An Existential-Humanistic View of the Current U.S. Political Situation

by Bob Edelstein on October 1, 2004

A Call to Higher Consciousness: Are We Listening?

Crisis in the ideogramic written language of Chinese is made of the signs for danger and opportunity. Crisis provides the opportunity for change and growth as well as for regression or stagnation. I think it is a fitting symbol for these times.

This article describes the contrast between humanistic values and recent U.S. federal government actions, and looks for deeper meaning through a humanistic and an existential analysis. I conclude with my plea for each of us to take responsibility for moving the world into a more humanistic way of being. In considering humanistic values, I refer to the mission statement for the Association for Humanistic Psychology: AHP principles include integrity in personal and professional interactions, authenticity and trust in human relationships, compassion and deep listening skills, and respect for the uniqueness, mystery, interdependence, value, and essential oneness of all beings.

I want to create a more humanistic orientation in the world. I know I am not alone in trying to make meaning of what has been happening in the U.S. What is exciting and hopeful about this time is the absolute outrage expressed by millions of people in this country and throughout the world. I think of Paul Tillich’s quote, “Man resists objectification, and if his resistance is broken, man himself is broken.” We are not broken, and I celebrate that. Our outrage is speaking loudly and clearly against wrong actions.

I believe those of us who strive to live by humanistic values and want to promote a humanistic vision want the following:

  • We want to live in a world where the focus is on cooperation and trust. In contrast, the current U.S. Administration blatantly disregarded the United Nations recommendations for dealing with Iraq, opting to forgo broad international cooperation and support. It chose to not trust the UN approach to monitoring and discovering whether or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Instead, the U.S. President emphasized that we do not need a permission slip to protect our country, and initiated a preemptive war.
  • We want to live in a world where we practice wise stewardship for the survival and well-being of humanity and the planet. In contrast, this Administration has refused to sign the Kyoto Agreement, whose intent is to create aligned efforts by countries throughout the world to avert the further development and dangers of global warming. The United States is one of the few countries refusing to sign. Given the magnitude of our consumption and its impact on the environment, the consequences of our refusal to cooperate are immense.
  • We want an educational system that supports the whole person including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual growth. While this Administration claims to support all children in achieving basic literacy (certainly a worthy goal), it does not address the development of the whole child.
  • We want leaders we can trust, who take responsibility for their actions, who embrace the concept of “the buck stops here.” Yet we are told that it’s the fault of bad intelligence that we have found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There is a blatant dismissal of ownership as to how important this was for us to initiate the invasion of Iraq. Ultimately, the President is responsible for the intelligence that came to him and all decisions made under his watch.
  • We want leaders who are not afraid to acknowledge their vulnerabilities or lack of
  • answers. But as President Bush told Tim Russert of Meet the Press, regardless of how polarized the country is, he knows he’s right and he’s not going to change his mind.
  • We want politicians who value the depth of their inner life and the complexities of being human, who engage in deep reflection before making decisions. Again, this is in contrast to the President, who prides himself on being a man of action and a wartime president. He creates a false dichotomy between action and thinking, instead of realizing that the most powerful actions come from deep reflection.
  • We want to live in a world where every sector of our society is treated justly and humanely. This is in contrast to the impacts of tax cuts that generate deficits that will likely indebt our children and their children for generations to come.
  • We want a world where diversity is embraced and where various viewpoints and attitudes make us richer. This is in contrast to a strong emphasis on one right way, with any other ways being wrong. The attitude is “You’re either with us or against us,” and dissent is labeled unpatriotic. We see the rigidity of “one right way” in the idea that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. This “one right way” is so strong that proponents want a constitutional amendment eliminating any other possibilities. This approach implies that human beings cannot be trusted to decide what is best for themselves.
  • We want to live in a world where hope and faith are emphasized, not fear and suspicion. We want to help our neighbors, not spy on them. In contrast we now have the Patriot Act, wherein our civil liberties are reduced.
  • We want to live in a world where we reflect on world events, and consider what those events mean in relationship to who we are and how we can make ourselves better people and the world a better place. We want to see if there is a message in the 9/11 attacks that calls us to explore changing some of our economic, social, and political agendas. We want to heal the causes of the wounds, and not just respond with a counterattack. We want to thoughtfully consider where we may be exploiting other countries and/or where we may not be living in full integrity, instead of insisting that the whole meaning of the attacks is that there are “axes of evil” and the answer is to get rid of the enemy. We want to learn how best to live with others, recognizing that “us” and “them” is also “we.”
  • We want to live in a world where sensitivity and compassion are valued.
  • We want to live in a world where openness and dialogue are encouraged. Whereas, we have a refusal to support investigations such as the 9/11 Commission by barring access to documents, delaying their delivery to committees, and blocking officials from testifying.
  • We want to live in a world where truth, integrity, and honor matter. This is in contrast to President Bush basing the Iraq war on a strong link between Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist agenda and Saddam Hussein, a link that has proven to be absolutely false. It is also in contrast to his refusing to denounce the vicious television advertisements stating that John Kerry is lying about his war record, a false accusation leveled by President Bush’s supporters.

