So what’s the alternative? Do we need more “rules” to help us live like half-decent people who aren’t slobs and losers and depressed and too-agreeable and “weak” and addicted? Do we need more external authority figures structuring our lives for us? Do we need more Dad-advice telling us to clean up our rooms, stand up straight with our shoulders back, and sort ourselves out?
Or do we need less of this?
Do we need, instead, to be encouraged to dig down and find our love, our compassion, and our self-love and self-compassion? To get in touch with our feelings? To mourn and grieve for the unacknowledged, unprocessed pain of our own childhoods?
Do we need others to simply hold space for us, to accept our full selves, struggles and all, that we may finally feel like there is NOTHING fundamentally wrong with us?
Do we need to find our own inner spark again, to remember the simple joys that propelled us into action when we were little kids and we didn’t need to be “motivated” to do things?
But waaaaaaaait a minute — surely I can’t be saying, hey, let’s just do whatever the fuck we want, live like toddlers and somehow our “innate goodness” will shine through. Surely I can’t be saying THAT, can I?
No. I’m not saying that. After all, toddlers freak out every time their expectations/demands are not instantly met. They take the biggest cookie for themselves, and ideally all of the cookies for themselves, and they don’t give AF whether you’re sitting there wanting your own cookie. They steal each other’s toys. They bite. Whine. Scream. Fall on the floor wailing because someone said “no” to them. They shit in their pants. Sometimes they play with it afterwards.
Definitely, we shouldn’t “return” to a less developed state, or be encouraged to remain there.
But living systems are not static. The “inner purpose” of a living system isn’t to be complacent and stagnant. No! The very essence of life, of living systems, is to struggle for growth. It is to get better at being alive. It is to learn, to get stronger, to rise to challenges. Not to just be lazy and sit on the couch eating Doritos and expecting your next handout because you’re so “entitled”.
In fact, this whole line of questioning, this whole fear-based way of thinking — i.e., we NEED rules because without them we will degrade to our lowest common denominator and sit around masturbating and leaving pizza boxes on the floor until we die — is EXACTLY what I’ve been arguing against.
Let’s adopt a different set of assumptions — the Doctrine of Original Awesomeness:
Humans are, “innately”, “fundamentally”, “intrinsically”, growth-oriented and mastery-oriented.
We WANT to learn things, to be challenged, to stretch our abilities, to get better at stuff, simply because it feels better to be fully engaged with life, than to live half-heartedly, retreating from challenge to the safety of the known. This insight has been discovered and rediscovered countless times in Jordan’s (and my own) field of Psychology. For example, it is the foundational assumption of the entire movement that became Humanistic Psychology. It’s the clear message that resounds through the field of Developmental Psychology, in particular the development of emotional security. It is the (oft-overlooked) beating heart of motivational theory — we DO NOT need to be cajoled through rewards and punishments into living better lives. We already WANT to live better lives; provided that our “inner light” isn’t covered over by shame and humiliation, or diminished by a system that over-relies on rewards and punishments, we innately yearn to thrive. This is now well-understood (although poorly practiced much of the time), in business — employees do their best work, especially in a challenging environment that requires people to be creative, when they are motivated by their own sense of meaning, when they are encouraged by their peers, and when they are allowed to fully express themselves in their work collaborations (i.e., socially validated intrinsic motivation). But the more that leaders, CEOs, managers and such rely on rewards and punishments to try to squeeze out some extra motivation from employees, those employees lose interest in what they are doing, have to push themselves to work harder, and far too often produce sub-standard work, and eventually burn out.
You don’t need to push a secure person to embrace struggle. Struggle is our birthright. We are born into struggle. We are evolutionarily hard-wired for struggle. We aren’t lazy, selfish assholes at heart. We are vibrant, loving, curious, focused, striving, interdependent social beings. We love struggle. We love challenge. Watch any little kid who hasn’t had their INNATE desire for mastery crushed out of them by over-controlling, over-shaming OR over-rewarding parents. Watch them spontaneously engage in complex play. Try to stack those blocks just a little bit higher. Try to climb that playground equipment. Try to throw rocks into a lake and make them go farther or make a bigger and bigger splash. We LOVE challenges, because it feels super-kick-ass to stretch ourselves, to make progress, to get better at something.
To encourage this kind of mastery-orientation towards life, we don’t need Rules. This is the second part of the Doctrine of Original Awesomeness — We are profoundly, innately, fundamentally social beings; our SoulFood is love.
