Wilhelm Wundt (seated) with colleagues in his psychological laboratory, the first of its kind.
Let me begin by stating unequivocally that we are all flawed psyches; we are all damaged, we all deviate from psychic harmony. The world is full of damaged psyches.
If we learn from experience, we soon discover the above truths. Still, this obvious truth is not apparent to children or to unreflective adults. They are satisfied with platitudes like “she seems nice” or “he’s so sweet” or “I’m a good person.” The inexperienced peer no deeper into the psyche. But the reality behind the mask that humans wear often differs from the appearance. Seemingly nice and ok people are often neither nice nor ok—and you might not be a good person either.
It goes without saying that understanding the psyches around us is important. Individuals and groups are led astray when they misread them. Women think they’ve found the perfect man, and six months later they have bruises. Nations trust their leaders and later die in their unjust wars. Americans wonder about the appeal of Hitler or Stalin, psychopaths full of rage and patriotic fervor, but they fawn over their own psychopathic leaders and provocateurs. We are drawn to those who make us feel good about ourselves by directing animus toward others. Many political pundits and politicians are vile, horrific human beings filled with hate and vitriol, but people listen to them intently. Without a careful reading of the psyche, the demagogues hold sway.
And this says as much about most of us as it does about them. We too are often filled with hate, anger, treachery, irrationality, homophobia, xenophobia, and sadism. As Shakespeare put it: “The fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves …” We suffer in the presence of damaged psyches that spew their psychic waste, and we suffer enduring our own psyches too. So what can we do about this?
As for recognizing and eradicating our own demons, we might begin, as was suggested in a previous column, by quieting our minds, re-assessing who we are, and trying to become whole, integrated human beings. But how do we do this? It may involve professional counseling, rigorous study, meditation, exercise, and more. But I think people should be continually in the process of becoming, changing, transforming. This pursuit should last a lifetime. We must begin by changing ourselves.
As for changing others, that is unlikely. Instead, we should avoid those who spew their toxic, psychic waste. If you can escape their presence, do so expeditiously. They will damage you. If you must interact with them, minimize contact. But respond to such interaction not with anger but with sympathy, for others had no control over the external situations that in large part created them. All you can control, as the Stoics taught long ago, is your own mind. Try not to be disturbed, but avoid masochistic tendencies too. You have no obligation to endure the psychologically unhealthy, escape them if you can.
As for recognizing severely damaged psyches in others, be patient. Don’t conclude too quickly that someone is “nice.” Aristotle said that everyone slowly reveals their character … and they do. No one remains opaque for long. People gradually become translucent and then transparent. Just wait. I didn’t know my wife well after I’d known her for a few months, and she didn’t know me. But now, after 43 years of living together, I sleep soundly next to her as she does with me. We don’t fear the other will kill us in our sleep!
How then should we live in a world of healthy and unhealthy psyches? Through the experience of living, we can slowly learn to discriminate between them. We can learn to be astute, savvy, judicious, sagacious, and discerning. We can learn to discriminate between those who care for us, however flawed they might be, and those who don’t care for us or who would hurt us. We learn that everyone, even the psychologically healthy, will sometimes hurt us. But this isn’t necessarily a reason to avoid them, for solitude and loneliness damage us too. Avoid then those who intend to hurt you, but love those that sometimes hurt you inadvertently, if they have shown previously that they care for you.
Thus a lifetime of experience teaches us that a large part of living is psychic intercourse; that is largely what it is to be conscious. In such a world, interact with beauty and avoid ugliness as much as possible, while continually trying to beautify yourself. And yes sometimes it is good to be alone. Many seers and saints have found something preferable in solitude.