, branches of science and even major religions, in particular, have taught us to mistrust our human nature, our inner world of feelings, our ability to do our own thinking and connect to inner sources of wisdom.
We’ve also been told whom to trust instead.
We’re conditioned to follow expert authorities, and not to question their methods for truth discovery, the doctrines they produce, and the cultural stories they teach – many of which are crafted intentionally with mind-crippling ideas, by the way, to persuade us to wait for idols or superheroes to rescue and save us from our problems.
Crafted intentionally? Is this a conspiracy theory? No, it’s not; because it’s no secret. It’s in our history and other textbooks, if we know where to look for it.
Lies, illusions and rule-of-the-few myths?
According to Dr. Riane Eisler’s seminal research published in The Chalice and the Blade, for example, crafting myths, or fabricating lies, to maintain “social order,” was officially sanctioned by political and religious rulers in Ancient Greece.
The purpose? Similar to our modern world, ruling types are preoccupied with looking for ways to ‘capture the hearts and minds’ of targeted masses of people, which means to get them to believe a mix of truth and lies (about themselves and their human nature), for example, to accept that human beings are naturally inclined to war and fight over resources, and that some human beings are meant to rule (the ‘superior’ ones in authority) while others (the ‘inferior’) are meant to be ruled.
This practice has roots in the philosophical writings of Plato, who first posed the idea of ’The Noble Lie‘ in his major work, The Republic.
Plato envisioned a three-tiered society (each with an assigned purpose): an oligarchic ruling class (to rule), a warrior class (to protect the oligarchs), and the masses (to ensure the oligarchs lived in comfort). He theorized that the most benevolent way to quell protests against the oligarchic ‘social order’ was for rulers to widely disperse a system of carefully crafted myths, based upon the euphemistically named, ‘Noble Lie.’
People would be more likely to obey, Plato argued, if they believed that those who ruled over them were “gods of gold,” and their warriors were “gods silver,” respectively. If the masses see their rulers as infallible leaders and benevolent superheroes whose sole purpose was to protect them from any evil enemies, he posited, they would more willingly, perhaps in gratitude, surrender their lives to serve those that ruled over them.
(Note that this was centuries before the advent of Christian teachings.) In a nutshell, this ’Lie’ invented a story that taught people to believe that:
God ordained a select few to rule over or to dominate others, that rulers were called by God to protect the masses from evil, and that the inferior group should be grateful for their domination as a blessing, and that oligarchic rule was sacred ‘social order’ ordained ‘natural’ by God.
It’s easy to see why these insidious lies would be labeled ‘Nobel, however.” Human beings are hardwired to yearn to image themselves in a positive light in relation to others, and will go to great lengths to do so. In this case, calling these lies ‘Nobel” allowed centuries of tyrants since to conceive of themselves and their practices of oppression as overall benevolent!
Unlike Plato, his most famous student, Aristotle, was more active in the implementation of these ideals. He also added new twists. A prolific writer, Aristotle was forthright about what needed to be done to maintain the status quo. To protect aristocracy (oligarchic rule in today’s terminology), he noted, tyranny was a necessity – and men had to be separated from women’s ‘contaminating’ influence.
Aristotle taught that only two classes of people exist, those “meant to rule” and those ‘meant to be ruled,’ and articulated unique ways of using religion to give the ruling few more leverage over the masses. He proposed that:
“A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side.” ARISTOTLE
Aristotle also decided women’s softening influence on men was a hindrance to their political aims. His writings called for a mistrust of women, to think of them as sources of contamination to the purity of the masculine spirit, as deviations from the norm. He went as far to say that women were not human, rather akin to slaves and animals, and other possessions of men.
Thus, unlike his mentor Plato, he promoted the idea of men being educated separately from women. In his view, women’s education should be narrowly focused on the main purpose women should serve in society, in his view, to bring pleasure and comfort to husbands and sons.
