Man (Part 3)
Chapter 4 — The Value of Life
Law of Life 10: Right Mental Attitude
We trust that climbing the path toward life has not proved too difficult thus far. In fact, we hope it has been a pleasure. We come now to the last law of life: right mental attitude. It is a big one. It is so important that we need a general orientation. Then in succeeding stages of our ascent we will deal with the principle, the problem and the prescription for right mental attitude.
The possession of health information alone will not bring better health. Society is saturated with such information. We know more about the dangers of polluted air and water, about good nutrition and the benefits of exercise, than any other generation has ever known. But that does not stop people from smoking and watching television until their bodies nearly rot for want of exercise. Reformation must spring from the center of human existence. We sometimes call this center the heart. Long ago a wise Oriental king said, "As a man thinks in his heart, so is he."
Mental attitude undergirds and controls all other life factors. We have seen that wrong mental attitude is the major cause of air, water and food pollution. Indeed, wrong mental attitude is the greatest factor in all our reckless, self-destructive habits. Someone has said, "We are not what we think we are, but what we think, we are." The way we think determines our actions, good or bad.
More than half the illnesses from which people suffer have their foundation in the mind. Popular books have familiarized us with psychosomatic illness.1 Hate, grief, guilt, discontent, fear and other destructive thought patterns affect the heart, blood, stomach, digestion, liver, nerves and hormones, making us vulnerable to a host of illnesses. Scientific studies have explored the relationship of stress to heart attacks, stomach ulcers, asthma, cancer and other diseases.2 The evidence points in one direction: Happy, well-adjusted people tend to live longer and suffer less disease. A study conducted at Duke University showed that work satisfaction and personal happiness were far more significant to the length of life than were all other factors, including physical functioning and tobacco use.3
Of course, we need to remember that cause and effect work both ways. Physical habits have a profound effect on the mind too. The air we breathe, the water we drink, our nutrition, our exposure to sunlight, our posture, exercise, rest, moderation and hygiene — all have a vital bearing on mental health. And this in turn reacts upon the body.
Trying to determine whether some ailments originate in physical or in mental habits is often pointless. Human life is one. The idea that body and mind — or body and soul — are two separate, distinct entities is an erroneous and damaging philosophy Originating in ancient Greece, it made its way into Western thinking and often found nourishment, of all places, in the Christian church. It was revived in the seventeenth century by the philosopher, Rene' Descartes. This fragmentation of man into two supposedly separate substances has led many to despise the body and value the "soul" or to imagine that bodily health could coexist with spiritual confusion. It has blinded us to the fact that life is indivisibly one, that health means what its family of words suggests: health, whole, wholesome, hale, holy. Thus, it is absurd to approach the subject of health piecemeal. This fragmentation of man is itself a disease.
This separation of the soul from the body and from the world is no disease of the fringe, no aberration, but a fracture that runs through the mentality of institutional religion like a geologic fault. And this rift in the mentality of religion continues to characterize the modern mind, no matter how secular or worldly it becomes.4
So we do not leave physical health in considering mental health. We cannot talk about this aspect of life in isolation. Since mind is only another word for heart, we must now get to the heart of the whole subject of human well-being — and this is right mental attitude.
The Search for a Basis of Self-Respect
The word attitude may be loosely used to describe how we think and feel about things. But it primarily refers to the way we believe. Our attitude is the way we see and value things at the deepest level of our existence. Let us suppose we believe we are worthless and our lives have no value or meaning. That belief is our attitude. Our belief or attitude will determine our actions, good or bad. If we believe we are worthless, we will treat ourselves as worthless. And it is a law that we will treat others and the environment the same way A great scholar once said, '~A man's view of himself determines his life." For this reason we must first consider our attitude toward ourselves.
Do we respect ourselves? Do we believe we are important? Do we have a sense of self-worth? Do we believe our lives have meaning, significance and value?
With a right attitude our answer will be "Yes" to these questions. But right attitude means more than that. It means to have a secure basis for saying "Yes." It is one thing to base a sense of self-worth on illusion, and quite another thing to base it on reality If it is based on illusion, the stresses, frustrations or tragedies of life will cause the vital structure of existence to collapse.
So we must now ask the crucial question, "On what basis do we respect and accept ourselves? On what basis do we believe our lives have meaning, significance and value?" We are really asking, "What is the foundation of our existence and what are we living for?" Health is impossible without a right answer to these questions.
All of us have a self-value system. From childhood on we unconsciously acquire self-value from our parents and peers. We don't have to be very observant to see that the pretty girl gets the attention, the smart boy gets the pats on the back, "Muscles" gets the prizes, and having the right-colored skin helps in some places too.
