Existential Psychology

Creation and Destruction

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The school shooting tragedy in New Town left people grappling with difficult existential questions, like the nature of good and evil and whether life has any meaning. Sandy Hook Elementary could be any school in America. This realization creates painful feelings of uncertainty and dread. Anxiety skyrockets as we are forced to consider the whims of fate and the tragic reality that we cannot always protect the people that we love. At the bottom of it all, the mirror is turned on each of us and a question is asked that demands an answer. Will I choose to solve the problem of my human existence through creation or destruction?

We define as good all that is concerned with growth, creation, and renewal. We define as evil all that is concerned with decay and destruction. All life forms strive to be alive, so in the most fundamental sense we see that being alive is good. How do we define a successfully lived life for the majority of life forms? The answer seems to be growth to full maturity and renewal or transcendence, usually in the form of reproduction. This ethical framework is developed by Erich Fromm in ‘Man For Himself’.

We also see that life on earth tends toward greater complexity through the process of evolution. We cannot envision where the march of evolution will lead. Humans may well be one small link in a chain that ends with a complete understanding of the universe and the place of all life within it. The human species might make these significant discoveries on our own if we can somehow avoid destroying ourselves or the earth in the 21st century. The paradox of human life is that each of us is just one drop in the massive river of humanity, yet each of us fully represents humanity. We may not live to see our existential questions answered but we can pave the way for those who do. Playing a vital part in the full realization of humanity can be our generation’s legacy and supply an individual sense of meaning and purpose in an age gripped by nihilism.

A tree reaches full maturity without having to make any choices. A human, on the other hand, must actively strive to develop and unfold his or her fullest self. There are countless possible versions of you based on the life path you follow, just like there are countless possible versions of humanity. Human growth, unlike the growth of all other life forms, is a continuous process that lasts a lifetime and only ends with death. While the physical body deteriorates near the end of life like all other life forms, your being usually keeps learning and growing until the end.

The tragic fact is that none of us can develop into the fullest version of ourselves because we run out of time. The process is cut short in death. However, individual development and the choice towards growth, creation, and connection can influence the course of humanity as a whole and set the stage for the human race to develop itself fully. Only recently has the human race gained the ability to destroy itself and all life on this planet completely. Our age struggles to find a sense of meaning and purpose yet the inaction of each of us, the decision that there really is no meaning, will assist in wiping out all of the great acts of humans across the ages and make them as if they never existed. In other words we create our own meaning, and the rampant feeling of nihilism in our modern world will act as a self-fulfilling prophecy, making the history of humanity meaningless.

There is perhaps no greater pain than the knowledge that your being will be torn apart against your will and that you will one day cease to exist. Other animals do not have to struggle with the pain of this existential realization. They transcend themselves without really having to think about it, using their instincts to pass on their DNA and insure the survival of their species. Humans transcend themselves in symbolic ways that have nothing to do with organic reproduction. They create great works of art, literature, and music. They positively connect with people. They actively work towards a more just world. They are remembered by those who loved them with fondness and admiration long after they have passed away. The rock band ‘Noah and the Whale’ says it beautifully with the line ‘What you share with the world is what it keeps of you’.

Others choose a more sinister path to transcend their feelings of insignificance and existential isolation. They become obsessed with power, control, and domination. They seek to keep others down in order to build themselves up. They abuse, they hurt, and they kill. They choose destruction. Whether you choose creation or destruction, the choice comes from a fundamental human need to reach beyond yourself and prove to the world that you exist and are significant Why do people choose destruction? Because it is fast, easy, and takes no particular set of talent or hard work. Anyone with access to a gun or a bulldozer can effect the world and therefore combat feelings of isolation.

I spent some time thinking of a concrete way that parents can show their children that while evil exists in the world it is far outweighed by good. Seeing this reality is sometimes difficult because destructive acts are much more visible and get a lot more coverage. Your family can spend an afternoon together creating an art project. Make a picture, or a painting, or a sculpture, or anything else you can think of. Spend a few hours on it and take care and pride in making it the best you are capable of. Then destroy it together. Anything worthwhile takes countless hours to create yet can be destroyed in a matter of seconds. Think of all of the time by all of the people that went into nurturing, teaching, protecting, and loving the young children who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary. All of that was wiped out in just a few seconds of cowardice and destruction.

Yet this understanding is proof that much more good exists in the world than evil. Since we equate good with creation and evil with destruction and understand how much easier and faster destruction is, we see that our world would be complete and utter chaos if even 25% of the population was evil. This is a comforting thought. Creation simply takes longer, and its results are not always evident until the product of that creation is taken away. But growth, love, and creation have propelled humanity forward through the ages. Acts of destruction have only hindered it. Those who choose destruction ultimately get what they fear the most, which is total isolation and a lack of any authentic connection. The rest of us redouble our efforts towards creation, growth, and love and create more connection in our lives. We are reminded of what really matters.