This remained the main emphasis of women’s education well into the 20th century. In the word of 18th century philosopher, educationalist and essayist of Romanticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
“A woman’s education must therefore be planned in relation to man. To be pleasing in his sight, to win his respect and love, to train him in childhood, to tend to him in manhood, to counsel and console, to make his life pleasant and happy, these are the duties of woman for all time, and this is what should be taught while she is young. The further we depart from this principle, the further we shall be from our goal, and all our precepts will fail to secure her happiness for our own.” ~ JEAN JACQUES ROUSSEAU, Book 5 of Emile, 1762.
Plato and Aristotle’s works were highly regarded handbooks by ruling elites and clergy for many centuries well into the Medieval period. Aristotle was even canonized by the church in Medieval times as a pagan saint. And certainly, the Spartan warrior has been held up as an ideal in the training of solders since.
Such is the power of propaganda, an interesting concept itself as its meaning changes depending on the speaker. In a classic study of totalitarian rule, George Orwell’s novel 1984, notes that doublethink was used to shape people’s thoughts in the highest interest of the ruling few, for example, people could not conceive of their own rulers using propaganda – it was only regarded as an undertaking of ‘enemy’ governments and their rulers.
The effectiveness of propaganda to get one group to fear, thus hate, another group, and to take or allow for violent action against them (in the interest of their protection), thus to spark civil wars and genocide, is documented.
What’s wrong with this picture?
There’s something wrong with the images these cultural stories portray: they are dehumanizing.
That’s neither good science nor healthy religion; that’s politically expedient mythology and science fiction, or a combination thereof.
As a byproduct of Western thought, we human beings more easily ‘see’ the value of staying busy to get things done, and to prove our worth, than the value of staying connected to our inner resources, to get to intimately know and trust ourself as a way of getting to know others and life.
We’ve learned to relate to our self and one another, first and foremost, like human doings, and to think about our inner life in ways that scare us out of connecting.
Make no mistake, science and religion have made brilliant contributions. It’s the bathwater beliefs, and not the baby, that need tossing en masse.
“Bathwater beliefs are ones that cripple the critical thinking capacity of our brains. They instill us with fear by teaching us to measure our worth as human beings on the basis of our performance and meeting external standards of approval; and to deny our capacity to think and to feel, and the miracle-making resources inside we are equipped with as human beings. In short they teach us to throw away the baby and keep the bathwater – a topsy-turvey system of beliefs.”
The solutions we tend to apply, based on the thinking that stems from these limiting beliefs, are equally problematic in that:
These solutions merely exacerbate problems.
As an advocate for social change, Einstein put it this way:
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Bathwater beliefs are lies about our human nature. They control our thinking because they lead us to think in ways that block our mind from working with our heart.
Like Orwellian doublethink, they are illusions crafted as contradictions known to cripple the capacity of the human brain from thinking clearly. The most noted examples of doublethink are, “war is peace,” “freedom is slavery,” “ignorance is bliss.” The so named Noble Lie was itself doublethink, introducing associated of of “lies” as “noble,” and “domination” or “force” as natural.
When we think of it, contemplatively, we ‘see’ the absurdities. How can dominance be ‘natural’ if force is required to implement it?
What do politics have to do with good therapy, however?
This toxic thinking is pervasive. It has structured our society and permeated all sectors. Thus, it drives the mental health industry, as well as its support systems, i.e., science, education, government, to mention a few. It also drives the mechanism that builds our knowledge banks – science.
In Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling, Dr. Paul Grobstein poses two key questions regarding science, ”Who is it for? And who gets to say?”
Who is science for? And who gets to say?
Our mental health system is broken, and it’s not because we do not have capable, talent, dedicated and hard-working professionals.
Therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists have little to say in the matter because, for the most part, we are not be aware of the politics. We didn’t think we had to be. We thought our trusted leaders cared, and worked with us side by side. We thought our voices, our stories, mattered.
As a result, the impact of an unhealthy lifestyle is rarely on our radar screens when it comes to treatment, despite concrete evidence that lack of exercise, junk food, sugar addiction, etc., have a detrimental effect on our emotional and mental health, as well as physical.
