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Basic Goodness in our Troubled World

Goodness is defined as the best part of anything. Goodness is surely the best part of human beings. It is when we act with kindness, generosity, strength and integrity. Henry David Thoreau said that “goodness is the only investment that never fails”. It never fails because when we engage others with an attitude of goodness we produce what we are biologically and spiritually programmed to do. We produce the hormone oxytocin, which has been called the hormone of compassion which is elicited when we bond through the relational qualities that goodness embodies. We all possess basic goodness but depending on how resilient we are in facing day to day challenges this inherent quality can recede into the background of our lives.

What interferes with our basic nature?

We probably all remember being told to “be good” by our parents and those of us raised in one of the major religions remember being told to “do good” in the service of others. Over time these phrases have been taken for granted and have seemed to have lost the basic message they were intended to deliver. If we do not appreciate the value of goodness we are unlikely to live from this perspective. Human beings are kinder to each other when we feel safe and secure. With the rise of aggression in our culture, the threat of terrorism, the increase of bullying in our schools and in our workplace we find ourselves in a position of fear. Fear creates anxiety, anxiety creates distorted thinking and ultimately distorted thinking creates an inflexible, overly simplified view of the world. These recent changes in our culture have promoted a lack of good will toward others and fostered more self absorption and less outward giving.

                                        Black and White Thinking

Studies have proven that when we feel secure bias and prejudice is markedly reduced. Perception and mood are closely related, when we feel understood and secure we are more likely to perceive accurately and more likely to do good rather than do harm.  Social psychologists have long established that avoidant or anxious individuals will bolster their own self worth by imagining that their group, whether ethnic, religious or otherwise is superior. This defensive posture creates rigid thinking, the black and white perceptions that promote simplified theories of human beings and their affiliations. Rigidity protects a fragile sense of self; it creates an artificial road map that gives an insecure person answers and direction to life complexities. Establishing a world view on anything but the truth will ultimately create more and more fear. Anxious people avoid new ideas and new ways of thinking, while avoidant people run from new challenges, both fearing loss of self esteem if they give up their entrenched beliefs.

                                      To Do Good We Must Feel Good

If we have a solid sense of self we are far more likely to be gracious to groups other than our own. We emerge with greater tolerance of differences when we have been loved, respected and understood in the early parts of our lives. If we received the empathic resonance all young people crave we grow with optimism and with an excitement about learning new and novel ideas from new and novel people. It begins in our families. If our parents had friends of diversity, if they were open to learning new possibilities to replace less functional ideas we are likely to value and feel happy when learning. This is the opposite experience of those who grew up in insecure households where the enemy was outside and the only good people remain inside. Goodness then takes on a distorted meaning promoting the idea that we should only be and do good to our own, not those unlike us. If you talk to any early childhood educator they will tell you it takes only a few days in the initial school year to identify the empathic children who love life, love learning and most importantly love making friends. Knowing how to express goodness makes us happy, more energetic and more resilient. We have more skills to manage daily living. We are not limited in our pursuits of knowledge and we are not limited in the array of people we can befriend. Young children feel the way we feel but they don’t think the way we think, therefore learning must take place by doing and feeling. When learning is recorded on a visceral level it is embedded in the deepest part of our memory bank. Experience shapes our early outlook of ourselves and the world, children pay far less attention to what we say and far more attention to what we do.  The old saying, “ do as I say not as I do” is an hypocritical message based on myth not on the true realities of how  learning actually takes place. We are the models, the teachers who must convey a sense of excitement about doing good for all people.

                                             Teaching Goodness

To uncover the basic goodness in each of us we must make a disciplined effort. We must recognize that goodness is part of our being; it is at the heart of our humanness. We have to move away from excluding anyone based on bias and prejudice. Goodness is not just for those who adhere to the Judeo-Christian ethic or the Buddhist or Muslim ethic or for that matter goodness is as much inherent to atheists as to any group. We are all born with this inherent capacity. But what if we have been raised to believe that one group is superior to another, or that several of our thinking patterns are superior to others. I can assure if you think your education, race, religion, vocation, income, or location make you superior you are profoundly mistaken and doomed to a life of superficial relationships.

We teach goodness by the way we live, not by holding on to fixed ideas to shore up our sense of self. Be honest with yourself, acknowledge situations and people who threaten you and go about resolving these issues rather than punishing innocent people for being their authentic selves. You will never be comfortable in your own skin unless you have the courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable and discover where you need to grow and learn. In many instances we need to un-learn mistaken positions we have held on to defensively. Old hurts are recorded deeply in the brain; we are programmed to remember what caused us fear. Fear creates rigid thinking which leads to false theories and inaccurate judgments. Re-evaluate your past with today’s wisdom and in the process you will release your dormant innate goodness. Thomas Paine, one of our Founding Fathers when asked about his philosophy of life, replied “My country is the world, my religion is to do good”. Our world would surely be a better place if his words became synonymous with our actions on a daily basis.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Author of The Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.