Humanistic Analysis

For a humanistic perspective on this crisis/opportunity, we can refer to Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation, which perceives the individual to be an integrated, organized whole. To move toward our fullest functioning, we must go through a hierarchy of needs. As we do so, ultimately we are motivated by our “being” values and live more self-actualized lives. As human beings we develop in layers, first addressing our basic needs: physical, safety, and security, and then our needs for love and belonging, then esteem, both self-esteem and esteem by others. Finally, we address our needs for self-actualization: wherein being values such as truth, justice, and beauty are in the foreground, as is the recognition of the connectedness of all human beings and the desire to live one’s life with integrity and authenticity. The preoccupation with one’s immediate ego needs (to survive and/or to look good) moves to the back-ground, and the need to make the world a better place by our presence and actions comes to the foreground. Until our needs are adequately met at each level, it is difficult to proceed powerfully to the next level.

I believe our current Presidential Administration has been a catalyst for and reflection of that portion of our country developmentally stuck on their safety/security or esteem/ belonging needs. Fear is constantly reinforced. Our days are now color coded to let us know just how afraid to be. Simultaneously, we are told to just live as usual: go to the mall and buy something. This cross-message is confusing and disturbing, as the deeper component is the constant invitation to fear. This supports compliance without question, as people look to the government for protection.

Our economic fears are now greatly enhanced. We have a weakened economy and expanded unemployment. We have health and welfare benefits being cut for many individuals. The gap between the haves and have-nots is widening.

When we feel trapped in the safety/security/survival zone, the reaction can be “I don’t know what is best, I’m just scraping by to survive, and I need a father figure to tell me what to do.” Ironically, this is one reason why the President will get votes from some of the people he is exploiting the most. Decisiveness is equated with strength, and the wisdom behind decisions is not considered. Might makes right. A person who gives the impression of being in charge is appealing for people who are in fear and worry about their survival.

I believe that we have been living under an Administration stuck at the level of trying to meet their belonging and self-esteem needs and operating from a need to be powerful and right (self-worth). This resonates with Americans who are also dealing with similar esteem and belonging themes. President Bush takes pride in being “one of the people,” and not an intellectual. I believe he appeals, unconsciously, to many people who question their own self-esteem and successes. He creates affinity as the “loveable loser” who won’t give up.

Existential Analysis

For an existential perspective on this crisis/opportunity, we can refer to George Kelly’s theory of the psychology of personal constructs and James Bugental’s theory of the self and world construct system. To function, we as human beings have to define ourselves: who we are and what our world is. We define our existence. In so doing, we make meaning of our existence. We have free will in this, so our definitions can change over time. We refer to this process as discovering our self and world constructs. An existential analysis looks at where we get stuck in our self and world constructs. We then have the option to exercise free will to make modifications in our lives. I believe the current Administration stands for some of the following self and world constructs:

  1. To exist and have meaning, one needs to have an enemy to hate and to fight against.
  2. Life is black and white. There are absolute rights and wrongs.There is little to no gray zone. It’s an either/or world.
  3. The world is not to be trusted. We need to watch out for ourselves and our own.
  4. People, as individuals, are not to be trusted.
  5. Power is not to be shared, and openness is not to be encouraged. Executive decisions and “power over” others are executed by the “enlightened” few. Power rests outside of and above the individual citizen.
  6. There is no divinity or God within. Our salvation lies in recognizing the inherent superiority of an external God and submitting to that authority. The power is outside of us.

