Category Archives: social psychology

“Like Kittens Given Their Own Tails to Tease”

Vaclav Havel was a playwright, poet, and artist who became the first president of the Czech Republic in 1992 after helping lead a successful revolution against the Communists.  His involvement in politics was not the route that most men of his artistic persuasion would follow but his voracious reading in religion and the arts led him to action, not idle thought, or as pointed out recently in the Times Literary Supplement, “working for social and political improvement, not for glory, but to put his soul in order.”  Havel had a hunger in the heart that led him into the ethereal, even the occult, but he also was grounded in reality and recognized that the lure of intellectual and spiritual escapism must not be allowed to capture him.  He recognized that passion, that as Hamlet put it, “the native hue of resolution, sicklie’d o’er with the pale cast of thought…(would)…lose the name of action.”  Or, to put it in New Testament words, “Faith without action is dead.” (This was from a book review of “Vaclav Havel” by Kieran Williams.)

Havel lived through social and political turmoil in his youth during the Communist Revolution when his comfortably ensconced family suffered loss of wealth and status making the young Havel “self-conscious about his social origin.”  This “self-consciousness” produced what the book reviewer, Lesley Chamberlain, described as “productive friction” in his soul which simultaneously created or affirmed a belief in a soul and the insight that engagement in the human endeavor was an important part of “putting his soul in order.”  This “productive friction” will not take place in anyone’s life without some unsettling experience at some point in life as otherwise one will just bumble along life’s way comfortably ensconced in one’s view of the world, like “kittens given their tail to tease,” as Goethe put it.

*******************************

Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Advertisements

Ta-Nehesi Coates: “Thinking They are White”

Ta-nehesi Coates’s book on racism was one of the most provocative books I read last year. Mr. Coates grew up an impoverished black child in Baltimore, Maryland, managed to escape with an education, and wrote this very revealing book about what it is like to grow up under the tyranny of racism in ’70’s and 80’s America.  One line that really grabbed me a class of people who learned to “think they are white” and the power that comes with that understanding.  For, being white in America did carry, and still does to a large degree, implicit assumptions of power, i.e. prerogative.  Growing up a poor white boy in Arkansas I clearly remember discovering early the “black-white” distinction in my culture, the blacks being known, of course, as “N…….s” and viewed with great scorn and contempt.  Looking back I now recall distinctly how important this was as a poor white, having a class of people who were lower on the totem pole than we were though we were very low socio-economically.  Learning to “think I was white” was one of the most important early discoveries of my life, very much a formative part of my identity the early stages of which involves drawing distinctions between self and others, including between my group and other groups.

But Mr. Coates’ observation, “thinking they are white” really cut to the quick with me, conveying to me what he had seen about the smug observations we make early in our childhood which become solid bedrock in our cognitive grasp of the world.  And with my grasp of my “whiteness” I knew that though I lacked many things, no one could take away from me my “whiteness” and with that status came the power of eating on the right side of the diner, using the nicer bathrooms, drinking at the white water fountains, and going to the better white schools.  It was nothing I thought about…consciously.  It was a given, a basic assumption, an implicit part of the template through which I viewed the world.  I had a power that many others did not have, regardless of how powerlessness I might feel otherwise in my life.

Though I have long since gone beyond this racist view of the world, I know the template is still there in the depths of my heart thought quite faint.  In the past decade as I’ve aged I have recognized faint racist imagery and thoughts creep into my consciousness, an experience which has not alarmed me because I see them for what they are.  The earliest imprints from our culture, even those “burned in” on our pre-conscious soul, never leave us.   People may vehemently deny being racist but very often their behavior and passing thoughts betray them.  For example, note the Republican Party which is quick to deny racism but has systematically and persistently sought to deny blacks the right to vote in recent years.

Racism is only the surface of a deeper problem, an intrinsic dimension of identity formulation already alluded to.  For an identity to begin to organize and to escape the matrix in which it first existed, that “blooming, buzzing, confusing world of sense experience” spoken of by William James…it must draw distinctions between it and the “other”.  Blacks in my early life, and in most of my generation, was one of the earliest “others” that we found and when we “othered” them it was done with great emotional intensity.

So racism is merely an essential part of American identity and all cultures and tribes have some similar process at the bedrock of their collective psyche.  But I’ve discoursed here only as an introduction to my next blog post, the Christian faith utilized as a contrivance for identity formulation and, devoid of maturation, serving only to “other” masses of people.