We didn’t know about The Noble Lie and other political con games because our history books limit our learning to what is in the interests of a self-appointed ruling few. It didn’t occur to us that our nature has been studied by science for the purposes of harnessing it to serve their political aims to remain in power. We trusted, and believed in mind-crippling stories about our human nature.
These stories have led us to hold disempowering views of our nature, such as:
What is this ‘contaminating’ influence of women on men, that oligarchs have so feared, enough to keep women covered and in separate spheres from men? Safe to say it is the prosocial skill of empathy. It breeds compassion, harmony and peaceful relationships, thus, empathy, peaceful relationships between men and women are what dictators and oligarchs alike most fear and detest.
To maintain tyranny, violence and dominance are key traits, whereas empathy is a prosocial trait that oligarchic rulers consider undesirable and even problematic to their plans. Research consistently shows high physical aggression is associated with low rates of empathy, and vise versa, high rates of empathy are associated with low rates of violence.
“It [is] vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth,” noted Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, “ is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth becomes the greatest enemy of the State.” He also said,
“Education is dangerous – Every educated person is a future enemy.”
“It is the absolute right of the State to supervise the formation of public opinion.”
“Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.”
Military trainers have known that aggression blocks empathy, apparently, for thousands of years. In Sparta, for example, boys were taken away from their mothers at the age of 5, and raised in camps where they were treated harshly, raped and beaten by older boys regularly. In order to build the ideal warriors, they had to remove any contaminating influences, or natural inclinations of boys, as human beings, to form meaningful social relationships, which may prevent them from being killing-automatons.
Whereas children are naturally prone to be empathic and moral, empathy is a learned ability that, in boys, can be arrested by cultural forces that socialize men from boyhood to take pleasure from proving self-worth by dominance driven behaviors. A recent study found a decline in empathy among young people in the U.S. Empathy dysfunction is one of the hallmarks of psychopathy; and narcissistic tendencies are associated with difficulties in resonating with other people’s distress. Another study four that mothers’ empathic beliefs and behaviors of mothers are significant in the development of prosocial orientation of children.
A holistic understanding of healing and human nature?
The field of psychology began in ancient civilizations of Egypt and Greece – as a study of the human spirit - before it became the study of human behavior (and mental processes) with the advent of modern science in the late 1800s.
The contributions of Eastern medicine have been many in the last few decades. Psychology today has come full circle in many respects, with the addition of exciting new fields of positive psychology, energy psychology, and especially the new kid on the block: cognitive neuroscience.
What makes cognitive neuroscience a breath of fresh air is that, unlike all other branches of psychology and social science, it uses ‘hard science’ methods, such as computer tomography and neuroimaging, MRI, fMRI, and so on, to study the inner workings of the brain. This makes it the first field in psychology to human behavior or cognition that is a ‘hard science’ (traditionally, social sciences are limited to ‘soft science’ research methods, i.e., probability theory and generalization).
Drawing on decades of research on human motivation, Dr. Daniel Pink in Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, reports what drives human behavior is inner driven quest for meaning and purpose, personal agency and mastery in life.
We are simply not wired, however, for others to do our thinking or feeling for us. We are not wired to dominate or be dominated (apart from a real survival situation). This produces anxiety inside us, and releases levels of cortisol in our bodies that, literally, block the flow of our breath.
It is this harsh judgmental thinking of our self and one another – which creates enemy images in our heads, even of the people we most love – that does not allow us to fully be present inside of our own skin, to regulate our own breath.
In her studies of difficult emotions, fear and shame, outlined in a book titled Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power, Brene Brown challenges long held notions of emotions of vulnerability as weaknesses, and concludes that the value of vulnerability is priceless in human connection. In her words:
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” ~ BRENE BROWN
Many of our stories leave much to be desired, or example, perhaps because our main storyline was first developed in early childhood. We humans can spend a lifetime with stories we conceived that avoid parts of ourselves, certain emotions, sensations, experiences, past and present.
As children, this ongoing stream of thoughts, or protective neural patterns, helped us survive. How? It supported the image of who we thought we “should” or “had to” be in order to have the love that, literally, we needed at the time – to survive. Babies and small children cannot survive without love.
