Reflections on Interpersonal Communication
and the Journey of Becoming a Person
– – –
by Dennis Rivers, MA — Communication Skills Trainer — 1998
In recent years I have taught a series of courses in communication skills to groups of university students who are about to volunteer in prisons, county jails, juvenile halls and other criminal justice institutions. We focus on topics such as the power of supportive listening and how we come to know ourselves better in the process of explaining our experiences to someone. In their role as peer mentors they will be both using their communication skills and encouraging their mentored companions to develop better ways of communicating their way through everyday conflicts. The focus of my class and the focus of peer mentoring is largely tactical, how to listen and express yourself more competently. There are, however, larger issues connected with interpersonal communication and subtle but important transactions going on between coach and trainee. I would like to be able to tell my students, all of them headed toward challenging encounters, just what these issues are, but it has taken longer than I imagined to put the issues into words. In this essay, dedicated to my students, I will be exploring how the way we talk and listen is related to the way we live, so that coaching a person to communicate differently is at the same time coaching a person to live differently.
To give just one preliminary example of what I’m talking about, one of the largest issues in moment-to-moment interpersonal communication is that many people do not express their thoughts, feelings and wants very clearly, perhaps out of fear of rejection. That vagueness prevents people from getting their needs met. But this particular issue, which surfaces in conversational coaching, is also, on a larger scale, the main issue addressed by Rogerian psychotherapy: that in hopes of winning the approval of others, we learn to present a stance to the world that can be totally disconnected from our own deepest feelings (our “organismic experiencing,” in Rogers’ terms), with which we may have lost touch altogether. In this light you can see that something sounding as simple as “communicating your needs more clearly” can have several levels of significance in a person’s life.
In the course of teaching communication skills, I have tried to make the subject easy to grasp by keeping the focus on short-term goals. And there are many great books that do the same. But the communication training encounter is also an encounter of persons exploring more satisfying ways of becoming persons together. The challenge for me as a trainer is to get people engaged and motivated at both levels. In this essay I am going to concentrate on our desire to unfold as persons, our urges to become more fully human.
Motivations for learning new communication skills
My experience has been that what brings most people to communication classes is usually an immediate need to have more satisfying conversations with a particular person or in a particular setting. These reasons are perfectly good ones as far as they go, but they are often not very deep or long-term. The problem here is that developing one’s speaking, listening, questioning, reflecting and negotiating skills takes a fair amount of effort. And the short term motivations that people bring to the process may not keep them involved long enough for them to reach their goals. No one expects to become an athlete or a violinist in a single weekend, but many people hope to make major improvements in their communication style with a minimum investment of time and effort, only to be disappointed at the meager results.
What seems to be needed in communi-cation training are motivations that are deeper and perhaps encompass entire seasons of a person’s life, or perhaps one’s entire life. Whenever we find examples of high competence and excellence in human life, we also find examples of deep, long-term motivations. I fully encourage (almost) all of my students’ pragmatic motivations. But in order to get my students inspired with more of the motivation they will need to reach their competence goals, I have begun to introduce them to such life-long questions as,
“What kind of person do I want to become?” (or, alternatively, “Who’s life inspires me?”)
“What kind of person do I enjoy being?”
“How can I deepen my relationships with the important people in my life, the life that lives between us?”
“What kind of world do I want to create with my conversations and actions”
These are tough questions but they are also powerful questions. They challenge a person to develop more inner and relational goals, rather than being only outer-directed by the immediate needs of coping with work and family situations. Again, I am not saying that there is anything bad about such immediate goals and I do everything within my power to help people reach them. My only reservation about these goals is that they may not be energizing enough to provide for their own fulfillment.
What I propose, both to my students and to you, my reader, is that developing better communication skills can be a central way of becoming more of the person one wants to be, and creating more of the world one wants to create. To explain this idea, I will first explore some of the things we mean when we say someone is a “person.” Then I will present a kind of synthesis of what many deep thinkers have agreed are the qualities of personhood toward which we are all growing (some of us more willingly than others). From there I will present five arguments suggesting that our personhood emerges largely in and through our conversations, which means that we can have some influence over how we develop as persons. And finally I will discuss some of the formidable challenges we face in trying to steer both our conversations and our lives toward the qualities-in-action that make people more fully human.
