What is Our Basic Nature?
Bill Cottringer

He who has so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts. ~Samuel Johnson.

A turtle was about to enter the water on the edge of a large cool pond on a hot August day when approached by a scorpion. The scorpion politely asked the turtle, “Would you mind giving me a ride across the pond so I can get to the other side?” “Well,” said the cautious turtle, I would normally agree to this, but if I did it for you, you would sting me and kill me because that is your nature.” “Why would I do that If I did, we would both die and neither one of us would get to the other side.” “So,” the turtle hesitantly said, “hop on scorpion, let’s go for a swim.” Halfway across the pond, the scorpion bit the turtle because it was her nature to do so.

Lately I find myself re-reading earlier books from college days to remember important insights I learned before. This is also a way a good friend uses to see how his views have changed. I was waiting for another board member for a Team’s policy meeting on the human trafficking intervention...and I picked out The Tenth Insight by Robert Redfield from my adjacent library of books. He had written something that helps me understand the great divide going on in our country and problems like school violence, the marginalization of youth, and the whole dysfunctional juvenile and criminal justice systems. All these “problems” are founded on a false assumption about people’s basic nature, which needs to be better understood before any needed “healing” can occur.

Quite awhile ago, I applied to a graduate counseling program in a midwestern university. The interviewing committee asked me a very interesting and telling opening question which set the tone for the next intense hour of questions and answers, all to see if I was a fit for their program. The question was: Do you think people are born basically good, bad, or neutral? For some unknown reason, I didn’t have to stop and rethink how I could best answer this loaded question. I just did so spontaneously by prefacing my answer in saying, “I have three different answers, which come from three different perspectives. From my religious training, I would have to assume the position that human beings are ‘bad,’ being born into sin and often needing to be corrected along their journeys.”

“Now from what my parents instilled in me, I would have to say that people are born good and just need periodic support and acknowledgment along the way. But I am here wanting to be a psychologist, so I think the most productive perspective is to view people as being born neutral and subject to both good and bath influences, so that the counseling education I will receive here, will help me be a positive influence.” I am not sure if there were any right or wrong answers to this question, but my answer got me in the program.

Years later my duaghter came to me with a perplexing question she needed to answer to get credit for her epistemology class for transferring high school senior years from one state to another. The question was: How do you know for sure what you know is true? We used the topic of morality since that was so full of contention, with lots of interesting reading available. Then we reviewed all the moral truths that philosophers had written about truth and listed all the general authoritative sources of knowledge from observation to critical thinking, scientific research, mindful intuition, transcendental meditation, experts, and written authorities. After much reading, we came to a startling realization. To accept anything as a sure truth, at some point in validating the certainty of this, you have to make a leap of faith in accepting the validity of the authority source of the information, because there can never be any proof positive of such an a priori assumption. This is the same basic assumption we make about people’s human nature from all the authority sources we use to form the belief.

We tend to see people committing heinous, highly offensive, or bizarre, abnormal behavior as being "inherently bad or even purely evil" in their very nature (and not just behavior) and categorize them that way, with not knowing what to do with them, that is if anything can be done at all. But we are not really understanding the experience of the behavior well-enough to understand the most important dynamics that are going on to see what may need fixing. A more accurate understanding of any extreme behavior would include the important element of stress in the thinking-feeling-behavior formula (abnormal Psych 101), as a key causal driver of the problem behavior.

Polarization of people has been going since the beginning of time, starting with the birth of self-consciousness which created the compelling illusion of “us” having a “self” separate from everything else. Then we divided the whole world into opposites with different words to understand all the differences so we could make them more the same as ours. But this isn’t working very well. For example, when we pit ourselves against others on issues that are highly emotional, value-laden, ideological ambiguous or morally complex, and then automatically assume the other side is inherently bad or evil with bad, immoral motivations that are virtually impervious to the right influence, we are shutting the door on any solution. This makes the divide more irreconcilable, at least in our divided minds.

On the other hand, we can view unacceptable, outlandish behavior, like anti-social criminality or youthful violence, as more of a result of the stress level crossing over the distress threshold of the person. The stress package is the high temperature of the collective inner hell the person is experiencing with his or her own overwhelming fears, hopelessness, and helplessness, because of the perceived lack of control over things he or she wants to control but really can't. Viewing it this way, opens the window of understanding to see the core problem and possible solution.

The solution is to teach people how to deal with their fears and overwhelming sense of other hopelessness and helplessness terrible twins, by learning to use disciplined mindfulness to focus on what is going on right now, blocking out all the past and future mind wandering, to see what they have been failing to notice all along, which is something they can control right now. In our personal development, sooner or later, we find that we cannot change the situations which life puts us in (we start out as only being a passenger on our bus rather than the driver), at least until we learn to control the only thing that is right under our immediate control, which is our personal reaction to the situation we are in (when we finally take hold of the bus steering wheel). When we learn to better manage our reactions from all the socially conditioned ones, through responsible use of free will, we start getting closer to understanding our destiny and being able to avoid the detours in order to live it better with more enjoyment (becoming the bus driver of our own bus).

Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, Ph.D. is retired Executive Vice President of Puget Sound Security in Bellevue, WA, but still teaches criminal justice classes and practices business success coaching and sport psychology. He is also on the Board of Directors of the Because Organization, an intervention program in human trafficking and involved with volunteer work in the veteran’s and horse therapy program at NWNHC Family Fund. Bill is author of several business and self-development books, including, Re-Braining for 2000 (MJR Publishing); The Prosperity Zone (Authorlink Press); You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too (Executive Excellence); The Bow-Wow Secrets (Wisdom Tree); Do What Matters Most and “P” Point Management (Atlantic Book Publishers); Reality Repair (Global Vision Press), Reality Repair Rx (Publish America); Critical Thinking (Authorsden); Thoughts on Happiness, Pearls of Wisdom: A Dog’s Tale (Covenant Books, Inc.). Coming soon: A Cliché a day will keep the Vet Away and Christian Psychology for Everyday Use (Covenant Books, Inc.). Bill can be reached for comments or questions at (206)-914-1863 or ckuretdoc.comcast.net.