Volume Forty — Article 7 Volume 40 | Home

Man (Part 3)
Chapter 6  The Impossibility of Life

In our pursuit of life we have found that right mental attitude will present some hard climbing. We understand what we ought to do. That is plain enough. The problem is doing it. The mountain now rises before us in terrifying grandeur. It is a sheer cliff thousands of feet high, and on it are the ten steps to right mental attitude. Each must be executed perfectly. One slip means death. Although a dark cloud now obscures the mountain, flashes of lightning occasionally reveal the glorious outline of the summit we seek.

Cutting across the face of this great mountain is another path. It gives us a ray of hope so we move ahead, pressing close to the great rock wall, not daring to look below. Suddenly the path ends at the brink of a huge abyss. Lightning illuminates the mighty chasm. Strewn on the rocks below are the bones of those who have tried to scale this mountain for the treasure called life. As we pause in mingled awe and terror we grasp the meaning of the abyss.


Because we have been pursuing life and health, we have not talked about disease. We have learned that health is being rightly related to all the connections of human existence. It is being in harmony with the earth, with the community of people and with ourselves. We will now look briefly—only briefly — at unhealth. It is the opposite of fitting comfortably into all the relationships of human existence. Unhealth is a fracture, a disruption and disintegration of those relationships which define what it means to be truly human. In one word, unhealth is alienation.

We choose the word alienation because it aptly describes the seat of human disease and because it has become prominent in the language of ecologists, philosophers, sociologists and even revolutionaries. Ecologists see man estranged from his identity with the earth. Technological, urbanized man is so estranged from the earth that to him it is just an empty environment. He has lost his feeling for nature and does not see himself as part of it. He has lost his roots in the earth. The women's liberation movement has highlighted a dimension of social alienation. Civil-rights crusaders have been making war on racial alienation. Sociologists have been grappling with the problem of how modern technology and specialization have alienated man from the meaning which comes from pride and satisfaction in work. Churches are in the midst of upheaval as they attempt to overcome the alienation of the clergy from the laity. Dedicated statesmen are wrestling with the problem of national and international alienation.

Even Marx spoke about the human situation in terms of alienation. He saw man alienated by economic forces, and he highlighted the tensions of the class struggle. Like most modern crusaders against alienation, Marx blamed it on the system. "Change the system!" shout the protest marchers. They think evil springs from the environment. But this blind spot highlights how deep-seated the alienation really is. If the problem does spring from the system, if the system alone is the source of evil, man has lost his individuality. He is only a thing conditioned by circumstances. He has no self-determinative personality. He cannot act but only react. This philosophy shows that man is so alienated at the very center of his existence that he can see himself as a depersonalized thing. He can regard himself as thoroughly conditioned by circumstances outside himself.

We must cease superficial diagnoses and go to the heart of the human disease called alienation. Man is alienated from himself, and all alienation between neighbors, between the sexes, between man and the earth springs from the alienation of man from himself. So let us now try to understand self-alienation.

We have already pointed out that man has a relationship with himself. He is not only conscious, but self-conscious and self-reflective. He is able to stand "outside" himself, to reflect on himself and judge his own behavior. Animals cannot do that. Only man does it. This is what it means to be a person.

As we stand apart and reflect on ourselves, we see the self in two different ways. We see the self as we would like it to be — how we feel it ought to be. We also see the self as it actually is. These two views of the self are not always identical. When there is a gap between what we believe we ought to be and what we actually are, we are torn apart and fragmented. If we could forget what we ought to be and just identify with what we are, we would not experience tension. But we are not able to do that. And if the tension becomes too great, we have real problems.

Consider a simple illustration. You feel you should do something worthwhile with your life, serving and loving others unconditionally instead of selfishly living for yourself. You may even set out to be a do-gooder. But there are moments of reflection and self-illumination when you see you are still unbelievably self-seeking. In helping others you are only trying to prove you are something. The self you can alone accept as worthy is not the self you are. At the center of your existence you are torn apart. 'You condemn and reject yourself. Hence the self-alienation.

We are not talking about a phenomenon which only happens to some people. Every person experiences this to a greater or lesser degree. Who has not realized that he has not done what his inmost being tells him he ought to have done? Who has not spoken words or felt certain feelings that he later wished he had not said or felt? Where is the man who always lives up to his own ideal of what he ought to be? Where is the person who can say, "I am all that I ought to be"? Anyone who does say this is so alienated from himself that his real personality has been destroyed.