Three meanings of personhood
While legal personhood is something we achieve simply by the fact of being born in a particular country, psychological or familial personhood seems to me to be much more like a set of muscles. Our psychological personhood grows by being exercised in the classic human relationships: parent, child, sibling, friend, enemy, coworker, supervisor, teacher and student. And within these relationships it is exercised primarily in an ongoing stream of interpersonal encounters that include talking, listening, fighting, cooperating, making and keeping commitments, turning our experiences into coherent stories, and so on. Just as a baby struggles to stand up, we all struggle to develop the awareness and skill that will allow us to function fully as a person among persons. While the Declaration of Independence asserts that we are all born with certain inalienable rights, unfortunately we are not born with the skills we need to exercise those rights wisely or to make a happy life with others. We start out with a big gap between rights and capabilities.
Discussions about being a person can be confusing because they can mix together several different meanings of “person,” especially:
· the unfinished and evolving personhood of family, psychology and literature,
· the already achieved personhood of law (“You are a citizen from the day you are born.”) and
· the already achieved personhood religion (“You are a person because God created you with an immortal soul”).
With each of these meanings we offer respect to other people and we ask for respect from them. In my experience all three of these meanings offer something special and worth pondering, but no one of these meanings is a very good substitute for either of the other two. For example, one may be able to fulfill many of the requirements of being a citizen (for example, don’t steal, pay your taxes, vote, etc.) without being a very well-developed person (for example, being a friend to your friends in times of trouble, being an influence for reconciliation when conflicts arise, etc.).
This sorting out of meanings is necessary in order to make a kind of separate and accepting mental space for our perpetual un-finished-ness as persons, to disentangle the “already given” from the “continuously created.” To say that we are continually learning, growing and evolving as persons is not to say that we are less than full citizens (or that we are less than children of God, for those who think in religious terms). While being less that a full citizen would be an insult to one’s dignity, to be a not-yet-fully-completed person is simply to be human like everyone else. Each season of life offers us a different set of lessons and skills to learn. (I thought a lot about this a few years ago when I became like a parent to my frail and elderly father.) The fact that being a person is ongoing process of becoming makes it possible to live hopefully: no matter how we may have succeeded or failed in the past, each day allows us to start over with a new set of challenges.
The possibilities of personhood
At this point you may be starting to feel, “Enough with these abstractions! If life is a process of becoming, what is it that we are trying to become?” To provide a working answer to that question I offer you the following list of the qualities of what one might call a “fully developing” person. This list is drawn from many sources, ancient and modern, among which there is actually a lot of agreement. You will recognize the influence of Jesus, St. Paul and St. Francis on this list, along with Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Martin Buber, Erik Erikson, Rom Harré and Gautama Buddha. In compiling this synthesis, it has helped me a great deal to think often in terms of styles of engaged action (such as “honestly” and “compassionately”) rather than only in terms of fixed qualities of character (such as “honest” or “compassionate”).
Thus translated into adverbs (and grouped into related clusters), we can say that at every stage along life’s way we are challenged to act (and converse with one another)…
… more awarely (of self, other and context)
… more skillfully, competently and wisely
… more honestly, sincerely, genuinely, congruently (inner matches outer)
… more caringly, compassionately, acceptingly, respectfully, warmly, forgivingly
… more creatively and “exploratorily” (with more creative openness to new experience)
… more courageously, hopefully and faithfully
… more generously and nurturingly, delighting in the happiness of others
… more meaningfully and expressively, organizing and expressing our experiences in coherent patterns of words, music, movement and imagery
… more gratefully and appreciatively, open to delight
… more engagingly, energetically and responsively
… more gracefully and beautifully (in the Navajo sense of beauty as cosmic harmony)
It is interesting to note that, along with overlapping and interweaving, all these qualities of action are open-ended. There is no limit to any of them. Now matter how much we had achieved on any of them, creativity, for example, we would want to go on and develop more. For another example: because there is no upper bound to kindness, I imagine that most people who are very kind would not admit to being so, but might admit that they were “growing toward kindness along with all of us.”
