An image that has consistently appealed to me as a metaphor appropriate to human psychology is that of pathways and crossroads. Human beings may be, as the biologists and pharmaceutical companies tell us, the sum total of DNA, synapses, neurochemicals, that our bodies comprise, but there’s more to us than the flesh and bone robot much of contemporary psychology has reduced us to. There’s even more than the unconscious motivations Freud and his followers ascribed to humanity and much more than a conditioned being, more complex but no less strictly determined than a rat in a Skinner box. Throwing in vague references to the effects of “environment” doesn’t add a great deal to current science’s narrow view of human psychology as an object without a subject.
It is in jettisoning the conscious person and ignoring the choices that person makes that psychology and psychiatry have cut the heart and soul out of being human. Above all else, it is consciousness that defines us as being human. Without consciousness we are nothing but automatons, no matter how biological rather than mechanical, no matter how complex. It is because we are not robots that our lives matter. Robots are neither tragic nor heroic, because, they do nothing more than follows the laws of cause and effect and of chance variation.
As we travel the pathways of our lives, we do not, hopefully, do so in an empty-headed trance like the terrifying Night of the Living Dead creatures. It is because we do think and feel that we are human.
As we travel these pathways, we have experiences and these experiences become who we are. They are not only the memories of the past, but they are part of the fabric of who we are in the present. Freud and those who followed made clear that this fabric includes experiences that we have selectively forgotten, perhaps even devoting major psychic energy to continue to forget, to repress. Our experiences affect us whether we can bring them forth into our awareness or not. This does not mean that our conscious experience is irrelevant, but only that it is partial, incomplete, perhaps even misleading.
Conscious experience is not the whole of who we are, but it is as close as we can get at any given moment.
As we travel these pathways, we are constantly coming to crossroads, points where we must decide how to proceed. We may try to retreat to the past, may detour around what seem overly formidable obstacles, may forge straight ahead into the face of dangers. We may even try to stay in one place, to avoid deciding how to proceed. Of course, this is a decision in itself. Since the world is itself is in motion, even staying in one place, avoiding choice, has consequences.
Much of psychology and psychiatry seem to diminish the importance of the process of decision. Whether by placing responsibility on our genes, our environment, our biochemical make-up, or our unconscious, the conscious living being that we are often seems shoved to a secondary role in our lives. In fact, we are constantly deciding, constantly acting in ways that will bring us deeper or more shallow intimacy, richer or thinner satisfaction, fuller or more empty creativity, more substantial or more cowering integrity. It is true that our conscious sense of the choices we make may be less clear than we might wish. We may deceive ourselves about our own motives or the consequences of our actions. We define ourselves not only by what we believe we are choosing but also by what we actualize in our choices.
The distinction between pathway and crossroads is not always clear. We may believe we are simply following a path based on past decisions, when we are in fact subtly deviating from our presumed route. The converse is also true: We may believe we are making a momentous decision when we are merely continuing a path we began long before.
In a sense, we are always deciding and simultaneously always continuing along paths set in motion long before. Nearly any well-written novel or carefully constructed play or screenplay captures this aspect of live better than most contemporary “scientific” psychology. Academic psychology’s love affair with statistics and contemporary psychiatry’s love affair with pharmaceuticals reduces human nature, respectively, to measurable variables and symptoms. In the process, much of what makes human life matter is lost. We are who we are because of what we have experienced and because of the choices we make now about who we are to become. It matters whether we were mistreated as children and it matters whether we mistreat our own children. It matters whether those who cared for us were honest with us and it matters whether we are honest with those we care about as adults. We carry the weight of acts of kindness and of hatred, whether done to us or by us. Our experiences and our choices are who we are.