What is a Spiritual Learner?

What is a Spiritual Learning

 The spiritual learner is someone who realizes there is something beyond ourselves that influences and accounts for life events—an intangible that cannot completely be explained. For many this is the work of God; for others it is the work of the “Universe;” and for others it is simply an undefined spiritual experience. A spiritual learner is a person who takes in information from diverse sources, and in terms of religion, he or she is a person who realizes and accepts that all the major religions have made worthwhile contributions. A spiritual learner is an open-minded person who expects to continue to gain wisdom about the human condition throughout life. He or she expects to revise theories and change perspective as new learning takes place. He or she is not wedded to one way of thinking, one psychology or one religious orientation. This is important to living a balanced, healthy, high-achieving life because we are constantly faced with new situations that require that we adapt and change.  

The perspective of being a spiritual learner can be applied to most aspects of life; any fixed way of thinking and behaving that has rendered an unhealthy outcome should be reevaluated. Individuals of this persuasion are not threatened to reconsider behavioral patterns that have become entrenched but may need adjusting, or may need to be totally abandoned. In my family, for instance, the men were all heavy smokers. It seemed like the thing to do and it seemed perfectly healthy for the World War 11 generation. It was endorsed at the time by many doctors and scientists who were paid by the tobacco industry. As a young child I pleaded with my father to stop smoking, but it was to no avail. I could hear him cough every morning; it just didn’t seem like it was good for him but I had no data to support my argument. Ultimately the habit he had found to be his saving grace in World War II took his life at age 66.

My father was just beginning to turn the corner in his thinking. Of course his severe addiction altered his intention on most occasions, but the day he died he was down from four packs of Chesterfields a day to four cigarettes. He was beginning to employ a spiritual learner perspective to his addiction when time ran out. He was entertaining the possibility that his belief about the innocence of smoking was wrong and he was starting to consider an alternate perspective. He realized that his behavior was robbing his spirit of energy (he was sick more often, had shortness of breath as his body was failing him and his spirit for life was diminishing.) 

           Learning Connects Us!                                                                                                                    

In this regard I believe that part of the appeal of Tibetan Buddhism for Americans is the ongoing efforts of the Dali Lama to learn and integrate new findings. He has often stated that Buddhism is an ancient religion with many ancient texts. Yet he has indicated that the teaching of these texts needs to change according to new knowledge. He has displayed openness to scientific knowledge, particularly the neuroplasicity of the brain. This kind of orientation to life makes our days more interesting, increases energy and allows us to be part of a wider world. We are more connected to an array of individuals and experiences. Spiritual learners are invested in discovering and experiencing whatever enlivens the human spirit in a healthy way.

 Being a spiritual learner naturally gives us the tools to rewrite our story; remember part of the definition is “to learn from all credible sources,” including ourselves. This means we now have an opportunity to take in accurate information about ourselves, our beliefs, our career paths and most importantly, our culture, country, and world. We cannot live free of the curse if we are not concerned with people throughout the world. Personal liberation requires an awareness of the fact that certain societies, cultures, and organizations create systems that enslave others If we are self-absorbed and just tend to those closest to us who are most like us, we create a small non-diverse world which limits our personal and spiritual growth. In essence, the well-being of others is our well-being. There is no separation for the spiritual learner. Our story can now be rewritten because we trust the opinions of others, and in a global sense, we trust that those around the world have important insights and wisdom to contribute.

                     A Life of Truth

Spiritual learners rewrite their unsupportive story in on-going fashion. They have developed hope and trust in others and have come to realize that self-learning and learning about the world is endless. It is exciting to have this philosophy in your heart as learning no longer becomes threatening, but rather becomes a constant way of enhancing your sense of self. You become liberated. Open to all those around you, and most importantly you are open to the world at large. You now are a contributor to a better society because you are free to be a genuine participant. No more cover ups; no more need to protect a false story. The greatest feeling is to know the old story is mostly made-up.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Rewriting our story is never just about our rearranging our internal view of ourselves. It is also about rearranging all we have learned that is inaccurate. For instance, baby boomers grew up believing German and Japanese people were evil and despicable. Turns out they thought the same of us and the propaganda of all three countries turns out to be false. Today, many young people are growing up thinking Muslims are violent, despicable, evil people. Some Americans pull Muslims out of their cars and beat them. What a horrible travesty; a misinformed manner of promoting violence and maintaining an unsupportive story of ourselves and many others. Cutting off the opportunity for empathic understanding and vital connections. Remember that any distortion of the truth, in us or with others, leads to self and societal destruction.                                                                                                                             Spiritual learners are committed to the truth about themselves, their families, friends and all those who inhabit our world. We are committed to examining every bias in our minds and hearts so that we live in harmony with the truth. If we are in opposition to the truth for fear and other defensive reasons, we are much more prone to developing and maintaining the curse. Why? Because we are then constantly misdirected in terms of how to feel comfortable within ourselves and in the world; we are always hiding behind mythical beliefs about ourselves and others.