by James Krivacska, Psy.D.
(reprinted from Reflections from the Jetty: Using Reason to Reform Your Life, available as Kindle Book).
What can we do to reclaim the humanity we have lost? This may well be the first challenge of the man or woman just returning to society from jail or prison. Prisons serve many functions, but perhaps one task in which “correctional facilities” excel, is the dehumanization of the men and women placed in their charge. From the assignment of inmate numbers (and in some institutions, the means by which you are identified), to the humiliating strip and cavity searches, to the demeaning and degrading manner in which inmates are treated and often abused, jailers have become masters of dehumanization. Indeed, it is only by the act of dehumanization that the same people who shake their head in disgust at brutal treatment inflicted on an oppressed people by third world dictators, who pride themselves on the core American values they taut to their friends and family, can engage in the kind of abuse that was inflicted on detainees in Abu Garib.
The thug who would risk his life protect a brother in a gang, but thinks nothing of slamming an old man’s head into a brick wall so he can steal his wallet, is able to engage in the latter act of criminality and brutality only by negating the humanity of the old man. Indeed, the only any of us can inflict intentional harm on another, be it physical, psychological, or emotional, is to first strip the other person of their humanity, to see them as less than us, as so different from us that we are not repelled by the very acts which would seem so intolerable if inflicted upon ourselves or one about whom we cared.
So, whether you’re an ex-inmate trying to return to society, or an ex-spouse, still stinging from a bitter, no-holds barred divorce that’s left you emotionally raw and angry, or a pissed-off motorist who is convinced he’s the victim of a personal vendetta held by the driver of the car that just cut him off, or an exhausted health care worker in a nursing home who, instead of seeing the incredible human library of accumulated knowledge, experience, and wisdom, that lies behind a pair of eyes that pleads for acknowledgment and dignity, sees nothing but a withering corpse-in-waiting, you have fallen victim to the ills of casual labeling. But wait, you protest. How can the “Labeler” be a victim. In truth, the act of labeling and judging others cruelly damages the psyche of both. The act of causing harm to another tears away a little piece of our own humanity, our capacity for compassion and empathy. So what is the solution? How do we “reclaim” our humanity, either as victim or victimizer.
First, we must seek to stop labeling, classifying, typing, stigmatizing and pigeonholing each other. Second, we need to affirm what is unique about us as a species—that we are sentient beings. “Sentient.” It’s one of my favorite words. It means self-aware and speaks to our unique ability to reason, judge, think, discover, invent and create. It is the one aspect of our being that unites us; it is our common ground and our common legacy. The only thing you can know of another person by looking at them is that they are reasoning, judging, discovering, inventing, creating and emoting beings; just like you.
We can reclaim our humanity by recognizing and proclaiming a few key affirmations:
- “I deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.”
- “I am worthy of being treated with respect and dignity.”
- “You deserve to be treated by me with respect and dignity.”
- “You are worthy of my respect and good will.”
We can reclaim our humanity by refusing to be defined by our past. That is not to say that we should forget our past, or to deny that we have made mistakes—at times grievous mistakes that have caused great harm to others. It is to say that only by refusing to be defined by our past, can we hope to claim a new future for ourselves.
We can reclaim our humanity by affirming our value as a human being entitled to seek happiness even while accepting responsibility for how we pursue it and how that pursuit affects others.
We can also affirm our humanity by accepting our past and who we were even while creating and aspiring to a vision of who we wish to become. A humanist refuses to be mired in the past, but rather creates a positive vision of who he or she wants to become and then seeks to become that vision. An inspirational poster I once saw captured this ideal. “It’s never too late to become what you may never have been.”
In seeking change, humanists seek an affirmation of self, a goal that defines who they want to be rather than who they don’t want to be. So if you seek to replace anger, despair, self-loathing, loneliness, shame, doubt or anything else that plagues you, state the goal you seek as a positive value.
Perhaps you seek peace, or hope, or love, or self-worth, or pride, or even a purpose in your life. But whatever you seek, define your desire for change as a striving for the positive, not a rejection of the negative. To strive for peace is not the same as striving not to lose your temper. The one affirms the self, the other denies the self. The person who feels herself getting angry doesn’t seek to dispel the anger, or resist, or reject or contain or control it; rather she seeks peace. She doesn’t run from her anger, but rather reaches for the experience of peace. When you achieve a sense of peace, you experience an emotional state incompatible with feeling anger; thus you have accomplished your goal.
This is what the humanist does. She pursues her dreams, her visions; she seeks to feel like the person she wants to become, to think like the person she wants to become, to act like the person she wants to become, until she becomes that person.
And this is not a passive activity. This is not the 1960s when everyone was trying to find themselves. This isn’t like an Easter egg hunt: you don’t find your destiny behind a bush, or your fate up in a tree, or your purpose in life under a rock. You are not here to discover your destiny; you are here to create your destiny. You’re not here to discover your fate, but to create your fate. You are not here to discover your purpose in life but to create the purpose that will give your life meaning and direction.
The ideal to be pursued is about seeking the good life, the moral life, by creating a vision for ourselves, and a purpose to our lives, guided by a morality and ethics grounded in our shared humanity. It is about discovering the assumptions that have guided our choices in the past, and challenging those assumptions using the tools of reason, logic and science. And it’s about creating a new foundation for an ethical system that can instruct us as to how to live our lives with respect for not only our humanity but also the humanity of those with whom we interact.
A core humanist ethic is tolerance and acceptance, seeking to find the common ground that unites us all—our humanity—rather than attend to the differences of faith and creed that have so often divided us. And so from this can we finally appreciate how to introduce ourselves; the one label that we can aptly use without hesitation or reservation. I am a human being. And together we are humanity.Adapted from the original essay appearing in Reflections from the Jetty, by James J. Krivacska, PsyD, available as ebook on Kindle. Also visit the Reflections from the Jetty website.