When we see that the self is not what it ought to be, we pass judgment upon it. We reject it. This is self-rejection, and with it we experience inferiority, self-shame and self-hate. The severity of this alienation from ourselves can vary in intensity, depending on the mechanisms we use to deal with it.

What we have described is the operation of the human conscience. As the body points us unmistakably to our identification with the physical order, as sexuality points us unmistakably to our identity with the social order, so conscience points us unmistakably to our relationship with the spiritual order. Conscience is the indestructible conviction that we are creatures of God, before whom we are responsible for our deeds. We might just as well deny the reality of our own body or sexuality as to deny the reality of our own conscience.

Whenever by the action of the conscience we pass judgment against the self, we are alienated from ourselves. Every time we pretend to be what we are really not, we prove that alienation exists. We show that we despise our true selves. Every time we "create an image," we reveal the alienation of self-rejection. Why do we so often make a mask of the self which is not the true self? Isn't it because we are ashamed of the true self?

The most subtle self-destructive acting is religious acting. Jesus called the religious teachers of His day hypocrites. Many of them were good, moral men. They even had a code which said that hypocrisy was one of the four worst sins. The word for hypocrisy in the New Testament stories comes from a word which means to be an actor. In trying to be pious the Pharisees were forced to act what they really were not. On the outside they were like nice white tombstones, laudable examples of good citizens. But inside they were like rotting bones. It was a front so clever and ingenious that it not only fooled others, it fooled themselves.

There is no end to these ingenious masks we make to hide ourselves not only from others but from ourselves. Superficial masks please some people — flashy cars, swanky homes, professional degrees, titles, membership in elitist clubs. A person may use these things to advertise, "I'm important," "I've got status," "I'm worthy of acceptance."

But then in the silence of the soul the conscience speaks: "You are a mean, self-seeking, no-good wretch."

"What? Oh no, it can't be. It's a bad dream. Do I have to accept that? It must be the verdict of an idle brain."

There is nothing like distraction to silence the voice of conscience — this relentless moral judge who points a bony finger at us every time we are caught in a moment of self-reflection. So we are driven to become a workaholic. Or perhaps a foodaholic or an alcoholic or a drugaholic. These are all signs of gnawing, growing alienation.

We are talking about the sense of guilt.1 Guilt is the world's greatest health problem. It contributes to physical disease, chronic depression, worry, fear (especially fear of death), unhappiness, bitterness, remorse, social tension and, of course, self-rejection, self-contempt, self-shame and thus self-hate —alienation
Self-alienation fractures the wholeness (health) of human life. It has a profound influence on man's philosophical assumptions, on his thinking about himself. He alienates body from soul and thinks of himself as two instead of one. He isolates sexuality from the wholeness of life so that it becomes nothing but an unwholesome physical encounter.

Man's self-alienation alienates him from other people. The one who cannot accept and respect himself cannot respect anyone else. Having nothing to give others, he can only use others to extract worth for himself. Other people are his competitors in the stampede for status, power or attention. He may even look upon nature as hostile, as something to be plundered. Or he may try to find some fusion with nature by projecting upon it the qualities of his own personality

We sometimes meet "brave" souls who can say nonchalantly, "Guilt is never a problem in my life. It never bothers me." There are three explanations for this:

1. They are perfect. They can look the law in the eye. They measure up in everything. We can only sympathize with their struggle to live with the rest of us imperfect mortals.

2. They are psychopathic and have a deadened conscience — from childhood training which left them morally shriveled, from continually violating their conscience or from serious brain damage. A psychopath is sick and dangerous, not to be trusted.

3. They are probably neither perfect nor psychopathic. They unconsciously use mental mechanisms — such as compensation, projection, rationalization, reaction-formation, regression, repression and transference — to resolve their guilt.2 They have become so expert at this that they do not understand their own behavior.

When such physical and mental mechanisms are pointed out, many exclaim, "Oh yes, that's just like me! I do that all the time!" Then it dawns on them that much of their behavior is motivated by guilt and by attempts to avoid it. Some then ask, "Wouldn't it be better to remain ignorant of what we are doing?" Not if we want to be truly human. Besides, the unexamined life is not worth living.

None of these mechanisms gets rid of alienation and guilt. These "cures" only perpetuate the disease. They destroy the personality and increase the guilt. The whole process thus becomes a vicious merry-go-round.

We cannot understand the gravity of self-alienation, however, until we consider man's more serious attempts to bridge the chasm at the center of his existence. These attempts are on the spiritual plane. They are attempts either to keep the law or to get rid of the law.

