The Nature of Human Nature : Noah and Positive Psychology

As I have written about in the past at the start of the summer I had the pleasure of going to the International Positive Education Network (IPEN) conference in Fort Worth Texas. IPEN aims to bring together teachers, students, parents, higher education, charities, companies and governments to promote Positive Education. The objective of Positive Education is not only to improve students’ well-being but also their academic performance. Positive Education is the programmatic/educational cousin of Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology is a branch of psychology that complements the traditional focus on pathology with the study of human strengths and virtues and the factors that contribute to a full and meaningful life. There at the conference I got to hear Dr. Martin Seligman , the father of Positive Psychology, explain the history of how the shift from focusing on pathology to building on strengths and how that opened up a whole scientific study of human flourishing.

At the conference I learned about a ton of compelling research proving the success of this work and many interesting strategies that people are employing to support their students’ flourishing. Hearing Seligman, I was moved thinking about how much of the shift from a pathology to strength based approach is actually determined by your fundamental understanding of the human condition. Our primary myth of who we are as people might itself set limits to our imagination and capacity to flourish and be successful. Since that time I have been giving a lot of thought to the stories we decide to tell that might help us flourish.

I was thinking about this shift this week when reading Noach, this week’s Torah portion. There after God flood Noah makes a sacrefice to God and in response God describes humanity. There we read:

The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to God’s self: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21).

While the result of not destroying the world is a good thing, what do we make of God’s assessment of human nature? The idea that we are evil from our youth implies a certain pathology of the human condition. When we are operating from this place of pathology our future is engraved and fixed in stone. How else might we understand our Torah portion?

On a related note in regard to the creation of human beings God remarks that we have become divine in nature. There we read, “Behold, man has become one of Us” (Gen. 3:22). When exploring this idea the Midrash says:

Scripture states elsewhere in allusion to this verse: Behold, this only have I found, that God made humanity upright (Eccles. 7:29); that is, the Holy One, blessed be God, who is called righteous and upright, created humanity in God’s own image so that humans might be upright and righteous like God. However, if you should ask: Why did God create the evil inclination, concerning which it is written: The inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Gen. 8:21)?, you say thereby: Since humanity is evil, who can make humanity good? The Holy One, blessed be God, contends: You make him evil! Why is it that a child of five, six, seven, eight, or nine years of age does not sin, but only after he reaches the age of ten and upward does the evil inclination begin to develop in him? (Midrash Tanchuma, Bereshit 7:1)

This Midrash boldly seems to invert the idea from Noach as to the nature of humanities evil nature. According to this Midrash Human beings are actually born good and it is only later in life that they succumb to the evil inclination and sin. At the same time as a person grows in their practice they can build on our strengths and in so doing become truly free from sin. While fear of sin might be a good deterrent from destruction, we need a foundation of goodness upon which to build thriving lives.  Despite what others say about us or even what we say about ourselves we need to curate a positive understanding of the nature of human nature to help humanity thrive and manifest our divinity.

– Another blog post on Positive Psychology.

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