Every now and then you will meet someone who embodies the opposite of many of these qualities (fearful, miserly, hostile, resentful). What you will notice about such people is that they are usually also very unhappy and isolated. I am not arguing here that we should practice these styles of action in order to be “good” as defined by some external authority. That would imply that if we could get away from the all-seeing eye of that authority, we could just relax and go back to being deceptive and resentful. I am arguing instead that these qualities appear to be the inherent directions of human fulfillment. They are our own built-in recipe for becoming fully human persons. Where this recipe originally came from I will leave to theologians and evolutionary biologists, who have filled many volumes discussing the source of human virtues. The unfolding of these qualities in people seems equally miraculous to me, whether I think of these qualities as the flowering of a billion years of evolution or as the gradual revelation of God’s presence in our own hearts.
Wherever these qualities have come from, what is clear to me is that these are the qualities of successful and complex long-term human cooperation. And successful cooperation means better survival for the group that practices it, although the emergence of successful cooperation is not at all automatic. It is not like growing hair. It is much more like searching for food, a process which, although it has life and death biological significance, may or my not be fully realized. Consider for a moment that the speech folds of our brains contain no specific language when we are born, but await completion from human culture. In a similar way, our capacity to develop all the cooperation-facilitating qualities-in-action just listed awaits actualization in nurturing families, schools and cultures. (That is what communication training is about: to improve the chances that people will be able to cooperate with one another to meet life’s challenges.)
Following in the very large footsteps of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, I believe that each human being is born with both a capacity and a gentle yearning to grow in these many directions: toward awareness, caring, creativity and so on. The more actions we perform that express these qualities, the more we have feelings of coherence, community, integrity, and well-being. We like ourselves more. The fewer of these kinds of actions we perform the more we have feelings of fragmentation, alienation, self-dislike and perhaps numbness. Unfortunately, our “gentle yearning” to grow in these directions is easily overruled by harsh circumstances. Thus we need to work together to nurture those impulses in ourselves and others and so create a social world that feels good to live in.
Focusing on the qualities-in-action that I have compiled into the list presented above is one possible context for understanding where are we going and what are we doing together.
The story of my life, in this context, becomes the story of my journey into awareness, kindness, insight, courage, and so on, perhaps as exemplified by the heroes and archetypes of my culture.
And my deepest relationship with you is to encourage your development in these directions, first by my own embodiment of these qualities, and second by becoming your companion on this journey of development. Such companionship, whether in parenting, friendship or psychotherapy, contains a powerful creative tension between, on one side, a vision of and a hope for the best that you can become, and, on the other side, a profound acceptance and forgiveness of all the trial and error along the way. We give and receive crucial forms of this kind of developmental encouragement in conversation: receiving the story of another person’s struggles and sharing the story one’s own successes and failures.
Seven arguments in favor of the centrality of conversation in human development
At his point you might quite reasonably be thinking, “Well, that we should all strive to act in ways that are more aware, caring and skillful is a nice idea but not a new one, and furthermore, what do these various noble qualities have to do with communication?” The answer that I offer to this question is already implied in the last few paragraphs. As I see it, the world of conversation between us is a uniquely important and available arena in which to adopt more of these qualities. Since this is a weighty proposition, allow me to present several arguments that support it.
First of all, it is in our conversations that we rehearse our actions. Therefore, the more skillful and creative our rehearsals, the better our actual performances will be. If we can’t imagine doing something, we probably won’t be able to do it. Conversations, both inner and outer, are where we do most of this essential imagining (“I wonder what would happen if I…”). So the qualities of our conversations spill over into our actions, for better or for worse, which we then remember as part of our life story, which is an important component of our personhood. Our actions and society’s reaction to them become a significant part of our personhood. (Rob a bank and you’ve just transformed yourself into a “bank robber.”) We become the qualities of what we do, after we talk ourselves into doing it, or don’t talk ourselves out of doing it.