The value system reflected in these practices is wholly superficial. Is it any wonder that many children nurse the wounds of inferiority, shame and self-reproach because they are not pretty or clever or strong? But the privileged few at the top of the pile of broken bodies are not so privileged after all. They, more than any others, accept this phony value system. The things on which they build their lives soon fade. When they fall from the pile, they are left shattered, empty and haunted with memories.
If our self-value system is tied to beauty, what happens if we become disfigured or grow old and wrinkled? Furthermore, if we accept ourselves on such superficial grounds, we will only accept and respect beautiful people. The same thing applies to physical prowess, intelligence or success. All these can fade or fail us, sometimes with devastating suddenness.
Basing our sense of self-worth, meaning and significance on what we are in ourselves greatly increases our stress. We live in fear of failure. Because we are so psychologically committed to our own achievement and success, we cannot avoid being competitive in our relationship with others. It is a law that when we define the terms on which we accept ourselves, we also define the terms on which we accept others.
Our self-image and self-value, therefore, cannot be securely based on anything we are in ourselves. And for the benefit of the religious reader we add, this includes the religious, pious and Spirit-filled self. Why is it that many religious people are so psychologically lacking in love that they cannot respect and accept those outside their own holy city? The answer should be evident. All attempts to find intrinsic value within ourselves on which to base our self-worth are narcissism, hedonism and subjectivism,5 and must lead to disintegration of the personality
Earlier we said that we have various faculties like sight, hearing, speech, mobility, sexuality, intelligence and affections. But none of these constitutes man. They have meaning, value and significance only in the setting of our relationships. Human life is not only defined relationally but valued relationally We have value only because we are related to something outside ourselves.
This is the most crucial point we have reached in our pursuit of life. So let us dwell here until the point is crystal clear. A thing does not have to have intrinsic worth to be valuable. Most things men fight and die for have only relational value. Diamonds, for instance, are but little pieces of compressed carbon. If people did not esteem them as valuable, they would not be valuable. Neither is the value of gold determined by its usefulness. Its value is determined by what people think of it. Paper dollars are not valuable in themselves. Their value is related to gold, to national productivity or to some other thing.
Let us take the case of a child who is handicapped and severely retarded. He is no less precious in the eyes of his loving parents. They value him, not because of what he is, but regardless of what he is. His preciousness is in the hearts of his parents. Value is relational.
But what is the relationship that gives ultimate value and meaning to life? This is the most important question. Everywhere people are searching for meaning. Frankly, the well-known psychiatrist and author, reports that more than half of those who pass through psychiatric clinics suffer from noogenic neurosis — a condition arising from complete emptiness and lack of meaning in personal existence.6
Although life is cast in a variety of relationships, some ultimate relationship, some ultimate reference point, is fundamental to human existence. Life without a supreme relationship, a commitment to a supreme good, an ultimate reference point, is going nowhere and has no real meaning or significance. A sailor in the middle of the Pacific on a dark night cannot get a compass reading off his own navel. To find his heading he must relate himself to a fixed reference point like the North Star or the Southern Cross. Life without a fixed reference point has no stability, no direction, and makes no sense.
What are the options?
One person may base his self-worth on his relationship with the environment. He measures his worth by a sailboat, color television, holiday cottage, luxury bathtub and Persian rugs. We call this value system materialism. Since he values himself by things, he reduces his value to the level of a thing. If he is asked, "How much are you worth?" he immediately counts his things. If he hasn't ruined his "health" to get them, he is ready to jeopardize his "health" to keep them. If he can't hold on to those things which support his self-esteem, he is utterly devastated. Because he has reduced himself to the value of things, he reduces others to the value of things. People become things to be used and exploited as if they were impersonal assets or liabilities. The materialist dehumanizes not only himself but others.
Another person may base his sense of ultimate worth on his relationship with others — family, friends or society We call this value system socialism. But if he bases his ultimate worth on his relationship to a particular person, upon whom does this other person base his ultimate worth? The dedicated socialist admits that a person has no value in isolation. He contends that society has value and therefore a person derives value from his relationship to society But society is only a collection of people. A collection of zeros added or multiplied together can only equal zero. If this value system is carried to its logical end, the individual is worth nothing — and is often treated as nothing.
Let us suppose a person finds nothing within himself on which to base his self-worth. So he tries to derive status from his relationship with others — some person more famous than he, some club, church or other group of people. In this relationship he may "unselfishly" serve, but only that he may extract status for himself.
The more a man feels he really is nobody, the more he craves this esteem in the eyes of others. Even mans unselfish acts are really designed to prove that he is "better" than other, more egotistical souls. In love, this attempt to make oneself something at the expense of others is most insidious.
