The Human Condition: Struggles of Cosmic Insignificance

The polarized mind — a reaction to the human condition and feelings of cosmic insignificance — fixates on one point of view to the utter exclusion of all others.

| October 2013

Polarizing Events Within the Mind

"The Polarized Mind" by Kirk J. Schneider, PhD, draws from the standpoint of existential psychology, and details how the polarized mind has ravaged leaders and cultures throughout history.

Photo By Fotolia/Andrew Kuzmin

In The Polarized Mind (University Professors Press, 2013), Kirk J. Schneider, PhD, states that an individual, stricken with one absolute belief to the exclusion or even demonization of others, leads to bigotry, tyranny, and vengefulness. Dr. Schneider draws on his work in the field of humanistic depth psychology to posit that polarization is caused by a sense of cosmic insignificance, heightened in the trials of personal trauma. In this selection from "The Bases of Polarization," the nature of the human condition plays a fundamental role in the formation of polarization in the human mind.

The Bases of Polarization

Throughout human history, people have repeatedly swung between extremes. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (1986) noted these swings in his classic book The Cycles of American History. In this book, Schlesinger articulated the continuous political swings in U.S. history, particularly those between conservatism and liberalism, rigidity and permissiveness. However, there are many other forms of such swings in many other times and places.

The usual explanations for the swings of history, as well as individuals, are cultural, political, and biological. The founders of the United States swung away from the British motherland because of political and religious oppression. Certain nineteenth century abolitionists resorted to armed struggle because of unrelenting federal support of slavery. Post World War I Germany amassed a titanic arsenal, in part to avenge the humiliation it perceived at the Treaty of Versailles. McCarthyite anti-communists swelled in number following the advent of Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe. And so on. Schlesinger provides a cogent summation of these various dynamics:

"The roots of…cyclical self-sufficiency doubtless lie deep in the natural life of humanity. There is a cyclical pattern in organic nature — in the tides, in the seasons, in the night and day, in the systole and diastole of the human heart….People can never be fulfilled for long either in the public or in the private sector. We try one, then the other, and frustration compels a change in course. Moreover, however effective a particular course may be in meeting one set of troubles, it generally falters and fails when new troubles arise."

At the individual level, too, the conventional wisdom embraces both cultural and biological explanations. Depression is now frequently considered a biologically based disorder, rooted in an imbalance of Serotonin in the brain. Anorexia, too, is often considered a biologically and culturally based condition, stemming from an overemphasis on thinness in Western fashions. Obsessive-compulsiveness, mania, criminality, and many other forms of suffering are also considered combinations of biologically or genetically based chemical imbalances and familial or cultural influences.

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For me, the greatest mystery of all is why some people are open to change and growth, while it seems that most other people are, at best, open only to that change and growth, and by such means, as suit their current predispositions. I can easily cite the circumstances and experiences that opened me up. A high school history teacher was advising me and a group of friends regarding setting up and managing an informal debating group. (It was the mid-60's and this was not anywhere as rare as it is now.) The teacher's advice was as expected regarding choosing a subject and drafting a resolution, procedure, time limits and rules of order; but then she changed my life by recommending that we leave the choosing of sides, pro or con, until a coin toss moments before the debate began. That way, not knowing which side someone would get, we'd have to prepare to argue both sides of an issue. Not long after this, I told the teacher she'd placed me in a situation where, for the rest of my life, I'd have to choose between doing the work necessary for informed and reasoned opinions, or knowingly lie to myself. She laughed and said: "Exactly!" But this idea didn't have the same impact on most of my friends, and as far as I know, it was only a life-changer for me, and I still don't know why. It obviously wasn't intelligence or education or anything like that. The history of our species makes that clear. So it remains a mystery, at least to me, save for another mystery, the mystery of wisdom, that elusive quality, both process and product, which disposes someone to be open to the truth, and also disposes that person to accept the truth, and allow oneself to be changed by it, or to make changes where required, and to grow, which in turn leads to a greater openness to the truth, and so on, around and around in an ascending spiral.