Completing the 600-odd-page book by Robert Greene on “The Laws of Human Nature” after months of procrastination was immensely satisfying! Start of 2020, I committed to reading 50 books this year (easily accomplished in my studying days). Yet we’re almost at the end of February and I’m barely two chapters into book 2 — “How Not to Die” by a medical doctor on nutritional science behind preventing and reversing the most life-threatening modern diseases.
I’ve only recently discovered Greene, and my respect for his work resulted in a huge loot off Book Depository and a long remaining wish-list. Having majored in psychology, at some point with a particular interest in interpersonal relationships, our university never got into the practice of studying iconic individuals the way Greene did. He puts aside statistical data of the typical psychology curriculum. Instead in each chapter, he dissects historical figures like Queen Elizabeth I, Martin Luther King Jr, Richard Nixon and Coco Chanel at the pinnacle of their successes, to demonstrate how they have influenced personal and professional relationships through certain laws of human nature, be it aggression, jealousy, narcissism, compulsion, repression, etc.
Yeah, easy to judge dead people through benefit of hindsight isn’t it. But what this book does well in my opinion (where none of my textbooks could) was to relate how these laws were critical to understanding ourselves. We know so little of how our minds work, and we hate to admit that our responses are largely beyond conscious control. Much of the story we spin about ourselves are delusions. Only when we are aware of our own bad quirks, and that we all belong on a personality spectrum, instead of belonging to personality types (i.e. we all can have variable streaks of narcissism, and jealousy) can we begin to appreciate the complexity of human nature enough to navigate the complex web of human relationships.
Certain sections were impossibly boring, especially when he talks about generational myopia and death denial. Particularly enlightening was his chapter on the law of envy, in which he purports that of all human emotions, none is trickier and more elusive than envy. To conceal envy from ourselves and others, we convert objects of our envy into unsympathetic characters to justify hostility towards them. His anecdote was one on Mary Shelley (the author of Frankenstein) – how her relationship, husband and life was so quietly and swiftly stolen by an envious friend, who also manipulated the truth so that everyone around her would have a misconception of her, while Mary herself suspected nothing. In another interesting chapter he also talks about the law of gender rigidity based on the Jungian concept of ‘Anima’ and ‘Animus’ – that we can harvest our inner opposite gender to channel our strengths and creativity. He even gives some good workplace advice after distinguishing the key personality types in the corporate environment – the jester, the favourite, the shadow enabler, etc. Which one are you?
By the end of this book, I’ve been taught to re-assess certain unhealthy ‘relationships’ in my life. Our attitudes tend to have a self-fulfilling component to them, so how should I better manage myself?
Feigning ignorance and championing avoidance in handling ‘relationships’ with colleagues in a complex, toxic work environment have not worked well for me. Manipulative beings are often motivated by envy. Their words often contain untruths designed to hurt something they don’t have (e.g reputation, credibility, or maybe the smarts). And following the downward pull of a group, their untruths are repeated over and over until they become a truth. Many a times, narcissistic leaders cannot be challenged. Some have rose by sheer attitudes and the ability to bully with no conscience. If you’re a female working amidst male-dominated ideology, be prepared to be reduced to nothing but a walking sex object because every success you get is because you relied on your body or looks. Isn’t this a common tactic used by men in power? I will write about this another time. In toxic situations, recognizing these traits and identifying motives will become an emotional defense in order not to be stained by poison. How often does corporate drama and the vicious tongues of your very own colleagues become the reason why you don’t want to get up in the morning? If so, we have much to talk about.
Toxicity aside, I think much of what I learnt from Greene is the attainment of self-possession through knowing thyself. Humans are consummate actors, we all wear a mask and we all learn how to lie. We adapt ourselves to our groups and we are so good at acting that we don’t even realize we do. Being aware of our internal self and social selves, we can channel the best of all of our selves.
Despite some bad reviews on Greene, this had been a good 642-page ride. I foresee re-reading this again in the very near future.
In my first post for 2020, I do hope the year gets a turn for the better, what with the global pandemic and unpleasant news in the world everyday. Amidst this backdrop, we as people should learn to treat our own humankind with kindness and spread positivism. Human nature need not be ugly. I’ll end off with this one quote:
“If you come across any special trait of meanness or stupidity . . . you must be careful not to let it annoy or distress you, but to look upon it merely as an addition to your knowledge—a new fact to be considered in studying the character of humanity. Your attitude towards it will be that of the mineralogist who stumbles upon a very characteristic specimen of a mineral. —Arthur Schopenhauer”