I’ve been reading cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death. In it, Becker spends quite a bit of time mapping the meanderings of the neurotic structure of personality as conceived by Fritz Perls. This structure, according to Perls, is made up of four layers: the cliché layer, the facile use of empty talk; the roles and games layer, designed to win approval and placate others; the impasse layer that covers our feelings of being empty and lost; and the implosive death layer. Only after mining through these layers can we arrive at what Perls and Becker call the “authentic self,” which is what we are “without sham, without disguise, without defenses against fear” (Becker, Free Press 57).
The problem with such deep mining, Becker points out, is that once a person divests himself of these falsifying layers, he is left with the stark truth that death is inevitable and that “all is vanity,” as the preacher of Ecclesiastes wrote. Full humanness, Becker says, “means primary mis-adjustment to the world” (ibid. 58). In other words, people who have managed to arrive at actualizing (living out of) their authentic or real selves will not be well-adjusted folk. They will not fit in. They will not get along with others. This, I find interesting because it’s true, which means that, once a therapist gets her client to work through his neuroses, which prevent him from fitting into society at large, her next task will be to urge that client to work right through to the real self, which will mean that he will once again fail to fit into society at large.
Irony of ironies.
I know a married couple in their 30s, the parents of two young children. Their boys are enrolled in all sorts of back-to-back activities: sports, lessons, day care, school, after-school care, projects, involvements, clubs, hobbies. They spend little time at home, and when they are at home it is chaos. There is no quiet, clean place inside the home, which is always a mess of remodeling, redecorating, redesigning and redistributing. Everything is always in a state of alarm and busy-ness, and they are not too different from many of their peers who live a lot of their lives in the car, traveling from one event to the next.
I do not approve. I say nothing to them, of course, but not because I don’t care. I say nothing because the few comments I have made in the past have been met with outright hostility. I know when I am not wanted. But I fret, every now and then, when I observe the anxious, fearful behaviors of these two little boys, because I feel so sorry for them. One boy cannot stop twitching; his fingers play through the air, on his thighs, against his knees, and his eyes dart to-and-fro as if attack may come from any side at any time. The other boy is six years old and just started speaking in discernible sentences last year. The parents, both the adult children of alcoholics whose parents died of alcohol-related traumas, are oblivious. They believe that, because they do not get drunk and throw the furniture, that they’re living lives free of their own traumatic childhoods. They think they are passing nothing on to their children, and that because of Little League and chess club, art lessons and private school, play dates and activities for 12 hours every day, their children are living Normal Lives.
Sometimes when I frown inwardly about this, I judge myself and chide, “Now, now, why are you so hard on them in your thought life? This lifestyle is normal these days; every child is involved in so many activities; it’s the modern era. Remember, you dinosaur, you didn’t even have color television when you were a child! No Nintendo! No computers! Poor thing, you.”
But today I read Becker, already an old fart when he wrote his book. Becker wrote about the fundamental need children have for time to themselves, lots of time to wander. Without copious amounts of time to satisfy their psychological and physical wanderlusts, Becker writes, they develop the closed personality, the very personality characterized by Perls as being so well-adjusted that it is entirely closed to the life of the deep, inner self. It is all ego from an early age, no psyche. The child is a slave who has had no free time at all to “discover his world in a relaxed way” (ibid. 71):
If the child is not burdened by too much parental blocking of his action, too much infection with the parents’ anxieties, he can develop his defenses in a less monopolizing way, can remain somewhat open and fluid in character. He is prepared to test reality more in terms of his own action and experimentation and less on the basis of delegated authority and prejudgment or preperception.
Later on this same page, Becker quotes Kierkegaard as urging parents to “let the child be allowed to develop itself” while being sure to watch out for the child’s safety, which is also a parental duty. “The art is to leave the child to itself in the very highest measure and on the greatest possible scale,” Kierkegaard writes, “and to express this apparent abandonment in such a way that, unobserved, one at the same time knows everything” (ibid. 71).
Since I’ve already been mulling over some ideas related to the satisfaction of the child’s wanderlust, I think I’ll be writing about them according to the way we played as children, if we were allowed to play at all. We wandered in our play and in our thought lives, though usually out of the structure of a predictable home life, which gave us something like a hive to return to after gathering whatever heady nectar we could find. While I realize that not all of us have had this luxury, many of us did. And many of the young parents I know of today give their children similarly uncluttered lives during their early childhoods because they know the value of that unblocked life. They sacrifice so that one parent can stay home, or they share responsibilities so that the children can be at home. They home school, they swear off many activities; they allow their children to play; they play with their children. They are in danger of raising children who are awake and who will carry some awareness into adulthood with them, and who possibly will be able to bring love and awareness to a mostly unconscious world.
I’m also going to return to writing about some of the fundamentals of analytic psychology, probably beginning with some maps of the psyche, which I will intermingle with myth, so as to lay a good foundation for the theoretical writing I’ve also been wanting to do here.
Catch a Feeling Firefly
If you read here regularly, I wonder if you’d indulge me by thinking about your own childhoods, going back to the flow of days during which nothing much happened, but when the passing of time nurtured and fed you. You’ll know which days I mean by finding strings of days, days on end, whose memory causes a wave of nostalgia to overcome you. Days that now fill you with longing, or a pang of loss, deep joy, or deep gratitude. Sometimes you may think of them and feel great sorrow over something you’ve lost. Maybe it was days you spent with your grandparents, or days you spent at home doing nothing; a day with your brother or sister, a family vacation. Think back to the hours or days when life felt like an afternoon in a hammock, or time on a quilt under a tree with your very best friend.
Think about it, or feel your way back to it, and write it out for yourself. I don’t mean you have to write about it here, as a comment, or even on your own blog; but I do want you to write about it. Get it down somehow when your level of feeling or emotion (affect) rises up and squeezes you in the middle of your chest, right around your heart, and you begin to feel a little weepy or giddy. Right . . . there. That’s the part we want. Catch it like a firefly in a jar, and get very close to that feeling, and then write about it. Write it all out, the memories surrounding it: where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, what it smelled, tasted, and sounded like there; how long did it last? Capture it in a snapshot of words. And if you don’t want to share it here or on your own blog, just write it down in your journal or save it on your hard drive, because you’re going to need this word snapshot. It’s a map of sorts, and you’ll need it for where we’re going together. This will be a place you’ll return to because I’ll remind you to go there.
Ready? Good. Quiet yourself and get alone for a bit, and then take your snapshot. Think it through. Feel it out. Find the edges of it. Then write.