Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
November 2014 - Volume 14, No. 11
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Nature and Human Nature - a differentiation

In recent years, I’ve developed a specific differentiation between what we generally call Nature (the natural world around us), and Human Nature (the general operation and patterns of human beings). 

Alfred Korzybski in his general semantics reminds us, “the map is not the territory.” So what I offer here is only a map, my own map, which as all maps cannot contain the entirety of its territory. But I wish to share so it may help others to further navigate and expand the questions and problems of why we humans act and think as we do. 


The natural world seems to have an inherent sense of balance or self-ordering by which when one element changes, the larger whole will rearrange itself to reestablish a homeostasis, or new balance of things. I’ve long been aware than indigenous peoples look to nature as their primary textbook of life. It teaches us how to know, honor and emulate from within a sense of the balance of all things.  And as my northern woodland Native American friends say, “From balance comes all blessings.”

Human Nature

Human nature, in contrast, for some reason seems to lack this inherent sense of balance. We must learn it from external sources, or from each other, or a mature human community. I witness from within my work a general tendency among humans to want to divide or split things. We are great at the art of projection. If there’s something within ourselves we don’t like or want to be rid of, it’s ‘second nature’ to want to project (blame) it onto someone else. That’s the basis of ritual sacrifice. And in a political year, it’s even more evident. All the ills of the commonwealth are the fault of the other party. And in an economy where resources are so minimal for health, education, infrastructure, and other matters of the public good, billions of dollars are spent to bend the voters’ opinions on who is worst. It would be comical except for the waste and suffering it seems to exacerbate. But, it seems, that’s human nature at its most ‘natural.’  

William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” was first published in 1954.  I was 13 years old, so my entire adolescence was spent within the debates it engendered.

So you can begin to see my vision of the great gulf between the inner laws of the natural world and those of the human world.  And it’s this bi-polar map that helps me keep my head straight and do my work among my people.

The Bi-polar pattern

This first became clear when diagramming bi-polar mood disorder. Using the older designations of depression and mania, I’ll use a double “J” curve (like a broadened “U”) showing the great resources to be manic, and then the great resources to be depressed - with scarce few in the middle to hold it all together. So it flips back and forth, lacking a central stability or meeting place. I saw this wasn’t just a particular mood disorder, but as broadly inherent to all human nature. When in doubt we divide, and find comfort in remaining divided.  

Our current United States Congress is an example - the two sides are so polarized there is scarce any common middle ground for effective governing. The place of any effective leadership is in that (empty) middle - where these days scarcely any human has the constitution to survive without collapsing onto either side. And sadly, the office of President is so readily dishonored by the combatants.   

Let me spell out some specifics.


I feel it’s the place of ‘culture’ to provide and support the whole spectrum, by giving it a strong center. By culture, I include our educational institutions, religions, our history, our customs, our art and sense of identity. Each of these has the ability to hold it all together for us, to contain our diversity in a way that helps us work together and honor each other’s voice. The term ‘diversity’ has recently emerged to help repair and refocus. But there’s a great danger here. Each of these ‘culture’ elements also has the ‘human nature’ ability to themselves split us into polarities by which we can so easily demonize the other side of the split.

Historically it’s been public education that has been our greatest cultural unifier. But as education has been parochialized as well as marginalized by the economic powers that emerge in charge these days, it has lost much of its culture healing purpose in favor of just training a work force.

Marriage was once a strong container within which the mysterious energies of sexuality, love, family coherence and child-rearing was strong enough to contain and refine the natural struggles of human gender. I now find so much poverty in the training and knowledge of such matters that many couples are nigh helpless in the face of ‘splitting’ energies. 

Religion can both easily divide and yet also hold disparate elements together. I recently spent some time studying the Biblical Ten Commandments. They basically distill down to two - love of God and love of neighbor. In a more practical sense, they recall us to remember our divine Source (who we are is where we came from), and (and this is so important today) enjoin us against greed (I can have whatever I want without consideration of others) and entitlement (I can have whatever I want because of who I am). These “laws of God” well understood human nature and gave us a counter against it’s central ills.

Of course I can speak of human nature and mental health. Briefly here again, we can see our work is to shore up the ‘empty middle’ within our natural bi-polarity. With culture, I emphasize the work of ‘containment.’ In mental health I sometimes work to strengthen the center from below - to enhance the weak center (core) of the double “J” curve.

There is so much suffering by people who can’t themselves ‘hold it together.’  As fellow humans they deserve all the help we can give them.   

Nature as a Healer

I’ll often recommend to my clients they spent time outside walking, especially as an antidote to depression and anxiety. Recently I became acquainted with “nature deficit disorder” - which refers to a hypothesis by Richard Louv in his book “Last Child in the Woods” (2005) that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems. There is much more I can say here, especially from teachings by Native American friends over the years - but space restrains me.

The Final Question

The primary question of human nature becomes, are we by nature good or bad? The Christian Church has made its doctrine of “original sin” central within this question. To counter this, there’s been an attempted emphasis on “original blessing” - which for this writer however seems to lack much soul depth. Other spiritual traditions have their own favorite ways and struggles in dealing with this question. Psychology has had the same struggle, with a number of newer “psychologies” emerging in the last half century with deliberately “positive” frames of reference. Many of them are quite ‘nice’ and comforting.

But for me - it’s another ‘splitting’ question, with neither side definitively correct. The temptation in this world to solidify onto one side or another has shamed our history and the lives of others so many times.

To be maturely human then is to learn stand in the middle - neither giving in to one side or the other, but standing firm (sometimes in the emptiness) for the wholeness of it all. Sometimes this means a great deal of suffering, confusion, frustration and psychic pain, even persecution. At other times it allows a vast expanse of perception where all are contained within a great universal vision. The Biblical journey from The Garden to The Kingdom is such a vision - encompassing the entire history of “the People” - all the People.   

And for the other creatures of Nature who live with and around us - somehow they’ve always known this.   Bless them.  

Pay attention

Comments (1)

  • Thank you Bill. I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment “being maturely human is learning to stand in the middle ..... for the wholeness of it all”. The main difference I see between us and other living creature is our ability to think. The intellect is a wonderful tool but when allowed to take the reigns completely, balance (at least in my experience) gets lost. It helps sometimes to just breathe, listen to my heart and to nature and to remind myself that my thoughts are far from facts :)

    — Terri, 11/2/2014

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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