It amazes me how difficult it is to be a really decent human being and how little time and energy we put into trying to achieve it.
If you want to be a good plumber or lawyer, you’ll spend years and dollars perfecting your trade under the watchful eye of your superiors, start at the bottom and work your way up, often with the help of professional mentoring.
But want to be a good human? Somehow that’s just supposed to magically happen.
WHERE ARE THE COURSES IN BEING A TOP NOTCH HUMAN???
Most of us don’t even consider working on becoming better humans until we’re in crisis – sometimes not even then. Asking for professional advice, reading up, retreating and reflecting, being part of a community seeking wisdom and accountability – these just mostly aren’t part of our culture. Improvement at work – sure. Self? Not so much.
Why put dedicated time and effort into becoming a really decent human? How about because being a good human is freaking hard work? Minimum requirements: sensitive listener, warm, wise and responsible parent, reliable friend, competent yet humble work colleague, sexy, supportive marriage partner, entertaining, non-irritating Facebook user… Geez. It’s exhausting. For most of us, it doesn’t come naturally.
So how is this journey to better humanity supposed to happen?
I’m a fan of counselling and psychologists. (Not the first one I ever saw, who asked me at seventeen in front of my mum if having an orgasm made any difference to the quality of my headache pain. Um, wot?)
These are people who’ve spent a considerable amount of time studying the human psyche, in much the same way as doctors have spent time studying the physical body and plumbers know your loo. There’s a very good chance a psych or a counsellor will actually know stuff about you that you don’t know yourself – stuff that could be immensely helpful. But while most of us don’t mind reaching for the phone when we need advice about the body or the bathroom, there’s a strange reluctance about doing the same when it comes to our minds, hearts and relationships.
I’m not sure why that is. A minority of people are overconfident and think there’s nothing a counsellor has to offer them, but I think more of us feel a bit overwhelmed. It’s pretty daunting to think about going to talk to someone about your life, especially if you feel like you’re drowning at the time. Think about it another way – here’s someone who could possibly throw you a line.
Perhaps our reluctance is also about feeling like a failure for seeking advice. On that front, I think once you realise how many people actually use the services of psychs and counsellors, you start to relax. It may not be spoken about all that often, but a surprising number of us are big fans. In short, all of us are looking to do things better in one area or another. We just have different ways of approaching that need – and some are too afraid to approach it at all.
Any time I tell people I’ve seen a psych or a counsellor, many of them tell me they have too, which leads to a conversation about how great we think such professionals (usually) are. Excellent things we agree on about psych sessions and counselling:
- your counsellor is duty bound not to jaw-drop or add OMG to a text they send later to one of your mutual friends
- even just a counsellor’s listening style sometimes helps you sort out what you think, on your own
- if you go with your loved one to sort out relationship issues, a counsellor can act like a ref
- a professional can give you the heads up if they think you need medication or further treatment, in the same way as doctors give you antibiotics or send you to hospital – not something you can do yourself.
- most importantly – if you’re open to doing the hard work, counsellors have insights you simply don’t. They’ll help you understand things about yourself no one else will (probably because no one else has the guts to lead you to the hard issues, or no one else has the insight)
So: counsellors and psychologists. If you want to be a really decent human being, and you feel stuck in some way in yourself or with another person, go see one. You’ll be astonished by how many people routinely do and routinely find it useful.
Self help books. #Eyeroll. It’s that part of the bookshop where middle age women in cardies loiter, or fit young beauties find inspiration for their motivational memes on Facebook each morning. Sneer if you want, but other people actually have some good ideas about life. And if you’re not into reading, then listen to a podcast, watch a TED talk or a doco. There’s a truckload of truly interesting insights out there into the human condition, our universal strengths and weaknesses, the places we’re all likely to stuff up, the areas we can improve. Some of it is rubbish, some of it is solid. With reflection, a lot has the potential to change the way we view ourselves and others. For good.
*I jotted down a few good books I’ve read below. Add yours in the comments!
Communities – of faith, love and hope. Once upon a time you would have just said ‘churches’, and I still think many of then have a lot to offer. Among other things, my church encourages my choice to have faith in the world and its people as good, made in the image of a greater love that I happen to name as God. Many weeks I hear interesting ideas that motivate me to be a better human and treat other people as though they’re sacred. Other people keep me accountable to this crazy idea. Little by little, I’m hoping the rough edges are being knocked off. Being part of this community is helpful.
If you hope to be a better human, connect with a community of people who stimulate your ideas, keep you accountable, look after you when you fall over and knock off your rough edges. Avoid the communities that don’t. Almost any community can probably fill the role – choirs, temples, men’s sheds, families, book groups, yoga clubs – anywhere you find a high degree of transparency, wisdom and honesty. Find people who’ll tell you the truth about yourself and the world. My guess is, not that many do (including the religious ones). Committing to look for one is a good start though.
Retreat, reflect, refine. Solitude seems to be the enemy of modern society. But honestly, I don’t see how any of us can come to terms with our full potential as humans unless we spend time alone, thinking about our weaknesses and strengths, facing up to our crap, sitting with ourselves in the dark, seeking the still small voice…
When I was a teenager, I spent time every single night thinking about my day – what I’d put into it, where I’d messed up, what I’d enjoyed, what I felt I could improve, what I was grateful for. I confessed the shitty stuff to God and gave thanks for small, exhilarating moments of happiness. I was an earnest little creature back then! And I don’t regret a single minute of it. Confession is an under-rated discipline, I reckon, and so is delight in the minutae of everyday life. Somewhere my life got so busy and I got so blasé I’ve forgotten about both, and I’m a lesser person for it.
Spend some time alone, go on! Schedule a retreat and assess your life. See what happens.
Life is short. But if we put anywhere near as much effort into actually being successful humans as we do looking like successful as humans, imagine what we’d achieve?
A few fave books you might regard as ‘self help’.
The Road Less Travelled: M Scott Peck
Know Thyself: Dr Craig Hassed
The Heart of Christianity: Marcus J Borg
Passionate Marriage: Dr David Schnarch
Parenting for a Peaceful World: Robin Grille
Why Women Talk and Men Walk: Dr Patricia Love and Dr Stephen Stosny
Falling Upwards: Richard Rohr
The Good Listener: Hugh McKay
Celebration of Discipline: Richard Foster
Parenting the Strong Willed Child: Forehand and Long
7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Covey
Religion for Atheists: Alain De Botton