Systemic Trauma in our Culture

When living in England briefly after the turn of the century, I had the honor of hearing a distinguished psychoanalyst,  Dr. Juliet Mitchell, speak in London on the subject of trauma.   One point she made etched itself deeply in my heart and mind— that a victim of trauma has suffered “the perforation of a membrane around their soul” which then allows a cascade of old brain fears and anxieties to cascade forth.  And with some trauma, such as sexual abuse, the real psychic pain is spiritual as down in the depths of the child’s heart, he/she is realizing that the person who purported to love him/her is stating with action, “I don’t give a shit about you.  I want what I want and I’m gonna get it regardless of how much damage it does to you.”  This trauma tells the child that he/she has no value to the perpetrator as a person.  And trauma never goes away.  The clinical task in my past life was to facilitate the grieving process and teaching adaptive responses to the anguish which would always lurk in the depths of the client’s heart.

But trauma can also be institutional and cultural.  This systemic traumatization is even more challenging as it teaches its victims on some level, “This is the norm.  Get used to it…and possibly learn to like it.”  Dr. Bruce Perry, the chief of psychiatry at the Texas Children’s Institute in Houston, has spent his career working with trauma victims and in the current edition of the literary journal, The Sun, he is interviewed and shares about the neurological wounds that take place, particularly when the victim is too young to even begin to process what is happening/has happened in “rational” terms.  He also explained how the systemic trauma inflicted upon the lower socio-economic classes is very real and creates a core identity of deprivation, giving them problems like addiction, learned helplessness, and aggressive behavior.

Trauma usually comes at the hands of those in power who are always tempted to be seduced with the prerogatives of their power and the tyranny of their assumptions.  For example, in some families I worked with in my clinical practice, the sexual abuse was multi-generational, in some sense a “family tradition” and men, when but young boys, learned that women were property, “things”, and that by virtue of their masculinity they were entitled to use “things” as desired, even if they were your own children.  And this does not mean these men have no redeeming human values but their sense of prerogative and entitlement is so pervasive that when sexual desire is on the table it over rides little niceties like “the teachings of Jesus” which they are “devoted” to most of the time.  The real issues in life, individually and collectively, are always unconscious.

Entitlement is a core issue in any tribe.  Those who have climbed to the top of the heap, i.e. the “patriarchy” in contemporary vernacular, see the world through the template of their own unexamined values and wishes and feel perfectly comfortable manipulating individuals, and even the whole tribe, to accomplish their end.  And, once again, I’m not going to say these power mongers are necessarily “bad” people but they are unconscious and have a built-in resistance to even considering the phenomena of an unconscious.  It would be too troubling.  And out of the unacknowledged dark recesses of our heart always flows “bad.”

Perry’s observations accentuated for me the importance of the economic divide that is egregiously apparent in my country today.  The wealthy “One per cent” are so trapped in their own narcissism that they cannot see the harm they are doing to the whole country, even to themselves, by not giving due attention to the middle and lower socio economic classes.  And now my country has a president elect who could be the poster boy for Narcissists Anonymous as his disregard for “otherness” and the attending “self-reflectiveness” is sorely lacking.  The trauma has already been inflicted on the dispossessed classes but now an administration is being set up which appears to be designed to further their alienation and hidden despair, leaving them with nothing to do but “cling to their guns and religion.”

So often Bible verses come to my mind at this pivotal time in history.  “Where there is no vision, the people perish” just flashed on my radar.  When I approached life literally, I never really understood the meaning of this though, of course, I thought I did!  The lack of “vision” that the Psalmist had in mind is the dilemma of the narcissist as he/she cannot see beyond the end of his/her nose.  They see things only in terms of their own immediate interests and have no understanding about the long term effects of what they are doing.  And I don’t think Trump has any interest or capacity to ever venture into the “dark” when he is so comfortable in the glorious light of his own narcissistic splendor.  Nor do his devotees.

( Link to Dr. Perry’s interview in The Sun—http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/491/the_long_shadow)

 

 

Human Belonging and Connection: Addendum

One of my readers sent me two responses to my earlier blog about “Belonging and Human Connection” which I want to share.

The first is a poem which reminds me of a young lad I noticed a couple of years ago when sub-teaching in elementary school. He was about seven or eight and by appearance alone was very “troubled.” And then during recess he wondered aimlessly around the playground clutching a large teddy bear. He never said a word or had an interaction with anyone. He just roamed like a zombie.

