Clinical Psychology

The Duality of the Human Condition

We know life is dangerous but we don’t really know because we don’t feel it. We’re so alive that we think about new ideas, we make plans, we live as if it’s going to be forever. We plan to have children, we want to love, build, buy. Everything is about creation and growth.

Yet, the reality is, we’re dying day after the other. Every day, it’s one day less. There’s so much around us that reminds us that we’re going to die. But we don’t really know it. It takes an experience that is out of the ordinary until we really get in touch with our human fragility.

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Our Fundamental Assumptions

The early experience of the infant-mother relationship helps develop a set of assumptions or internal representations that reflect and guide our interactions in the world. This conceptual system provides us with expectations about the world and about ourselves.

The World is Benevolent

When a responsive caregiver responds to an infant’s behaviors, the earliest needs of that infant are met. The child’s world, represented by caregiver, is then perceived as benevolent. The child would start to believe that there are good people out there who love and care about others enough to take care of them. This early experience is later generalized. We tend to believe that we live in a safe and benevolent world as opposed to a malevolent and hostile one.

Although we are all aware that the world could be a horrible place where evil exists, we maintain that the world is benevolent by distinguishing between our own world and the larger world. We are generally optimistic about our individual futures even if we are pessimistic about the larger world, such as political or economic conditions.

The World is Meaningful

The responsiveness of the mother to the infant’s needs provides a basis for the child’s earliest understanding of a person-outcome contingency, which is a relationship between a person and what happens to him/her.

People are then able to make sense of selective incidence of particular outcomes. We start to understand events not through a consideration of people’s character, but of their behaviors. This allows us to assume that we can directly control what happens to us through our own behavior.

This idea is directly related to the just-world hypothesis in which particular actions and conditions are perceived to have predictable consequences. The actions are typically individuals’ behaviors or attributes, and the conditions are based on the norms and ideologies of a society.

The Self is Worthy

In the act of providing care and meeting the child’s needs, a responsive caregiver provides the infant with the basis for self-worth. As a result, we believe that we’re worthy of attention and care. We deserve a good life.

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The Illusion of Invulnerability

The fundamental assumptions, rooted in our early experiences, equip us with confidence and trust. We tend to have a general optimism that things will work out well and according to plan, that we’re safe and protected. We believe that in our worlds, bad things don’t happen so frequently because we’re protected by who we are and what we do.

We believe that the world is just; we get what we deserve. If we eat healthy and exercise, we won’t get ill. If we don’t walk down a dark alley alone, we won’t get raped. We think we’re immune from harm because we don’t put ourselves in situations of danger.

With this just-world belief system, not only are we able to maintain an illusion of invulnerability, but also take for granted our own fragility. Of course, life is not all rainbows and sunshine. There are times when our fundamental assumptions are seriously challenged and we’re left with intense psychological distress. These are times of trauma.

Sometimes we cannot find logical explanations why a particular incident happened to us. My father is supposed to take care of me, not touch me in all the wrong places. According to our conceptual system, it doesn’t make sense.

Sometimes we experience actual or threatened death that forces us to recognize the possibility of annihilation and serious injury. Other times, we find ourselves in situations we have no control over, and the lack of control leave us feeling helpless. Such situations challenge our physical and psychological resistance.

The traumatic events produce deep wounds to our inner world, as our core assumptions about the meaningfulness and benevolence of the world, as well as our self-worth, are shattered.

The Duality of the Human Condition

The recognition of our human fragility threatens our psychological integrity. When we maintain positive illusions about our safety and security, we take for granted our biological side of human survival.

Sartre sees us as hopelessly confused and deluded about our true condition; each of us wants to be a god with the equipment of an animal. We exist on fantasies. How could it be that we can have consciousness, deep feelings, self-expression, yet also be creatures that die? This is the paradox of the human condition.

It’s difficult to imagine a person ceasing to exist. It’s difficult to imagine we’re just not here anymore. Or we’re separated from the people we love. It’s difficult to imagine whatever is it about death that is so frightening. It’s difficult to imagine that we’re going into the unknown. We just disappear.

It’s very difficult, yet we’re always living duality. We’re creating, growing, developing, despite knowing that we’re going to die one day.

The Death Imprint

You know that life and others can be dangerous or malicious, but do you really experience, on a primitive level, life that way? We all know that we’re going to die. That’s the only truth we know. We don’t know anything else, even though we think we know a lot about what will happen in our lives.

Yet, how many of us are really in touch with the fragility or mortality of our lives? How many of us have been imprinted or touched that way?

Not very many of us unless we’ve experienced a trauma where that experience imprinted us. In the same way that trauma shatters our fundamental assumptions, the death imprint shatters this illusion of growth and creation. Trauma causes us to suddenly become aware of our fragility, which can be incredibly scary.

When we experience a threat to our survival, it’s too much to bear; we’re imprinted by this close-to-death experience.

3 replies on “The Duality of the Human Condition”

A wonderful post Carla Akil! I think there are people who go through life without the illusion of security being shattered. I refer to such people as “waggy labradors”. They are irrepressibly optimistic and cheerful come what may.My brother in law fought in the Falklands and his experiences were horrific. His best friend died beside him on the Sir Gallahad and he spent much of his time shooting Argentinians and then piling up their corpses. And yet I have rarely seen him down let alone depressed.

Others, such as myself view the world through black tinted lenses and always have done. Incidentally I would never hold a gun. Let alone shoot Argentinians.

So although in theory much of what you say has a ring of truth around it, in practice life and our psychologies work out very differently from each other.

My brother in law still has the warm assurances imparted to him by his birth mother, despite having lived through times which would have destroyed many.

So perhaps all you can say is there is no one size which fits all. Theory is fine but practice often works out very differently.


Thank you for sharing, Anthony! Your input allows a more fruitful discussion. This post was in no means intended to say it applies to everyone. There will always be individual differences due to internal and external factors.

Your brother must have endured a severe trauma. I can’t help but wonder, does he experience PTSD symptoms? Of course, some people are resilient enough not to develop PTSD.

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