Second, conversation itself is an action, and it is the context in which we both encounter essential human tasks and practice many significant human virtues (understood as qualities of action). For example, major forms of honesty, kindness, awareness, are creativity are utterly conversational. To begin with the first of these, one of the primary forms of honesty concerns giving accurate descriptions in conversations with others. “Thou shalt not lie.” This is not a warm-up for some other more fundamental virtue, this is a virtue itself that lives (or dies) in conversation. For another example, think of the kindness involved in listening supportively to a friend who is going through some great trial, perhaps having just learned of the death of a loved one. This kindness of listening caringly is not some lesser kindness, some practice for the real thing that will come later. This conversational kindness is the real thing. Continuing with the qualities that I noted at the beginning of this paragraph, if we look at awareness as a virtue, we see that our horizon of awareness in shaped by the possibilities allowed by our vocabulary and grammar, which are elaborated in our conversations. It’s hard to pay attention to something until we have a conversationally-transmitted word for it. With regard to creativity as a virtue, stringing words together into unique sequences is one of the primary forms of human creativity, and a form that nurtures many other non-linguistic forms of creativity. My illustrations could be expanded to show how all the other qualities-in-action I have listed (hopefully, courageously, beautifully, etc.) find a major form of expression in conversation.
Third, we use conversation to both assert ourselves and to commune with others, the essential tasks of human development. According to the developmental psychologist Robert Kegan two overarching tasks, communion and assertion, stand out as being equally at the core of a fully human life,. Communion means under-standing, empathizing with and nurturing the people around us. Assertion includes our ability to press for the fulfillment of our own needs and our gradually unfolding ability to conceive of and guide our own lives. Although Kegan does not especially emphasize conversation as a central part of the developmental process, conversing is the main way most people assert themselves and commune with others. The conclusion I draw from Kegan’s work is that the way we learn to converse, clearly or confusedly, creatively or dully, compassionately or demeaningly, will have a giant impact on how well or how poorly we accomplish the central tasks of personhood he describes.
Fourth, conversations are small enough units of behavior that we can, with effort, steer them toward the qualities we want to embody. It is very difficult to make direct changes in one’s character or overall attitudes, but conversations provide us with endless opportunities to move in positive directions. The adverbial qualities of our conversations (wisely, honestly, awarely, acceptingly, etc.) become the adjectival qualities of our character (wise, aware, accepting, etc.). The qualities-in-action adverbs are a sort of gentle “on-ramp” of personal character: conversations are an accessible starting place for working on the kind of persons we would like to become, one that allows us to begin again and again. The same can be said for communing and asserting. We learn to balance these competing pulls one conversation at a time.
Fifth, we use conversational storytelling to recognize ourselves and others as persons to be loved and protected, or as objects to be used and broken. This is true throughout life, from the baby’s emerging sense of self-and-other that grows out of the gradually unfolding mother-infant dialogue, to the mythic themes that peoples and nations use to define themselves in relation to other peoples and nations. We have been told many times that words are not objects or people, but merely words. And that is true as far as it goes, but I submit to you that such understanding does not go far enough. A lot of current thinking and research suggests that how well we recognize others as people depends on our memories of nurturing conversations, the richness or poverty of our vocabulary of experience, the labels we are taught to use, and how we use that vocabulary and labeling to weave our experiences and expectations of others into coherent stories shared and reinforced in further conversation.
The war that accompanied the breakup of the former Yugoslavia provides a tragic example of this story-making at work. Both the Serbs and the Croats used stories of World War Two atrocities to whip up hatred against the other side. This created a coherent context in which new atrocities could be committed in the name of just revenge. Such processes of demonizing and vilifying are strongly rooted in conversation and storytelling, as are the processes of honoring and appreciating.
Because we use story-making and story-sharing to organize our experience of other people and define our relationship to others, we are especially vulnerable to manipulative story-tellers, whether they are advertisers, cult gurus or demagogic politicians. The story that I tell you to express and justify how I see other people is an important part of “me,” my personhood, as we all realize when we meet someone on the street who is convinced that half the people in town are malevolent agents from outer space. How different this is from the “all children of the same loving God” theme elaborated by The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and what a different sense of “me” this latter theme evokes. The qualities of these kind of conversations both reflect and create the qualities of our lives.