In a world without meaning, where man is nothing, love can be nothing else but this desire to degrade another. Love cannot be genuine giving, sharing and communion, if man possesses nothing of value to give or to share. If a man cannot stand himself, he will certainly not reverence his lover. Each lover will strive pitifully to extract from his lover a recognition, a proof that he is somebody.7
A man who bases his self-value system on himself, others or the environment dehumanizes himself. Instead of finding self-respect, he destroys it. Although his relationship to the environment, others and himself is essential to humanness, he is still incomplete. All his relationships in this world need to be grounded in an ultimate reality, in something intrinsically good. Man does not have intrinsic value, individually or collectively For one thing he dies. And that which ends in death has no intrinsic value.
The truth is that man is related to God, the Supreme Creator, the personal God who made man in His own image and put him on this earth (Genesis 1:26, 27). Unless a man sees himself as related to God, he can never be whole. Above everything else, this is what it means to be human. Man cannot deny this most fundamental fact of his humanness without dehumanizing himself. Here is the relationship which undergirds all other relationships. For man to deny his relationship to God is as foolish as denying his relationship to others or to the environment.
If man is not related to God, he has no value and life has no meaning. If God is dead, man also is dead. At most, he becomes merely a configuration of molecules. Freedom is an illusion. He is both an accidental product and victim of circumstances. Like an organ stop, he cannot act but only react. If there is no God, death says, "Finish." Life is then a journey toward nothing. And that which ends in nothing is worth nothing. Death rises up to crush him like a discarded cigarette butt under the heel of a meaningless universe. Is it indeed the destiny of this creature, with such profound yearning for meaning, to vanish like a bubble?
That is not all. Without God there is no basis to affirm a moral order, no reason to say that one action is right and another wrong. "If there is no God, then everything is permitted," the novelist Fyodor Dostoevski has one of his characters say8 If death ends all, then in the final analysis it doesn't make any difference whether I wring my neighbor's neck or shake his hand. And it doesn't make any ultimate difference whether I look after my life or recklessly snuff it out in a riot of indulgence.
"Much of the sickness in our community today is that in killing God, we have found nothing with which to replace Him."9 The whole moral value system of Western civilization was once built on belief in a Supreme Being. Even unbelievers subscribed to the absolute values derived from a theistic world view But civilization has run the gamut from deism to naturalism, from naturalism to nihilism, and from nihilism to despair. Despair means life lived without significance or meaning. Man has made for himself a lonely universe. He has a void in his heart like the void in the heart of a child whose father has died.
The Bible is God's word to man. It makes no effort to prove that man is a creature of God. It simply tells us that our own conscience is the indestructible consciousness that we are related to God. God's word speaks to that consciousness — that universal, inward sense that God is. It is this awareness of God which gives us the awareness of ourselves — self-consciousness. We can stand "outside" ourselves in self-reflection and judge ourselves. This is what it means to be a person. This is a mysterious and unique feature of human existence. We are like this only because we have been made in God's image and have an ineradicable awareness of God. He is a person, and our person-hood is grounded in the personhood of God.
Thus, man is related to God, and only in the light of this relationship can man be truly human or healthy or whole. Here is where his value is based. Here is where his neighbor's value is based. And here is where the value of the environment is based. Man's sense of self-respect and self-worth can only be grounded in his relationship to God.
1 "psychosomatic... [Greek. psycho mind + soma body] pertaining to the mind-body relationship; having bodily symptoms of psychic, emotional, or mental origin; commonly used to refer to a group of disorders thought to be caused in part or in whole by emotional disturbances but presenting as physiologic derangements" (Medical Dictionary).
2 S. I. McMillen, None of These Diseases (Old Tappan, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1963); H. Selye, The Stress of Life (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1956); O. Tanner, Human Behavior—Stress (Alexandria, Va.: Time Life Books, 1976); S. Wolf and H. Goodell, eds., Harold G. Wolf's Stress and Disease, 2nd ed. (Springfield, Ill.: C. C. Thomas, 1968).
3 E. Palmore, "Predicting Longevity: A Follow-up Controlling for Age," Gerontologist 9 (1969): 247-50.
4 W. Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977), pp.108-9
5 "narcissism ... self-love; excessive interest in one's own appearance, comfort, importance, abilities, etc."; "hedonism . . . the self-indulgent pursuit of pleasure as a way of life"; "subjectivism... an ethical theory holding that personal attitudes and feelings are the sole determinants of moral and aesthetic values" (Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, 2nd college ed.).
6 V. E. Frankl, "Beyond Self-Actualization and Self-Expression," Journal of Existential Psychiatry 1 (1960): 5-20.
7 C. S. Evans, Despair: A Moment or a Way of Life? (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1971), p.61.
8 F. Dostoevski, The Brothers Karamazov (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1968), p.733.
9 G. I. Tewfik, "Community Psychiatry," Medical Journal of Australia 1 (1974): 495~98.