We need each other, right from birth. We need our caregivers so we don’t die. As we grow up we need them to help us learn not to do stupid things that we don’t yet understand are stupid — like playing in traffic and eating whatever we find on the ground that looks interesting. We need more stable others around us to help our little developing nervous systems to be able to handle our raging emotions. We need to learn to push through difficult moments in the learning process, to develop grit and determination and perseverance. We need social validation so that we learn that we actually do matter to other people, our actions do matter for the world, and being “a good person” actually does pay off in terms of being more warmly embraced by the community around us. We need others to learn skills, like how to tie a lure to a fishing line, or how to type, or how to read, or how to fry eggs without them sticking to the pan. Or how to calm ourselves down.
That’s a good one — learning to calm ourselves down. Do we most effectively learn to control our difficult emotions by being given “rules”? Or do we most effectively learn to control our difficult emotions by being exposed to wiser, more mature others who model for us how a responsible person behaves, and ideally, by being taught, in-the-moment, how to do things like deep, mindful breathing, how to tell ourselves messages like “this too shall pass”, and how to learn to reframe our “failures” as “learning experiences”?
I believe (and I would confidently argue that the vast majority of research in psychology over the past half-century or more agrees with me) that learning to be a responsible, productive, healthy, moral and reasonably successful human being does NOT come from rules. It comes from having one’s inner goodness nurtured, embraced, accepted and loved PLUS having one’s inner shittiness also embraced, accepted and loved, so that the power of being loved and accepted in our totality teaches us that we ARE “good”! We ARE worthwhile, beautiful, wonderful little beings. Maybe we don’t exactly behave that way all the time, but intrinsically, we are creatures of love, far more than we are creatures of selfishness.
I believe that Jordan’s hierarchy-based, rule-based way of thinking comes from a philosophy of scarcity and fear, rather than abundance and trust. It is focused on the defects in people and the age-old fear-based belief that these defects will be what wins in the long run, unless we stamp them out of the person through DISCIPLINE.
I was raised to believe exactly this. And maaaaaan, let me tell you, it did not work. And the “strongest” people I knew growing up, those who insisted on discipline and obedience and following the rules and all that — well, they were pretty lonely, especially as life went on. Not “needing” anybody, they found their social worlds constricted smaller and smaller as they aged, until, in the most extreme example I know of, they died almost entirely alone and with deep sadness for all the relationships they didn’t build and all the people they “let go of” over the years.
So what if we just…..throw that shit out in the trash where it belongs? Throw out the doctrine of original sin. Throw out the need for “rules” to “teach us right from wrong.” Throw out appeals to authority based on the (incorrect) belief that hierarchies of power are, “roughly speaking”, hierarchies of competence, as Jordan argues vociferously. If we throw out enough of those disempowering, shaming, distrustful beliefs about human goodness, what are left with?
Well…..love! Compassion. Empathy. Vulnerability. Interdependence. The need to be there for each other because that’s what being human IS.
People don’t become ethical because they’ve internalized a bunch of rules. (Ummm….sex scandals in “the Church”? Residential schools? “Pillars of the community” who are tyrants at home? etc.).
People become ethical because their love and empathy and compassion are nurtured. They become loving because they are LOVED. Love begets love, compassion begets compassion, and acceptance begets acceptance. So, when people’s dark and twisty parts express themselves, giving them a bunch of rules is NOT going to help them heal those parts; it is, in fact, going to further shame them, polarizing their inner world into an even more starkly contrasting “persona” and “shadow”. This is a foundational insight in the entire field of Psychology, going right back to Freud, or if you’re not super-cool with Freud, then Jung, with whom Jordan is definitely super-cool.
Rather than helping people to heal, integrate, and thrive, focusing on Rules actually further distances people from their own inner abundance and their confidence that, indeed, they live in a world of abundance, that other people CAN, for the most part, be trusted, and that this becomes increasingly true the more we behave towards others out of a place of abundance, treat each other with respect and honour, give people our loving attention. Focus on helping people, sharing, being kind.
And the people who receive this ‘sharing’? Are they going to become lazy and entitled and weak, waiting for handouts? No, they are going to become grateful, and they are going to give back, or pay it forward.
The Doctrine of Original Awesomeness argues that:
People strive to be better because striving feels innately better than withdrawing into laziness and complacency.
People help others and are generous because they care, have empathy, and feel compassion for others’ suffering, and because they are grateful for the blessings and help they have received.
People learn because being curious and fascinated feels awesome.
People grow because PLAYING is innately fun, and the more that “learning” and “challenge” can be framed and experienced as play, the more effortlessly people will be drawn towards exerting effort.
And people grow up to be responsible adults because they are inspired into being that way by the responsible adults, the wise elders, that have already walked that path and can shine their own light into the darkness, showing others the way forward.