What is your essential nature?

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“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

There is indeed this dividing line through the heart of each of us. We are all capable of great evil, and we are also capable of amazing deeds of goodness. We see examples of both every day.

This dual nature is one that all spiritual traditions address in some way, and most explanations seem to fall into one of two general camps.

Model 1: Evil is our true nature; good must be imposed

The explanation that we are most familiar with in the West is the idea that evil is the natural state of all humans, and it is only through much discipline and Divine intervention that we are able to do any good.

The Christian doctrine of original sin falls into this category of explanation and has much to do with its popularity in the West. Of course, this idea that we are all fundamentally flawed by nature is one that the advertising industry emphasizes as well as a means of selling us things designed to treat (or at least hide) our flaws.

The emphasis is this model of human nature ultimately becomes suppressing our true (flawed) selves in an attempt to try to become something (better) that we are not.

Model 2: Love is our true nature; evil is a result of pain and fear

In contrast, the other explanation is that our natural state is goodness (or love), and the evil we do is a response to the pain and fear that we all experience in life.

The discipline and Divine help involved in this model is about dealing with the pain and fear that cause us to act contrary to our true nature. Healing and courage are more important than punishment or imposed rules.

The emphasis in this model of human nature is living more fully into our true selves and peeling away the false layers that pain and fear have created along life’s way.

Evaluating the models

Obviously, my summary of these ways of understanding human nature is overly simplistic, and there are volumes of nuance that have been written about each one that I am not addressing at all here.

But I’m not all that interested in the argument over which one is more accurate because I don’t think we can ever prove the issue one way or the other. I personally think that Solzhenitsyn’s observation that this dividing line runs through each of our hearts is about all any of us can know for sure.

What I do find interesting is the helpfulness (or lack thereof) of each model of understanding human nature in the quest to bring more good and less evil into being in the world.

What if my true nature is evil?

I grew up with a strong emphasis on the first explanation, believing that my essential nature was flawed and corrupt. This model is an easy one for me to adopt because I am so aware of how often I fall short of my own standards for goodness—even more in my thoughts than in my actions, flawed as those also are.

I’ve spent much of my life on that treadmill of trying to suppress my true self, treating myself as flawed and untrustworthy, and trying to beat myself into being someone “better” than who I am.

The result of all this hard work of inner criticism, punishment, and discipline did little to make me a better, kinder, more loving person. Instead, it increased my pain and fear.

I became more and more hesitant to reach out, to become involved, to do things that really mattered because the evidence seemed to indicate that I was too flawed to make a positive difference.

This way of thinking blinded me to the good I did do because I was so focused on the evil I knew I was capable of. Likewise, I tended to see those around me as more capable of evil than good, increasing my distrust, fear, and judgment of others.

All of which served more to increase my view of myself as flawed and evil and decreased the likelihood of me doing as much good as I am capable of.

What if my true nature is love?

Part of the major shift in my self-identity during my transformational journey has been an embrace of the second model of human nature.

As I have leaned into this understanding of myself as essentially good and have focused instead on dealing with the layers of pain and fear that keep me from that essential goodness, my way of understanding myself (and others) has shifted radically.

I am still aware of how often I fall short of the person I want to be, but the more I assume that my essential self is goodness, the more likely I am to act in ways that are helpful and kind and compassionate.

When I respond to my failures with compassion and a focus on addressing the pain or fear that caused that failure in goodness, I find myself bouncing back with more to give than I ever did when I treated with contempt and punishment.

I am more likely to believe that I have the potential to make a positive difference in the world, so I’m much more likely to take action to do so.

Likewise, I see the good in others much more readily than I once did and am able to treat their failures with greater grace by recognizing those failures as reactions to pain and fear.

I’ve never lost sight of that dividing line running through my heart, but this second model is proving to be much more effective in generating the kind of life I want to live.

And the results are ultimately all I really care about.

Which model of human nature do you subscribe to? How does the model you have chosen help (or hurt) your attempts to be the kind of person you wish to be? Would a different model serve you better?

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2 thoughts on “What is your essential nature?

  • April 15, 2015 at 10:07 am

    In the past, I’ve been able to balance between the two models. As an ardent golfer, one learns that in playing competitive golf, one is more often the looser; there is typically a single winner, and then everyone else. A player can focus on one (or many) poorly executed swings that led to failure. If i focused on that aspect, it was self destructive. However, without neglecting those poor efforts, I could also look at the shots that were executed well and can (pretty much at the same time) focus on those to build confidence in my abilities.

    In the past few years, I’ve had a turn the second model through a enhanced understanding of the (Wesleyan?) model of Christianity that focuses on the 3 elements of Grace. The ‘ah-ha’ was the understanding of first element; prevenient Grace, the Grace that God grants to ALL of us, totally and freely, even before we are born. That Grace is always there to forge our transgressions (commission or omission). If we have the faith to believe in God’s Grace, we can have the confidence to build on the Good Nature model.

    • April 15, 2015 at 9:12 pm

      Thanks so much, David, for sharing your experience with this! I love your comment about the necessity of being able to believe in grace to fully adopt the second model. I hadn’t thought about that before you said it, but it seems to me to be very accurate. Grace flows through that model beginning to end, so without the ability to accept grace, it would be a hard model to embrace.

      Thanks again!!

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