Sixth, conversations are the primary medium through which we heal the emotional wounds of living. As Judith Viorst so eloquently describes in her book, Necessary Losses, even in a life full of advantages and good health every step of human development is accompanied by and catalyzed by deep experiences of loss. We leave the womb to gain the world. We raise our kids only to have them leave home just about the time when they could become our friends. By the time we reach middle age and can truly understand our parents, our parents often die, leaving us with a complex burden of grief at the loss and gratitude for life, fragile and finite though it is.
In addition to these sufferings that are built into life, many lives, perhaps most, are marked by some degree of trauma and deprivation. Several of my close friends, for example, had in childhood a parent who was mentally ill or a violent alcoholic. Other friends participated in the Vietnam war, to their eternal regret. And for others, who protested the war, the Vietnam war era was so disorienting that they lost confidence in being able to have a normal life of fulfillment in family and work. I want to make two points here that are very unpopular in an optimistic culture: first that life includes suffering and second that much of the suffering and loss in life has nothing to do with our misbehavior (although it is also true that we can cause some of our own suffering). That is to say, being wounded by life and learning to heal are central, inescapable parts of becoming a mature person. And, it is through many heartfelt conversations that we engage in this healing process, that we bring these painful experiences into focus and create a meaningful life story out of a seemingly random sequence of sorrows and disappointments. Sometimes these conversations are called, “psychotherapy,” but even more often we call them “deep friendship” and “parenting.” In all these contexts, according to Carl Rogers, healing conversations have the same qualities. The helping partners in these dialogues communicate honestly, caringly, respectfully, understandingly, expressively, and in a way that is open to new experience. In the company of such supportive conversation partners we reconcile ourselves to the sorrows and losses in life, and find the strength to start over, to meet life anew. (Although it is certainly possible for many people heal their life wounds through art and dance, for most people the focus of emotional healing is in conversation. And even therapies centered in art, movement or music include the kinds of conversations just mentioned.)
Finally, seventh, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that just plain thinking itself is internalized conversing. It is in the styles, themes and cognitive challenges of our conversations that we help our children learn to think. (The scholar I find most inspiring on this topic is Jerome Bruner.) While spatial perception and motor skills are absolutely essential dimensions of human development, the same must be said for conversation skills (which are usually referred to as the disembodied abstraction, “language”). Daily conversations challenge the growing child to perform ever larger and more complex feats of memory, logic, creativity and understanding the experience of others. The sentence is the seed of the story, and the story is the seed of an autobiography: a story about myself and others that allows me to imagine my own life and thus think of myself as a person among persons.
The mind unfolds in conversation and story-telling, which remain major forms of mental exercise throughout life. But not only do we learn to think and imagine in conversation, we learn to think and imagine in a particular personal style shown to us by our earliest caregivers. Appreciatively or resentfully, hopefully or cynically, honestly or deceptively, creatively or routinely: our styles of making contact with one another and making sense of life are the gifts or curses we bestow upon our children. And it will be largely through their conversations that they will keep alive and deepen whatever style of thinking we have passed on to them.
Here, then, in recapitulation, are my seven arguments in favor of the proposition that we become persons largely in and through our conversations with others (and with ourselves, also, after we have absorbed early in life a large amount of conversational interaction):
1) In conversations we conceive and rehearse the important actions of our lives, including cooperation with others.
2) In conversation we can embody all the fundamental human virtues (or faults).
3) We use conversation to both assert ourselves and to commune with others, which are the two essential tasks of human development.
4) Conversations allow us to approach and practice all those virtues and tasks in small steps.
5) In conversations we learn and put into action our understanding of ourselves and others as persons to be loved and protected or as objects to be used and broken.
6) Conversations are the primary medium through which we heal the emotional wounds of living.
7) In conversation we learn and renew our fundamental style of thinking.
In light of these seven arguments, it is a mistake to imagine that our “real” life takes place beyond all words, and we then have “mere” conversations about it, as if life and conversation were two were separate circles. A truer picture, I believe, would be to locate the conversation circle inside the life circle. Our conversations are real life activities, as real as running or swimming or planting food.