A more humanistic perspective-allowing self/world constructs:

  1. We are beings in the world. We are part of an interconnected world community that we honor and trust.
  2. Mutuality, dialogue, and sharing the power – power with – are the means to a more just and humane world.
  3. We expect to live in a world of cooperation, where collaboration and teamwork is the norm.
  4. While a sense of discernment is certainly important, people are inherently good and they can be trusted.
  5. Life, by nature, is complex. People who live more fulfilling lives integrate this complexity into their choices and actions. Flexibility is a valued and valuable quality.
  6. Power and wisdom lie within. We can trust and rely on ourselves to know what is best for us. Spirituality and divinity are inherent in our being. God is without and within.

As we become more aware and consciously choose to shift to humanistic values individually, the world shifts, too. We saw a powerful expression of humanistic values when, for the first time in history, millions of people from around the world protested the war against Iraq – before the war started. I found this to be very moving, and significant.

Our current political situation calls us to look at our self/world constructs, individually and collectively. Viewed through an existential-humanistic lens, our individual growth contributes directly to the collective experience. We become part of the solution as we move toward more inclusive and expansive self/world constructs, live from our “being” values, and more fully realize our self-actualization needs.

I propose that as co-creators of a more humanistic way of living in the U.S. and in the world – we are called to manifest a higher vision. We are called to:

  1. Live from our larger selves. Aim to better understand those who appear to be stuck in inhibited self/world constructs (with the primary focus being on safety/security and/or esteem/ belonging needs). Recognize this as an opportunity to generate compassion for others. It is also an opportunity to be conscious and compassionate with our own stuckness.
  2. Promote affective, holistic education, which takes into account the total development of human beings – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual – and their needs.
  3. Engage spiritually in a way that respects and embraces all religions, traditions, and paths.
  4. Ecologically care for the earth by embracing responsible stewardship in its many forms.
  5. Take good care of our bodies. We want everyone to be able to maintain his or her physical health and vitality. We want to assume responsibility for our own health and well-being, with health care systems that support us in doing so.
  6. Take good care of our mental and emotional health. This includes advocating therapy as a first choice, not a last resort – throughout one’s life – to process feelings and needs and to connect with the authentic self.
  7. Create a strong world community which promotes political cooperation among leaders as well as citizen-based initiatives and connections.
  8. Create a political consciousness that celebrates dialogue, openness, and trust. Embrace authenticity, demonstrate integrity, and engage mutuality to resolve common issues of humanity in a positive, cooperative, unifying way.

This vision builds upon the work done by people involved in the human potential and humanistic psychology movements over the last forty years. One example is the political dialogue facilitated at the Rust Conference in 1985, in which world leaders came together to focus on the Central American challenge. Carl Rogers and colleagues facilitated a person-centered process, with an outcome of reduced tensions and more open lines of communication.

Hostility was transformed into trust. Carl Rogers was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Another shining light is the work of John Vasconcellos, California state senator and former President of the AHP. He has developed A Politics of Trust Network, a powerful humanistic vision supporting a progressive political agenda. As he states in the December 2002/January 2003 AHP Perspective, “. . . the Politics of Trust champions the virtues of self-esteem, inclusion and diversity, and collaboration as pragmatic alternatives to the cynicism and divisiveness so predominant in politics today.”

I implore each of us who is passionate about a humanistic way of living to heed the call. We have the opportunity to further the humanistic vision and to develop practical ways of bringing these values more powerfully into the mainstream.


(c) Bob Edelstein. This article was published in the October-November 2004 edition of the AHP Perspective.