Keep the Law

Before we can be whole we must close the gap between what the self ought to be and what it actually is. But what makes us feel the compulsion of the "ought"? It is the law. It doesn't have to come to us in the exact form of the Ten Commandments. It may be reflected in the example of big-hearted Bill. Provocation runs off him like water off a duck's back. In a moment of self-reflection we think, "I ought to be like that." We see a diligent fellow student toiling upward while we fritter away precious time and we say "I ought to quit fooling around." We hear the pledge read at the Lion's Club and respond, "I ought to serve my fellow man as I have pledged." Injustice is done to a church member and we could have a prominent church office if we drifted with the popular current. But a voice says, "You ought to stand up like a man." There is something in us which responds to this "ought," this moral imperative, and it will not be silenced. But when we look at the pure law of God revealed to us in the Bible, the "ought" may no longer be a still, small voice, but a thunderclap waking us to a sense of what we ought to be.

So we set out to bridge the gap between what we ought to be and what we are. We can manage some things in an external way But we soon find that the law demands purity of motive, unselfishness of purpose, love that loses itself and has no thought of reward. We decide to be unselfish, but the very decision is self-serving. We serve others to find value for ourselves. We try to be humble, but even our trying proves that we are not what we ought to be. We press on in relentless pursuit of what we ought to be, but the path gets steeper becomes a mountain and finally looms before us as a mighty, impossible cliff where one slip means death. We find another path we think will take us an easier way, but it ends at the brink of an awful chasm.

How wide is the gap between what we ought to be and what we actually are? It is as wide as the gulf between the righteousness of the mighty God and the unrighteousness of feeble man. The whole law must be kept in every part or it is not kept at all. There are no degrees of keeping or of breaking it. True, it says, "Do this and live." But it also says, "One slip and you die." How can a man already fractured and alienated at the center of his existence bridge a gulf as wide as heaven and earth? He might as well think he can touch the stars by climbing a mountain.

So this attempt to find life by keeping the law is a dead-end road. Law only sharpens the "ought," increases the guilt and intensifies the alienation from ourselves — to say nothing of our alienation from God.

Let us now speak frankly about our pursuit of life. When we began this journey, we learned that life is found in compliance with all the unalterable laws of life. There are proper breathing, drinking, eating and securing sufficient sunlight. There are good posture, exercise, rest, moderation and hygiene. Complying with even these physical aspects of life proves difficult. We may run well for a while, but what happens when we fail and are plagued with self-doubt? Besides, there is no end to the things we need to do to have life. As we press on, we move into right mental attitude — compliance with the Ten Commandments. And if we are not yet convinced of our selfish, unreliable and crooked nature, trying to live up to this law soon makes our good resolutions appear as so many South Sea dreams. We feel more frustrated, defeated and alienated than ever. There is also the record of our past failures and the fact that we are what we have been. Unless something can bridge the gulf between what we ought to be and what we are, we will be sorry we ever began our journey toward life and total health.

Get Rid of the Law

Why not get rid of the law if it only sharpens our sense of the "ought" and reveals this gap more keenly? Don't high ethical and moral standards only increase the sense of guilt and misery?

Some "experts" tell us that the only way to resolve the inner conflict is to bring our high and "impractical" ethical ideals down to the level of what we are able to do. "After all, the mayor does it. Even the clergyman does it. In fact, everybody does it. So why feel guilty about it?" Misery loves company.

Roger was in the prime of life. He had a strong body, a lovely wife, four fine children and a prosperous business. But he suffered a moral lapse quite inconsistent with his ideals. Chronic mental depression, the result of guilt, reduced him to a wreck of a man. He lived on tranquilizers and antidepressants. His psychiatrist told him he could only get rid of his depression by getting rid of his "ridiculously high moral ideals" — the Ten Commandments. But this method of dealing with guilt is like trying to change the temperature by breaking the thermometer.

Getting rid of the law rebounds with an increased burden of guilt. A person cut loose from an absolute standard of right and wrong — the fixed reference point found in the knowledge of God and His unchanging law—has the task of manufacturing his own standards and morals for every situation. This is moral relativism, and it can be very stressful. Uncertainty about what is right and wrong causes real anxiety. Having no fixed moral standards has helped produce "the anxious society"3 Children brought up without clearly defined boundary lines are insecure. A man is only a grown boy He may play God Almighty — a very stressful role — but a creature's only security and freedom are under the authority of law.