For me, these seven arguments are deeply important because they all imply that by improving the way we talk and listen we can create gentle waves of change in both our relationships with other people and our inner relationship with ourselves. In much the same way that the smallest part of a fern has the same shape as the entire fern branch, the moment of conversation holds the shape of a lifetime. Although from the “whole life” perspective we can speak of moments combining to make a life story, the whole giving meaning to each of the parts, this point of view can tend to devalue each moment. From the “eternal moment” perspective, our lives unfold one moment at a time and the quality we give our present moment is the quality of our life. The life we are given is given to us one moment at a time. Therefore we would live more fulfilling lives if we cultivated each moment (and each conversation) as an enormous opportunity to live more awarely, compassionately, courageously, appreciatively, and so on. (I advocate using both of these points of view, the whole life and the eternal moment, and alternating between them, as a way of thinking about one’s life.)
Because we converse with one another day in and day out, it is easy lose track of how significant all these individual moments and everyday conversations are in our journey of becoming. I hope the arguments I have just presented will inspire you to see the familiar as strange, to see your everyday conversations as full of wonderful possibilities. No matter where we find ourselves on the spectrum of development, I believe, each of us was born to embody all these qualities-in-action and the capacity to grow more fully in these directions lies within each of us at every moment.
The challenges we face in striving to become more fully human
That we have within us these wonderful capacities does not mean that it will be easy to develop them. Having brain folds for speech does not automatically provide us with language, and being born with lots of muscle cells does not provide us with fully-formed muscles. Similarly, my experience has been that developing more of these inherently human qualities and nurturing them in others is the most challenging task in a human life. (I actually believe that task is what we are here for.) So in concluding this essay, allow me to share with you what I see as some of the most significant challenges and barriers to this kind of human development and possible responses to those challenges.
The momentum of the old ways. First of all, however we talk, listen, interrupt, fight, nurture and/or demean one another has a great amount of psychological ‘momentum’ behind it. We have been practicing doing it that way for a long time, we identify with our current conversation style as an important part of our being, and the style connects us to the people who taught us to talk this way (usually our parents). Not all of this momentum is bad. If we did not have some established patterns of our own we would be led astray by the first pied piper or cult guru who passed through town. But the momentum of the styles we learned as children and developed up to now can keep us trapped in ways of relating that need changing, that will never bring us any real fulfillment or happiness. For me, the answer to this problem is not to try to forcibly break a person’s identification with their present pattern, as is the case in Marine boot camp, cult indoctrination and some drug treatment programs. From my perspective that still leaves a person completely other-directed, without an inner compass to follow. For me the answer to the problem of momentum is to raise the issue of momentum, to challenge people to wrestle with that issue consciously and to choose consciously the people they want to emulate, the heroes they want to follow and the qualities they want to embody.
The mental workout of paying attention. Second of all, aside from the effort it might take to change our ways of communicating, it takes a considerable amount of mental effort to just focus one’s attention on conversations and the qualities they express. In contrast to an object or a single event, each conversation is like a little novel: a complex sequence of events, each one of which is meaningful because of its relationship to all the others. As each new conversational event takes place, we have to imagine the many possible meanings it might have in relation to the various conversational and life events that came before it. Beyond the mental workout demanded by the need to remember and interweave long sequences of actions, paying conscious attention to the qualities of those action sequences requires that we exercise our capacities for abstract thought and self-observation. Forewarned of these mental demands, we can develop more realistic expectations and make a place for more practice in our lives (more discussions, support groups, long talks, less TV).
The tension among virtues. A third challenge is that many of the qualities-in-action that make us most fully human are in deep and creative tension with one another. For example, while we are told from an early age both to be kind and to tell the truth, it takes years of practice to learn how to bring both these qualities into the same encounter. The same can be said for the many problem-solving situations in life that require us to think both honestly and creatively. The developmental theorist Robert Kegan has gone so far as to describe the human personality as, figuratively speaking, stretched into existence by the tension between our need to commune with others and our equally strong need to assert ourselves. It appears that our personhood is like a living fabric which grows by being simultaneously pulled strongly in many directions. Knowing that our development will be a challenging balancing act rather than a placid flowering, we can adopt a more forgiving attitude toward the setbacks in our own development and the development of others.