These internalized stories take on a life of their own, and by default, the meanings they carry shape our behaviors and the direction of our lives in enduring ways. Our stories can serve a liberating purpose, however. We all share a compelling yearning to matter in life – to know that our love makes a meaningful difference.
“What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” ~ MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
Our stories are empowering when they connect us to our heart, a sense of meaning and purpose, our compassion, and the miracle-making resources inside; they are limiting when they lie to us about our nature, potential, and persuade us to mistrust or fear connecting to our innermost core inside.
For centuries, we have been immersed in bathwater beliefs about our human nature that serve to keep a ruling few in power. It would be unhelpful to respond with a bitter or cynical attitude.
Studies show, tyranny is no substitute for leadership. It negatively affects the health of the bossy and bossed alike. Those who seek to dominate, control or humiliate others are themselves living in fear. A narcissistic leader, male or female, cannot be a good leader.
Those leaders in with narcissistic self-interest are not good leaders. They have low self-worth, and the same fears as all other human beings, fear of inadequacy, rejection, abandonment. The desperate methods they use to cope with their fears cause them more suffering, even as they cause suffering for others.
The mind that is in constant “fight or flee” mode, whether the oppressor or the oppressed, turns into a prison of doors locked by fear.
Abusive persons, apart from when they are acting out, feel a constant need (neediness) to be pampered by others, not unlike infants. Their stories trick them into thinking that others are responsible for not making them angry, doing what they want. They do not see the people that love them as humans; as they are not connected to their human nature. They ‘see’ at a felt sense in their bodies like possessions, and get easily triggered, feeling anxious, powerless, victimized, at the smallest signs that someone is taking their attention away from them or that their possession shows signs of having human feelings, thoughts and wants of their own.
Ultimately, all human suffering is a result of not being fully connected to our human nature.
All the pampering in the world will not absolve us of the responsibility we are wired to manage - the energies of our heart and mind – and to re-write our stories as a responsibility we have to ourselves (and others).
The solution to most all that hurts, harms us is the same for what harms our relationships – to reconnect with our human nature. We need stories that empower us to put down the remote control (of others), let go of the impulse to change them into what would fulfill us and the illusion that others hold the keys to our happiness, and get behind the drivers seat instead to change our self to live the fulfilling life we’re wired to live.
Our human nature is our best hope for a bright future. Our quest to find purpose and meaningfully connect and create is unstoppable, as it is part of our nature. One cannot seek to harm or destroy it without bring harm to themselves in the process. The law that we call ‘karma’ or the ‘Golden Rule’ is an immutable Principle that governs Life.
Science is our nature. It’s a concept we created because we are born to be scientists from the first to last breath. Science is a life long quest, by nature, an exploration that helps us to better understand our nature, for the purpose of better understanding how life works. By definition, this is wisdom – essential knowledge we need to make optimal choices to live life at its best.
The use of science to harness human nature, and to control it as a commodity for the benefit of a few is not only unethical and wrong, it is also dangerous for all parties, both the self-appointed few and the many.
It is beliefs, and not people, that enslave hearts and minds. We have learned to think of our self and and one another, and life and our relationships, in inhumane ways that block our mind from working with our heart.
Our mind is the control center of our attitude.
It’s time to take back our stories. It is the myths that distort the stories we write of our human nature that produce the divisions within us, and with one another. While it’s true that human beings are capable of evil, this does not translate into our basic nature. Like animals, we are only dangerous when overwhelmed by fear, feeling cornered, surrounded by enemies, with nothing to lose.
This does not translate into our human nature.
The definition of power as a “power-over” capability, however, is only one view of power. And, it is a limiting and somewhat negative view of power that hides another, multiple healthy-dimensions view of power as a mutually empowering force in the case of caring, nurturing and empowering one another in the context of key relationships.
