by Bernard Phillips, Andy Plotkin and Neil S. Weiss
Joseph Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim—also a film starring Peter O’Toole—portrays the power of negative emotions like guilt to destroy one’s life. We all are victims of guilt, but can we do anything about it?
Jim was a British seaman who had signed on as first mate of the Patna, a ship with hundreds of Muslims making their holy pilgrimage to Mecca. But the Patna is caught by a hurricane, swept by huge waves, starts to take on water, and threatens to sink. The Captain and the other officers quickly lower themselves in a lifeboat, abandoning the passengers to a watery grave. As they are about to depart they urge Jim to jump from the ship’s rain-swept railing and join them in their lifeboat. As the wind and rain batter Jim, he is torn between duty and fear, and in a moment of weakness he jumps over the railing, opening the door to guilt that will plague him for the rest of his life.
When Jim and the other officers finally manage to reach port, they are shocked to see the Patna moored there, having been towed by a passing vessel. The others quickly disappear, but Jim decides to stay and face a judicial court of inquiry., which strips him of his naval certificate for abandoning ship. Jim proceeds to wander the Indonesian archipelago, a derelict among other derelicts, helping others whenever he could, even given the title of “lord” by those he had helped, trying to make up for his failure. But he is never able to forgive himself, to get rid of deep feelings that he has betrayed his ideals. He dies by taking a bullet intended for a boy whom he was protecting.
We are all Lord Jim. We too fail to live up to the standards that society has taught us. Yet following the ideas of Sigmund Freud, they are standards that are impossible to fulfill, such as loving others just as much as we love ourselves. Yet we are not at fault for our failure to live up to impossible standards. Rather, the fault lies with those standards, but we fail to recognize this. We fail to be realistic about what we are able to do at any given time, and that lack of realism takes the blame for failure away from our standards and heaps it on our own shoulders. As a result, we remain victims of guilt that does not necessarily lead to suicide, but that manages to destroy our self-confidence and our possibilities for genuine happiness. We struggle to fulfill the values that society has taught us, but we are much like the Patna that has taken on water: our efforts are weighed down by the burden of guilt. We have not abandoned ship and left hundreds to die, yet we die as Jim did, full of feelings of guilt.
Anyone living at this time in history is aware of a great many problems plaguing society. But what people in general are not aware of is that much of the source of those problems is due to the lack of people’s emotional development. It is not just guilt that we remain unable to confront effectively. It is also negative emotions like fear, pessimism, shame, hate, anxiety, despair, unhappiness, boredom, disappointment and sorrow. Our formal educational system coupled with the mass media have failed to teach us how to move away from such emotions and toward positive emotions like self-acceptance, confidence, optimism, pride, love, serenity, hope, happiness, passion, satisfaction and joy. Psychotherapists may succeed in helping us survive in the face up deep depressions with pills or counseling. But that will not help all of us or those psychotherapists throughout our day-to-day experiences as we continue to be victimized by negative emotions.
The failure of formal and informal education to teach us emotional development, with some exceptions, can be understood by comparing our kindergarten experiences with our college courses. As we climb the educational ladder we learn more and more about less and less. By contrast, kindergarten teaches us how to develop as total human beings, involving such mundane activities as getting dressed, eating, going to the bathroom, listening to other people, talking to them, dealing with our emotions, and dealing with the emotions of others. Yet it is possible to revive what we might call this “interdisciplinary” or broad approach to education and to our everyday lives. That is exactly what the book on which these columns attempts to teach. And the result can be not just positive emotions, but also the ability to confront personal and world problems ever more effectively.
For example, Chapter 1 teaches us that we all stand on top of fourteen billion years of evolution, and that we have a right to feel extremely proud of ourselves. Chapter 2 introduces us to using the full power of the scientific method to confront problems like guilt, shame, fear and hate, rather than to bury those problems and thus remain victims of them. Chapter 3 helps us learn how to take full advantage of the tool that sharply separates us from all of the other organisms throughout the known universe: our complex language. Chapter 4 helps us to learn the simple habit of aiming at continuing to develop or evolve throughout our daily lives, with every single situation giving us an opportunity to do so. This chapter, with its focus on emotional development, helps us to confront our negative emotions rather than bury them, and thus to develop emotions like confidence, optimism and love. We can follow Erich Fromm’s Man for Himself, where he taught us that we must learn to love ourselves in order to love others.
Future columns will carry much further these ideas, taking up values in Chapters 6 and 7, addiction in Chapter 8, aggression in Chapter 9, and the power to solve personal and world problems—by contrast with the power to control others—in Chapter 10. The world is in a difficult situation at this time in history. What is required is nothing less than an interdisciplinary education for all of us if we humans are to survive this century or, indeed, even the first half of this century. Such an education can succeed in unlocking the incredible potential for development—emotional, intellectual, and the ability to solve problems—that every single one of us has locked within us. The greatest tragedy of the human experience awaits us if we fail to unlock those capacities. Yet the greatest achievements of the human race await us if we learn to fulfill our vast potentials.
As far as we know, these ideas have never been published anywhere. We would very much like to hear from readers. Do you believe, based on your own experiences, that we are far too pessimistic about the present state of the world? Far too optimistic about the potentials of every single human being? Do you have no faith in the possibilities of an interdisciplinary education to move us toward solving our problems? Do you have faith in the ability of one of our presidential candidates to help us solve our problems? Have you given up on the future of the human race? Or are you with us in believing that an interdisciplinary education is a way out for us humans? Please write us and let us know what you think and how you feel about our ideas in this column or previous columns. We want to address your reactions to these columns in our next column, and we will even identify you if you wish to be identified.