THE CROWDLESS MAN
By Michael Leunig

See him wandering alone,
The crowdless man,
He has no group,
He has no tribe,
He carries his identity in his pocket.
His pocket has a hole in it,
His story has a hole in it,
His tragedy is not a tune you can hum.
His suffering and sacrifice,
They have no handles;
His persecution has no logo,
No shrine, no yardstick.
His joy has no credentials,
His observations have no fixed address;
There are no awards whatsoever.
His gaze and yearning are way outside the loop,
His pilgrimage has lots of holes in it.
See him wandering alone.
Beaming to himself.

The second contribution from this reader is about creating welcoming space for others by extending our boundaries to those who might otherwise be excluded:

One way of measuring whether our love is genuine, however, is to examine how far we’ve extended the boundaries that determine whom we are willing to be in relationship with. When these borders reach out as far as they can go, there will be no one left outside, there will be no one cursed. There will be no more strangers. Everyone will be welcome.

Reflect for a minute on what it feels like to be welcomed. The word means, simply, ‘come and be well’ in my presence. It’s a fundamental human experience, and a very crucial one. When I am welcomed, I feel good. I can be myself. I relax and feel unself-conscious, energized, happy. On the other hand, when I am not welcomed, I doubt myself, turn inward, shrivel up. I feel excluded, not accepted, and not acceptable. This is painful. If it happens often enough, I will question my own self-worth.

Hospitality means creating welcoming space for the other. Henri J. Nouwen notes that the Dutch word for hospitality, gastvrijheid, means ‘the freedom of the guest.’ It entails creating not just physical room but emotional spaciousness where the stranger can enter and be himself or herself, where the stranger can become ally instead of threat, friend instead of enemy.

[…] That precious experience — when contemplated, cherished, and celebrated — enables me in turn to welcome others: I begin to be less fearful of the other; I start to see the stranger as gift. I become willing to create space in myself to invite the other in, and I open myself to the possibility of being changed by the presence of the other.

I invite the reader to sit with any of the wonderful hospitality stories found in the traditions of all the great religions. Mull them over; ask God for insight into them. Then ask for courage to take small steps in expanding your own circle of hospitality. These might be as tentative as smiling at the stranger in line with you at the grocery store, as deliberate as hosting a get-together for all the strangers in your apartment building, or as dramatic as volunteering to foster an unaccompanied refugee child in your own home. It might not cost you much, or it might mean going out on a limb: Can you imagine yourself during Thanksgiving dinner speaking up to your brother-in-law in defense of the undocumented, pointing out that, really, everyone is kin to us, and everyone has a human right to live where they can support their own family?

(Marilyn Lacey, R.S.M., is the founder and executive director of Mercy Beyond Borders, a non-profit organization which partners with displaced women and children overseas to alleviate their extreme poverty. Sr. Lacey is a California native, and has been a Sister of Mercy since 1966. This piece is excerpted from her book This Flowing Toward Me: A Story of God Arriving in Strangers.
– See more at: http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=1034#sthash.McJ3H2UK.dpuf)

Lessons We Can Learn from Autism

Autism research reveals so much to us about human connectivity. Though the autistic spectrum disorders (asd) is a classification for people who have problems with connection, recent findings reveal that these individuals merely have a different way of connecting. Though their way of “connecting” appears very limiting, it reveals volumes about the tenuous cultural contrivances that we have invented to give us our group identity.

There is recent article in the journal “Frontiers” which argues that those with “ASD” do have the capacity to connect but largely with others on the same “ASD” spectrum. The author also argues that those with “TD” (typically development) likewise have a proclivity to bond with those like themselves and find those who are dissimilar more difficult to relate to if not down right objectionable. This principle of connection with the like-minded reveals a key dimension of what makes us human and capable for forming into a social body. (http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00124/full)

And I find that I’m guilty of this myself of preferring the “like-minded” and often realizing that the classification of people that I label “bad” appears to be growing by leaps and bounds. I have noted before, there is a frightening one-to-one correspondence with those who I see as “bad” and those who perceive and understand the world differently than I do. Hmm.

The critical issue in life is “difference.” How can I face difference and respect the phenomena without having my own identity threatened. And, yes, I see that the world is filled with people who don’t understand this and I want to tell ‘em, “Hey, just read “Literarylew” and get your head out!” But, alas and alack, “they” are staying away from “Literarylew” in droves and perhaps that is a valid stance in life???? Of course, we need to have people who look at life differently and it often takes more humility than we can muster up to respect them and at the same time make our own presence known in the dialogue of human concourse as we continue to, “We wage the war we are.” (W.H. Auden)