Several of our most brilliant psychological theorists identified distinctions between the natural seeking for a sense of personal power and agency that is wired into our nature, and the detrimental seeking for power to subvert the will of another, such as Alfred Adler, Rollo May, William Glaser, Abraham Maslow, Virginia Satir, Victor Frankl, Carl Rogers, William Glaser, Marhall Rosenberg, among others.
Alfred Adler (1870-1937), for example, was one of the first to associate power as a universal human striving that is not only normal, but a healthy, universally shared human goal. In a 1927 fourth edition of “The Neurotic Character,” he distinguished between a healthy versus a “neurotic” power, which he described as a lust for aggressive power over others. He noted that “a neurotic lust,” aggressiveness and self-absorption were associated with harsh and domineering parenting in childhood that thwarted ones attempts to meet their needs in healthy relational exchanges.
Adler also believed the most important elements of healthy child development were parental love and involvement. He viewed human beings as, above all, social beings who instinctively sought to belong and contribute to the betterment of humankind. In recent decades, Adler’s findings have been substantiated by findings in neuroscience.
Only minds conquered by fear exhibit this level of narcissism and hubris and, well, a form of insanity. The evidence is clear, and it is good news for human nature.
Thus, the question in interpersonal contexts is not who has power or who does not, and rather what type of power do we value. It is not power that has a particular effect, rather what we believe power is. And, what we believe, in turn, is based on what we have been taught, our life experiences and the meanings we have internalized or constructed to form our worldview throughout our lives.
In the words of a brilliant scientist and social advocate, Albert Einstein:
“Insanity is doing the same thing , over and over again, but expecting different results.”
If it were not for fear, the Noble-Lie proponents would have acknowledged by now what has been evident for thousands of years, that zealous efforts to divide and conquer the human spirit speak to its resiliency, and the true nature of our species.
To dominate or be dominated is not our human nature. Our nature is to cooperate, to connect, and to do more than survive; our nature is to thrive and live meaningfully with one another. Our yearning to learn and connect may make us vulnerable to those who come up with clever schemes to harness our spirit for cooperation for their own. That does not define our nature. The attempt to con human beings has been a cruel experiment. It has wasted a lot of energy, and resources. It has failed.
It’s time we collectively came together as leaders, scientists, and citizens around the world to remember who we really are, from the cradle, and re-write our stories with the power of beauty and truth.
Our ideas and beliefs about how we exercise our power to get our needs me are learned by the most powerful cultural influences that shaped our beliefs, our family, school, church, government, entertainment media, and so on? Cultural structures that value “power-to” teach us to exercise power as a responsibility in caring for self and others in ways that build mutual respect and relational cooperation. From a power over perspective, disobedience poses a threat, whereas a “power-to” view values and seeks to meet the needs of all through natural giving, that is, a giving that stems out of love and joy, not fear.
We need to restore science to serving the public interests, the best interests of humanity, and away from the discover of methods to harness human nature for the political gain of a self-appointed few. It would not be so challenging to do because, in all likelihood, most scientists and researchers already aspire to do so, and may even ‘think’ they are.
There is so much work ahead of us, in the study of human nature and what tools or ways to structure society bring out the best of what it means to be human. The wisdom of people coming together to form democracy is smarter than that of a self-appointed few.
No one can do our thinking for us. It’s there for us to make our unique contributions to the tapestry of life.
We need to take back a liberating view of our human nature, and replace the limiting one:
“Although human ingenuity may devise various inventions which, by the help of various instruments, answer to one and the same purpose, yet will it never discover any inventions more beautiful, more simple or more practical than those of nature.” ~ LEONARDO DA VINCI
We are empowered with an ability to make conscious and informed choices, and, increasingly, to learn from and to account for our own choices and actions, in order to produce optimal results.
To realize our potential and cultivate these inner capacities, however, we must get to know and fully accept our self, warts and graces. Our connection is through our personal story.
The retelling of our story can be an opportunity to express our struggle to free ourselves from the prison of limiting personal or cultural stories, choose to make self-directed changes to toxic thinking patterns, and to fulfill inborn strivings to be ourselves and live in meaningful connection.
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Last reviewed: 22 Apr 2012