Existential Psychology

Human Growth And The Garden

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The challenge and opportunity we face as humans lies in the fact that we become who we really are through our choices.  Most organisms are bound by nature, and do not have to worry about taking an active stand in their lives.  An oak seed, under the right conditions,  will grow into an oak tree.  It becomes what it was meant to be as a matter of course.

We humans live in a different world.  The double edged sword of existential freedom means that in order to become who we really are, we have to choose from amongst infinite variables, realize our unique sets of strengths and limitations, and ultimately decide upon what path to take and how to self-actualize.  Many are haunted by the uncanny feeling that they are living an incomplete life, or a life foreign to themselves.   Their feelings are justified because the existential center from which all else radiates is the reality that I as a human being always have the freedom to turn towards my set of circumstances, and that I alone am responsible for the course and direction of my life.  These are difficult truths to swallow because we are accustomed to thinking in terms of cause and effect.  For example,  “He made fun of me in front of a group of colleagues and therefore I felt humiliated”.  What is left out of the equation are the infinite variables that lead me to perceive his behavior as making fun, to feel humiliated when the situation may not have warranted it, to decide not to stand up for myself, and on and on.

Neurosis blocks human growth because it forces a person to spend time and energy trying to improve his idealized self in a compulsive way instead of actualizing his real self in a spontaneous way.  This article is not specifically geared towards neurosis, but I will briefly define a few terms and concepts in order to lay the groundwork for the rest of the article.  Character neurosis arises out of unfavorable conditions in childhood.  The child sees the world as a hostile, unforgiving, and unloving place due to his parents being unable or unwilling to offer the security, love, and encouragement that he needs.  Such a situation creates painful feelings of anxiety, so the child begins to construct a bulwark against this anxiety.  We can safely say that all neurosis arises out of conflict.  The child does not have much choice in constructing his protective bulwark, and is taking the only avenue available to him to protect himself from the painful feelings of anxiety.  Even adults often feel powerless against anxiety, so I think we can all agree that children are left in an untenable position.

In general terms, the child will begin acting and thinking in prescribed ways.  Karen Horney, the German Psychiatrist, elucidates three general patterns of behavior.  The first is moving towards.  In this case the child believes his salvation rests in aligning with a caregiver, usually the most powerful person in the family.  He gives up his personal freedom, and subsumes in order to receive a modicum of protection.  In later life this leads to a person feeling that love, or the ideal of love, will be the answer to all his problems.  He or she will usually have masochistic tendencies.  The second is moving against.  The world is a hostile place so the best defense is to be more hostile.  Later in life this causes adults to be concerned with glory, personal accolades, beating out the competition, and vindictive triumphs over colleagues, family members, and others.  The third is moving away.  This solution means checking out of the game of life and adopting a  non-caring attitude.  He is most concerned with keeping his inner sanctum of thoughts and emotions safe from the outside world. I wrote in more detail about this personality type in a previous article called The Emotionally Detached Personality.

For the purposes of this article, the point to keep in mind is that even though adverse early conditions laid the groundwork for a life guided by inner dictates blocking spontaneous growth, she always has a choice.  Even in childhood, without consciously being aware of a choice, she decides amongst the three major solutions listed above.  And in adulthood, where the neurosis has grown infinitely more complicated and affects no less and no more than every aspect of her life, she is still presented with the existential choice to take a stand and change the direction of her life.  I will be writing in much greater detail about the nuances of character neurosis in future articles.  The tragedy is that desires and strivings are counterfeit because they are put into the service of maintaining the neurosis instead of actualizing the real self.

We have talked about the unique challenge humans face in achieving growth.  Just because a person completes his lifespan, looks like an old man, and dies does not mean that he fully achieved his potentialities.  It would be naive to assume that most people ever do, but the point of existential therapy is to move in the direction of growth.  With this in mind, I want to employ the metaphor of a garden in order to give a symbolic framework that may be helpful.

In order to help a garden flourish it is necessary to provide the plants in that garden with optimal conditions.  This means the right amount of water, sunshine, fertilizer, pruning, and any number of other variables.  The point is that under these optimal conditions the plants will flourish.  However, no true gardener will tell you that she is responsible for the plants growing.  She cannot force them to grow, they do so out of their own unique nature.  A gardener will also tell you that not every plant requires the same care.  Over-watering for one plant may well be under-watering for another, and so forth.  The point is that the more we know about the unique needs of the individual plant, the more we can supply that plant with the conditions necessary to reach its full growth.

In this regard I believe that humans are the same.  Under favorable conditions they tend towards growth.  True growth for our species means increasing levels of spontaneous interaction with our environment, the courage to seek out new experiences, the tenacity to stick with projects and undertakings, the ability to decide what the real self wants and how to go about getting it, and the ever-widening ability to love and take part in meaningful human relationships.  I believe this is what we are meant to do as humans and that when barriers are removed we tend to pursue these positive goals.

What this means for you varies based on where you are in your life.  For your relationship with your children, it means trusting that providing the conditions of security, love, fair rules with fair consequences, and an environment of safety will mean that your child will tend towards growth and fulfilling his unique potential.  It means that you can let go of control  because you are not causing your child to grow, but are instead providing the conditions, favorable or unfavorable, under which he is growing.  It means that you can let go of what you want your child to become and focus on helping him to become the person he actually is.

For yourself, it means deciding that it is never too late to change the direction of your life until the moment you die.  It means forgiving yourself for the unfavorable conditions under which you may have grown up and under which you had little choice.  And it means having the courage to devote your energies towards fulfilling who you really are instead of who you think you should be.