In spite of himself man is a creature of law He cannot live without it. His institutions, his important transactions and even the games he plays are related to law. When he wants security for his marriage, his home, his children or his property, he resorts to law The sense of justice is so indelibly graven in human nature that it cannot be erased. It must be satisfied.

To be human is to have an overriding, indestructible passion to be right in the eyes of the law. This is why we spend so much time and effort justifying ourselves. We cannot be truly human unless we know the dignity of being in the right. This is why we cannot endure guilt. We rationalize our wrong, project our guilt, repress it and compensate for it. Unless we accept ourselves, we remain alienated from ourselves. But we cannot accept ourselves unless we are justified.

We cannot overcome alienation by keeping the law, nor can we overcome it by getting rid of the law. This alienation is our unhealth.

The tensions of guilt and alienation in society are enormous. Scientific idealism, which promised man so much, has not satisfied his great spiritual hunger. And now, like the breaking forth of an appetite long denied, it drives man in a mad rampage after modern gurus whose "cures" only perpetuate the disease. We can hardly cope with all the new methods of "liberating" people from their "hang-ups" — sensitivity training, self-actualization, crisis of identity, the occult, Tibetan gong therapy, magic, drugs, ad infinitum.

We have considered our alienation from ourselves, from others and from the earth. But if this alienation is a formidable obstacle, what shall we say when we find a much bigger problem? Our alienation from ourselves, others and the earth is but the extension of our alienation from our Creator.

How does God react to this tragic human situation? He can't just slap us on the back and say, "It's all right, Jack. I still love you." It is true that God is love (1 John 4:8), but love for the right implies hate for the wrong. His inexorable law is an expression of His eternal self-consistency. He cannot look with indifference upon that which defiles, degrades and destroys His image in man. His holy nature burns against wrong. As moral Governor of the universe, He cannot take rebellion lightly. Indeed, He would be unjust if He did not treat man with the full justice of His law.

God is a personal Being, more personal than we are since our personhood is only a reflection of His. He is grieved by man's disaffection, and the intensity of His holy anger is in proportion to His love. If He did not love man so much, He would not be so angry.

We say this because some would like to make God into an indulgent parent, complacent and morally indifferent about the son who outrages the family honor. God is not like that. He is wholly righteous. He will see to it that justice is done, that all debts are paid. Thus, as we gaze up from our human predicament, we see that our alienation is infinitely great.

What can we do to get rid of guilt? Absolutely nothing! What good advice can we give to overcome this alienation? Absolutely none! We are inextricably bound to our predicament. All our efforts only increase our guilt. In pursuit of the treasure of life we have reached the final impasse.

Some may now be tempted to turn back, wishing we had never started such a perilous journey. Wouldn't it be better to die back in the land of our cigarettes, sugary flummeries, soft TV chairs and befuddled brains rather than to die on this journey after leaving so many indulgences behind? But now it is so dark that going back would be as fatal as going on.

But just when all hope has fled, a friendly voice rings out above the crash of thunder; "Friends, I have good news. I can get you out of your predicament. Just stand still and listen!"



1 The sense of guilt is not altogether the same as actual guilt. Actual guilt is objective. It refers to a person's standing in relation to the moral law—the "ought." On the other hand, the sense of guilt refers to a person's awareness of how he stands in relation to the "ought."
2 "compensation. . . In psychoanalysis, the mechanism by which an approved character trait is put forward to conceal from the ego the existence of an opposite trait"; "projection ... a mental mechanism by which a repressed complex is disguised by being regarded as belonging to the external world or to someone else"; "rationalization ... the mental process by which a plausible explanation (justification) is concocted for ideas and beliefs or activities which one wishes to hold or to do; the real motivation being subconscious or at least obscure"; "reaction-formation... a psychic mechanism by which a person consciously assumes an attitude which is the reverse of, and a substitute for, a repressed antisocial impulse"; "regression . . . the turning backward of the libido to an early fixation at infantile levels because of inability to function in terms of reality"; "repression... In psychiatry, the thrusting back from consciousness into the unconscious sphere of ideas or perceptions of a disagreeable nature"; "transference... in psychiatry, the shifting of an affect from one person to another or from one idea to another, especially the transference by the patient to the analyst of emotional tones, either of affection or of hostility, based on unconscious identification" (Medical Dictionary).
3 R. W. Roberts, "Living in an Anxious Society," Australian Family Physician 1(1972): 281-85.