Monday, September 12, 2011

Why All the "Drama"?

In my previous blog I suggested that there was a reason why the self-judgment we develop as a child is the "harshest judgment of all". Here is my theory of why that is the case.

This theory came to me as a drawing together of information from two main sources: The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller and Stages of Faith by James Fowler.

From the first book I gained a deeper appreciation for the vulnerability of life as a child and the intensity of emotions that children experience (much of which gets repressed). Deep inside, infants and small children understand instinctively that Their Very Lives depend on the caring and attention of their parents, let alone their "happiness". The fact is children will do whatever they possibly can to secure their parents' attention in order to survive, even if it means drawing negative attention and/or punishment. They would rather have that then suffer total neglect or abandonment which are a much greater threat to their survival.

The second book draws together the developmental theories of Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Lawrence Kohlberg. With regards to the early childhood stage of 4-6 years old, Fowler, writing in the "voice" of Erik Erikson offers the following:

...In this stage a fateful split occurs in the emotional life of the child. Under the impact of emerging infantile sexuality with its fantasies and the answering terrors of incest taboos and other prohibitions, a child internalizes the constraining voices of parental judgment, setting them over and against the instinct fragments that have heretofore fueled bodily and psychic growth and exuberance in relatively unconflicted ways. If shame is a visual phenomenon, guilt is auditory. With an inner ear the child hears the admonitory or judging voices of the now internalized set of parental injunctions and prohibitions, curbing or circumscribing the child's thrustings and seductions. The problem is the infantile conscience or superego can be more primitive, cruel and uncompromising than the parents or other adults ever intended.... (1981 edition, pp. 61-62).

When I read the above I had the question come to mind: Why? Why does the child's "internal voice of judgment" become even harsher than what the parents or other adults might have intended? And then, the message from Alice Miller's book came to mind...

Think of it this way: In a more primitive circumstance, what a child learns from its parents or the other adults in its environment pertains almost exclusively to the child's actual survival: what foods are edible and what foods are poisonous, what tracks lead to animal foods and what tracks lead to animals that look at humans as food, etc., etc. Consequently, it is actually a matter of life and death for such a child to internalize this information as deeply and surely as it possibly can.

However, in our current society, there is So Much More information that a child "absorbs" that really has Very Little To Do with Life and Death!!! And yet, that is how the infant will take in that information instinctively. It is not until much later in their cognitive development that a child can start making those kinds of distinctions consciously. In fact, for most of their early lives, their brains are in a state of "hypnotic autopilot" with very little filtering of any kind. (And you can find out more about this in Bruce Lipton's book The Biology of Belief.) For the parent, what they are teaching their child may just be a matter of functional or social etiquette, but for the child it becomes a Matter of Life and Death (and more or less so depending on how much reinforcement the parents provide for a certain behavior).

Furthermore, generation after generation, more and more things get inadvertently added to the list of "life and death" matters: Do you put the silverware in the drain handle up or handle down? Do you fold the towels in quarters or in thirds? Do you put the toilette paper roll on paper top side or paper bottom side? Do you wear name brands or will generics be okay? Do you have to be twenty pounds under weight to be thought attractive? Do you have to smoke and drink to be accepted by your peers? Do you have to make a lot of money or drive a fancy car to "survive"? Do you have to be a vegan or is eating a little meat every once in a while okay? Not to you have to find "the perfect mate" who will "always be there for you" (i.e. never "abandon" you) in order to survive and be happy?

The list goes on and on and the interpersonal dramas that play out around all of these things (and more) are dramatic because (I suspect) we have all become terribly, terribly, confused about which of these has any real bearing on our actual, physical, "survival/happiness" and which really Do NOT Matter one way or the other. To be honest, I have known of marriages that have floundered at least in part because of conflicts around these very issues. I can also see how just this kind of confusion can be the downfall of any worthwhile group effort such as building a sustainable community.

There is another consideration as well: At what point does the idea of "soul salvation" get confused with "individual survival"? Because, needless to say, there have been and still are great and dramatic conflicts that arise over the "life and death" - or shall I say - "heaven" vs. "hell" orientation of religious practices. And far from contributing to the functional survival of human beings as a whole, they have all too often contributed to the murder of whole populations of "unbelievers". Even worse, when the believer's own salvation is tied to their actively seeking the salvation, or conversion, or death of the "non-believers", dare I say (sometimes) "All hell breaks loose!"

And is ANY of this Really Necessary???? Are we really talking about basic survival issues, or is this all just a sad consequence of our instinctive capacity to internalize the "lessons of childhood" as if All of them were "Matters of Life and Death"!?

I would answer "No" to the first question and "Yes" to the second, at least based on my own insights and observations. Granted, I don't have a lot of research to back-up my theory, but I'm not so sure we have a lot of time left to test it, before we will all be forced to figure out which issues really are a "matter of life and death" and which issues are not. And it is those matters of most importance that have to be addressed individual by individual and community by community.

At this point, I would encourage everyone who wants to be involved in building more sustainable human culture to pay close attention to where the "drama energy" comes into play and be willing to ask the question: Is this really a matter of "life and death" or is it something else, something that does not warrant that level of intense emotional response? When everyone can come to a better understanding of such intense reactivity in themselves and see where it is rooted, then they can (hopefully) start to relax and learn to deal more effectively with the matters that actually are of the greatest importance. In this way we can all learn to work productively with others and avoid conflicts over issues that don't really matter in order to focus all of our energy on the issues that actually do - like making sure all human beings are able to meet their basic needs for clean air and water, healthy food, functional housing, affordable health care, and meaningful work.