What Is Our Fundamental Nature? Is It All Made Up?

What is our essence, our nature, human nature?

If there is one question that truly matters and thus pervades our existence it is the question concerning human nature: what is our essence, our nature, human nature?

  1. 1.
    the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, which determines its character.
    “conflict is the essence of drama”

There are no shortage of answers. It occurs to me every speaker who speaks on the essence of human nature is convinced that there is a such a thing as human nature. And that he/she has the right answer:

  • Some say that human nature is selfish and competitive. In this school of thought even altruistic acts are recast and explained as selfish.  Others say that human nature is fundamental kind, altruistic, cooperative.
  • Look underneath western management and you will find the taken for granted truth that human beings are fundamentally lazy and will do the least work they can get away with: theory X.  Then there are others who say that human beings are eager to learn, to improve their condition, to contribute and do work – as long as the works shows up as meaningful, worth doing.
  • There are those who say that essence of human beings is reason and rationality.  And others who say with equal conviction that the essence of human beings is emotion/affect.
  • Some say that our essence is to pair bond and live in monogamous relationships. Others say that the polygamous relations are more in tune with nature and the imposition of monogamous relationships has come about through the white man’s domination of the world.

Who has generated the right answer to the essence of human nature?

I don’t know and I have little interest in debating right-wrong.

What I can share with you is the insight that hit me when I was around 8 years of age. To make sense of this insight it is worth pointing out that I was born in the East into a muslim culture. And at the age of 5 I arrived in the UK with my mother and younger brother. So by the age of 8, I had been living a dual existence: one way of thinking-living at school (the English way) and other way of thinking-living at home (the Pakistani Muslim way).  What was this insight?

The insight that struck me forcefully, which blew away my confusion-bewilderment, which set me free was this: “It’s all made up!”  

Once I got this, I got that I was free to choose the practices, from each culture, that worked best for me. As a result I chose not to have an arranged marriage.  I also choose not to drink for the sake of drinking – just to show that I am a man and be one of the boys ……

What is a great place to stand in relation to the question of human nature?

Back to the question of human nature: what is our human nature?  What is natural to us, our essence?  What is not natural to us, not in line with our essence? Heidegger, the 20th century philosopher and some say one of the two most important philosophers of the 20th century, says:

“The ‘essence’ of Dasein lies in its existence.”

– Heidegger

If you do not have background in philosophy then what Heidegger is getting at may not be clear. So allow me to share, what shows up for me as, the most pithy insight into the human condition:

“Custom is our nature”

– Blaise Pascal (1632 – 1662)

Put simply, human beings don’t have a fixed nature, we do not have an essence. We are shaped by the cultural practices (customs) into which we are born. This shaping starts from the moment of our birth (possibly earlier) and happens without our consent.  By the time we are in a position to think for ourselves our nature has already been shaped-moulded towards a certain style of being-living, and away from other styles of being-living.

I say that this is a great place to stand in relation to my nature, your nature, human nature. Why? By taking this stand we liberate ourselves and our fellow human beings.  If you/i stand and operate from this stance then we get that you/i can shape our nature (no matter what we say it is today) by who we live amongst and what we do and do not do. Put differently, if i/you want to change our natures we simply have to change our customs. Furthermore, in this stand you get that a powerful access to influencing others is to effect changes in customs.

Summing Up

Please remember: Its all made up! If you stand in “It’s all made up!” then you are in a place to remake it – all of it. When you get this, really get this, then I say your experience of yourself, and of life, is transformed. 

The Power of Life Sentences And How to Break Free

In this post, I continue sharing more insights and distinctions from Lynne Twist in her book The Soul of Money. Having shared the three toxic myths, Lynne goes on to say:

“Life Sentences” Limit Our Possibilities

In any culture, myths communicate moral lessons, and scarcity myths have produced a legacy of beliefs –  “life sentences” – that we embrace as folk wisdom or personal truth”

Let’s explore the distinction “life sentence”

Are you wondering what Lynne is pointing at here? Consider the human species. Consider, that one can carve up the human species into “male” and “female”.  That is simple what is so: some members of the human species are male and others are female. Now ask yourself what it is to be “masculine” and/or “feminine”.

Consider, that what constitutes being (showing up as) “masculine” and “feminine” differs from one culture to another, and from one epoch to another.  What our culture gives as “masculine” and “feminine” rules some ways of being in and others out. To be masculine in the USA is to be a specific way. To be feminine in the USA is to be a specific way. That is the sentence imposed by the American culture on all those who are born and/or live into-within that culture.

Consider, that this life sentences shapes how young children – male and female – are brought up and shaped: by their parents, by their family, by their teachers, by their friends, by the media and eventually by themselves. Which explains the acute discomfort and vulnerability experienced by those who do not live up to this life sentence. Consider, for example, what it takes to openly show up as homosexual in the American workplace.

Perhaps the best pithy example of a life sentence is illustrated by Lynne Twist:

When I was a child my grandmother used to say ….. “Marry the money and love will come later.” We used to laugh ……… to tell the truth, she believed it……. When she married around 1990, she married the wealthiest man she could find and then found a way to love him.

Let’s get present to the power of life sentences

Think about the taken for granted cultural practice of foot binding in China. The impact of this life sentence was not limited to just severely deformed feet. This is what I found on the internet:

The binding of feet was said to be an indicator of Chinese class and a symbol of beauty, but through time, ended up becoming a tradition, lasting over a thousand years and affecting all women in every society leading to one billion women having their feet bound. It was a custom that controlled every woman’s lifestyle. Trying to find a husband for those whose feet were left unbound was virtually impossible.

I’d like to get back to Lynne Twist and The Soul of Money:

I have struggled to understand the tragedy of hunger. Hunger isn’t some mysterious disease…… We know what to do when a child is hungry. We know what a starving person needs. They need food…..

The world is awash in food. We currently have more food on earth than we need to feed everyone several times over. Waste abounds. In several countries……farmers are paid not to grow food….

I saw that the cause of chronic hunger wasn’t just the absence of food. What causes hunger and starvation is something more fundamental than that …..

When I considered the underlying beliefs held in common by almost everyone everywhere …… I saw that there were fundamental assumptions that disabled almost every effort to solve the problem….

When we believe that there is not enough, that resources are scarce, then we accept some will have what they need and some will not. We rationalise that someone is destined to end up with the short end of the stick.

When we believe that more is better, and equate having more with being more – more smart or more able – then people on the short end of the resource stick are assumed to be less smart, less able, even less valuable as human beings. We feel we have permission to discount them.

When we believe that’s just the way things are then we assume the posture of helplessness..…….. We accept that in our human family neither the resource rich members nor the resource poor members have enough money, enough food, or enough intelligence or resourcefulness to generate lasting solutions….

In every situation ….. uncovering the lie and the myths of scarcity has been the first and most powerful step in the transformation from helplessness and resignation to possibility and self reliance. 

How to Break Free From The Life Sentences That Limit Our Possibilities

It occurs to me that the first step is to be aware that our way of being, showing up in the world, is shaped by life sentences. The second step is to question: question the taken for granted beliefs, customs-practices, and assumptions. Third, choose to conform or not with your eyes wide open.

Here is something to consider especially if you live in a so called individualistic country. Are you ready? Whilst you are convinced that your are an individual and that you live in an individualistic society, consider that your culture has already determined what it is to be an individual. That is to say to be a true individual one needs to break free of the life sentence pronounced by your culture.  Stated bluntly, rare is the person who is truly an individual. Most individuals simply fit into the given mould of individual by their culture.