Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

People in Quandaries: And Why They Are There

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

People in Quandaries: And Why They Are There

Article excerpt

I have spent much of the past ten years in other people's quandaries, being company to misery, holding the damp, trembling hand of frustration. It has seemed necessary to conclude that these quandaries, these personal maladjustments, are not strictly private affairs. They appear to involve not only individual frailties and confusions, but also, and more impressively, they signify a set of conditions peculiar to our general culture. Such maladjustments intimate, as it were, that civilization is more or less allergic to itself.

Beneath their fascinating individualities, one may discern a provocative similarity among unhappy and inefficient people. The mosaic of misery is not altogether haphazard. In the contemplation of this fact one acquires a sense of the pervasive social forces influencing human behavior. George D. Stoddard has said that one can only be what one could have become--and it is to be soberly considered that what one could have become is determined, not alone by the physical structure with which one is born, but also, and profoundly, by the structure of the society into which one is born. As a matter of fact, one can scarcely understand individual personalities except as one understands the social framework within which and by which their main characteristics are determined. Since this is so, it also follows that the individual reflects that social framework, and thus an analysis of individual personalities, particularly the extreme types that we call maladjusted, enables us to gain a peculiarly keen insight into those social and cultural forces that shape the lives of all of us as individuals.

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It is neither an index to 'human nature' nor an accident of 'chance' that most, if not all, so-called maladjusted persons in our society may be viewed as frustrated and distraught idealists. Distraught because they are frustrated, and frustrated because they are 'idealists,' they are living testimony of the price we pay for the traditions we cherish, and for the aspirations which those traditions encourage together with the restrictions which they tend to enforce. It is not that this 'idealism' is always immediately apparent--on the contrary, it is rather likely, as a rule, to elude the superficial observer. It is our unstudied tendency, indeed, to assume that what maladjusted persons need most is something that we call a sense of direction, of purpose, of 'noble' aspiration. In this we are not altogether mistaken--but a partial understanding serves usually as an effective barrier to more penetrating wisdom.

The ideals of the maladjusted are high in three chief respects. Most fundamentally, they are high in the sense that they are vague. Being vague, they are difficult to recognize; being difficult to recognize, they appear to be elusive. It is the consequent misfortune of the individual whose ideals are vaguely defined that he has no sure way of determining whether or not he has attained them. He maintains, therefore, the disquieting belief that he has failed, and he becomes increasingly convinced that his ideals are difficult to reach. Ideals that are difficult to achieve, though it may be primarily because one remains uncertain of whether or not one has achieved them, have the psycho-logical or semantic value of high ideals.

As we contrive to go from A to B, from what we may refer to generally as 'failure' to something else which we may value as 'success,' the crucial point in our journey is that one which we agree to recognize as the point of transition--the point at which we leave A to enter B. Unless such a point can be recognized, we are denied the experience of believing that we have reached our destination, that we have achieved 'success.' And until we can believe that we have achieved 'success,' we continue to assume that we have not achieved it-we continue to experience 'failure.' Under such circumstances we feel frustrated and, eventually, distraught.

When B is vaguely defined, A is correspondingly obscure--when 'success' cannot with certainty be claimed, 'failure' cannot with confidence be disavowed. …

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