Resisting the short-term apparent benefits of deception and coercion. A fourth challenge might be called, “the eternal temptations.” In the course of living, it often seems much easier to tell less than the whole truth, both to others and to ourselves. And it also can seem much easier to try to get what we want by threatening other people rather than by negotiating with them and honoring their needs. While lying, self-deception and bullying may give a person some momentary advantages, relying on such maneuvers will make it impossible to form long-term relationships of trust and cooperation. And the lack of such warm, supportive relationships is one of the deepest wounds a person can experience. If we deceive or bully our friends and partners in life, we soon will not have any friends or partners. The sooner in life we figure this out, the better off we will be, but will to resist these temptations is a deep lesson and we may or may not get the help we need to learn it. One measure of a culture is how it helps its members outgrow these temptations by developing a long-term sense of relationship-building and community-building, how it helps its members make the journey from coercing to cooperating. Since most societies rely on quite a bit of coercion to maintain social order we are, in general, more likely to learn how to obey than how to cooperate. This leads us to the final challenge in my list…
An often hostile environment. To me, a fifth challenge to our development as persons comes from the particular social world in which we live. Although our fulfillment as persons may depend on our cultivation of the qualities-in-action I described in the opening pages of this paper, the society we live in may not want its members to be all that aware, honest, creative or courageous. Consider, for example, the social pressure during almost a century of American history (1776-1860) for many Americans to ignore the glaring contradiction between the institution of slavery and the national ideal that “all men are created equal.” Or the pressure on ordinary Germans to look the other way as their supposedly refined and highly civilized nation descended into bloodshed and madness. Or the current culture of violence-as-entertainment, which, in countless movies, books and video games, celebrates and idealizes cruelty, injury and murder, making kindness more and more unthinkable.
As Arno Gruen points out in The Insanity of Normality, our struggle for integrity is often, unfortunately, a struggle against the socially accepted world around us. Following Gruen, I see us encountering this taken-for-granted insanity in many forms, as lying bosses, alcoholic parents, segregated restaurants, violent TV shows, programs to build weapons of mass destruction that are really collective suicide devices, and state governments that supposedly save their citizens money by running lotteries that take even more money from those same citizens. In terms of living more honestly and awarely, and developing more of all the other qualities-in-action I have discussed in this essay, one would have to admit that we are surrounded by truly bad examples.
When we numb ourselves enough to blot all of this out of awareness, we numb ourselves enough to lose track of our own lives, the very lives we were hoping to protect and cultivate. If we could consciously acknowledge that some aspects of our world are going to be hostile to our fulfillment as persons, we might be able to find healthier ways of protecting ourselves. (Spending less time in front of the TV and more time in nature with friends and family, for example.) Becoming a person would be a challenge even if we did not have large companies offering us 24-hour-a-day kickboxing to stir us up and alcohol to calm us down, an endless stream of large-screen bad news to depress us and then Prozac to cheer us up. Between the blind faith that everything is all right and the paranoia that the world is out to injure and destroy us lies the realistic acknowledgment that we will probably not get much help in becoming persons from the dominant institutions of our culture. This realistic disappointment could bear good fruit. We might get more actively involved both in creating the life and personhood we want to live and creating the kind of world in which we would like to live it.
The seven arguments presented in the middle of this paper have totally convinced me that we become persons largely in and through the qualities of our interaction with others, especially conversations. The last five considerations just given convince me with equal force that steering one’s conversations and one’s life toward genuineness, creativity, compassion, etc., will never be easy. But this struggle is what will allow us to feel more fully alive and more deeply human. The good news is that we can approach all the virtues of full humanness one conversation at a time. Our lives are, among other things, a series of conversations, and therein lies one of the most significant doorways to personal development. We vote with each conversation, both for what kind of person we want to become, and for what kind of world we want the world to be.