Overcoming Self-loathing and Anxiety, Politics and Love, Self-Love and Self-Directed Kindness

Two Views of Human Beings: And Why the Views Matter

I firmly believe that the world needs more of you, not less of you. The world also needs more of me, not less of me.

To explain what I mean, I would like to describe two ways of looking at people.

The first view is the Winner-Loser View. This view of people suggests that people are divided into binary groups: winners and losers; good and bad; cool and uncool; us vs. them. When we hold this view, we become overly concerned about rules because rules tell us who the winners and losers are, who the good guys and who the bad guys are.

When we hold the Winner-Loser View, we also often become preoccupied with following the rules correctly so that we make sure we are one of the good guys. These are rules that other people set for us—usually the people we identify as, or the people we have been told are, winners and the good guys. For instance, we might follow rules set by a particular political group, a philosophical guru, a cultural icon, a fitness or diet guru, or a religion[1].

On this view, people are more like robots—they are either good robots who follow the correct programming…

Good Robot

…or they are bad robots who malfunction and don’t obey the correct programming. And we all know what happens to bad robots.[2]

Bad Robot

Living according to the Winner-Loser View can be really anxiety-producing. We constantly worry if we are doing life right, if we are following the rules correctly, if we are still one of the good people. The Winner-Loser View breeds perfectionism.

It also tends to breed intolerance for other people. This view suggests that people either have their act together or they don’t, and we have little tolerance for those who do not have their act together.

The more we live by the Winner-Loser View, the more we tend to shrink ourselves. We fear that if we follow our own path or assert ourselves too much, we will end up in the loser group. The more we follow this view, the less there is of us to share with the world—we’re too busy following everyone else’s rules.

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There Is another way to view ourselves and other people. It is the Thriving-Declining View.  This view is informed by the idea that all people are worthy because of the unique and potential goodness they possess.

Some philosophers refer to this potential as the seeds of goodness in all of us. (You can read more about the seeds of goodness here.)

The more people are nurtured and supported by others, and the more they learn to nurture and support themselves, the more they thrive and fully express their potential goodness. They also connect with the goodness in others and the Divine (if they believe in the Divine). This creates a more loving, peaceful, and powerful world.

We can better understand what people are like under the Thriving-Declining View if we think of trees. We know that under supportive conditions, trees thrive and bring their own unique goodness into the world, which connects them with other living organisms in their environment.

Tree community.jpg

Thriving trees are nourished by these organisms, and they in turn also nourish other beings by providing things like shade, food, and materials for survival.

On the flip side, we know that just as trees can thrive, they can also decline under poor environmental  conditions or when they are infected by blight. This isn’t because they are bad trees. Their original goodness is still there, and trees will work as hard as they can to thrive, even under bad conditions. Nevertheless, we recognize that there are certain circumstances that make it incredibly difficult (and near impossible) for trees to thrive.

Failing tree #2

The Thriving-Declining View emphasizes acting with the intention of kindness, compassion, and respect to ourselves and others because actions like this encourage thriving. As people take responsibility to do this, they better understand how to thrive personally and with others.

This view also motivates us to work against personal and social forces that cause people to decline—forces like violence, injustice, significant inequality, and significant imbalances of power. The Thriving-Declining View isn’t interested in making people all the same (it affirms difference as a part of thriving). It IS interested in making sure that everyone has the support they need to thrive and bring more of their own unique goodness into the world: this benefits everyone.

People together

We would be woefully mistaken if we believe that an individual’s ability to thrive is solely a result of his or her personal choices. Returning to my tree analogy, a tree cannot thrive in environments in which people (individuals or groups) have polluted the soil, water, and air that nourishes a tree.  We would be silly to blame a tree for failing to thrive in polluted conditions. In the same way, it is silly to imagine that the conditions we create together in our communities and nation have no effect on the ability of individuals within that community to thrive

Of course, human beings, unlike trees, possess freedom. So, of course, human beings can make personal choices that cause them to decline.  One of the most important parts of the education we receive in our families, communities, churches, and schools is teaching us to embrace choices that encourage our own personal flourishing. Thriving for human beings is both a communal and personal endeavor.

One of the greatest benefits of the Thriving-Declining view is that it allows us to respect all people while recognizing that sometimes people’s behavior requires us to keep a distance from them. The Thriving-Declining view recognizes that when people decline, they often develop diseased habits and behaviors which discourage thriving in themselves and other people—much like a diseased tree develops blight or harmful fungi. When people develop diseased habits and behaviors, sometimes it is right for us to stay and try to help. Sometimes, however, it is right for us to keep our distance from such behavior because it can cause us to decline, too.[3] We are the only ones who can decide when the right time is to stay and when the right time is to keep our distance.

Does the Thriving-Declining View still allow us to follow a particular political group, fitness or diet person, cultural icon, or religion? Of course. However, this view suggests to us that is unwise for us to follow anyone blindly or out of fear. After all, even within the same political or religious group (or any group) there are different views of the right way to follow that particular political party or religion.

We are ultimately responsible for deciding which, among the many conflicting views of the world, we accept. We cannot avoid taking responsibility for our own thriving. One of the best ways to take responsibility is to consider whether a view we accept or a rule we follow recognizes the value of all people and allows us all to thrive together as human beings.

When we realize that a certain life philosophy or religion or set of practices allows us to thrive personally and collectively, we are likely to embrace and follow it out of love informed by deep understanding. Thich Nhat Hanh writes,

“You are part of the universe; you are made of stars. When you look at your loved one, you see that he is also made of stars and carries eternity inside. Looking in this way, we naturally feel reverence. True love cannot be without trust and respect for oneself and for the other person.”

The Thriving-Declining View asks us to recognize the worthiness of all people and to create a world together that supports this.
You and the Universe #2 (2)

When we do this, we bring MORE of us, not less of us into the world.

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[1] By the way, this is isn’t a criticism of religion. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am a practicing Christian, so big fan of religion (at least certain expressions), spirituality, and God here. Rather, my comment above is a criticism of following any rule, religious, political, other otherwise blindly or out of fear.

[2] We tend to commit them to the scrap heap. Now, I don’t think we literally commit human beings to scrap heap, but we do metaphorically sometimes. We especially do this when we write off whole groups of people as irredeemable or hopeless or failures. There is an alternative to this ‘scrap heap” mentality. It is the Thriving-Declining View, which I will examine next.

[3] The Thriving-Declining View certainly recognizes that institutions like prisons are necessary because when people decline, they can act in violent and irresponsible ways that harm other people. The Thriving-Declining view asks us to consider whether our current prison system helps prisoners recover their thriving or encourages further decline.

5 thoughts on “Two Views of Human Beings: And Why the Views Matter”

  1. Love, love, LOVE this, Shelly. As someone who is vulnerable to perfectionism, I really appreciate the reminder! I also love the thriving/declining analogy, because it allows for backing away from unhealthy influences. Also that everything is dynamic, and we are never finished; everything is a phase, there is always the possibility of growth.

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