Being and Becoming: Philosophical Parenting

Guest Post: By Kevin Martin

I am forty years old man with a wife, a 4-year old son, and a 2-year old daughter. We live in the Pacific Northwest. We want our children to become good spouses, parents, reliable employees/employers, and responsible citizens one day. Parenting strategies often permeate conversations that my wife and I have. Like most parents, we are perpetually discussing ways in which we can rear our children properly. We read about discipline, emotional expression, resilience, healthy attachment, and so on.

I suspect there is such a thing as being so deliberate that the “soul” of parenting is eclipsed by external advice. I sometimes wonder about the downside risk for children when their parents over-prioritize their own rationality in the parenting process. But, having said that, what have we learned from “studying” parenting in our household? Certainly, we’ve learned that there is no single “method” which is comprehensively correct.

RATIONAL DELUSIONS

I remember when our son was very young, I would frequently (and cynically) think this about parenting books:  Each person has their own unique combination of neuroses and coping strategies.  When two people pair up and create a couple, their neuroses and coping methods mesh (and clash!) to create yet another unique emotional landscape.  Now introduce the particular eccentricities of a new-born child’s neuroses and peculiarities into the scene and watch them create what we’ll now call a “family dynamic.”  If everyone’s neuroses and coping strategies blend into a perfectly cohesive (including codependent!) flow of emotional ubiquity, one of the parents will write a parenting book about what they did, how they felt about it, and why everyone else should follow suit!  For the rest of us, we deal with a perilous emotional landscape of briars and roses, mountains and valleys.

A bit cynical?  Sure.  Sleep-deprived parents are sometimes prone to cynicism.  I don’t mean to say that everyone who writes about parenting has a disturbingly codependent home life. However, it is true, that a cohesive emotional landscape does not have to be a pretty one.  A family dynamic can be uniformly terrible.  This is to say that a parent doesn’t have to read a ton of parenting books before recognizing conflicting ideas and competing motivations between many books, and the dominance of sometimes narrow perspectives from which any book can be written.  The point of being deliberate in our parenting (if we can include studying as deliberation) is not to eventually stumble onto a golden goose that will deliver perfect wisdom to every scenario, but to simply gain perspective, increasing our capacity for wise decisions. 

Adding to the ambiguity is a dubious consensus among many Westerners that we are experiencing some broad cultural problems at the moment.  If this is the case, and we are acting, learning, and endeavoring in the context of a troubled culture, then why should we put stock in the system?  How do we know when we are ingesting others’ psychoses as palliatives?  And how do we ensure we don’t disperse our own psychoses to those in distress in the guise of compassionate advice?

Because it is important to take parenting “strategies” and advice with a grain of salt we have to somehow put this recent genre of literature in the context of something much bigger.  When saturated with conflicting ideas about parenting, all claiming efficacy, we must pursue more fundamental dynamics.  When things become unclear, we must step back and ask what has generated our ideas, and with what intention?

TOWARD FUNDAMENTAL DYNAMICS

One such dynamic that might generate fruitful contemplation is the ancient tension between Being and Becoming.  Philosophies and religions have dealt thoroughly with these matters, and with diverse orientations.  Most religion and philosophies generally emphasize either Being or Becoming more than the other. 

“Being” is a broad philosophical concept referring to objective and subjective essences of both material and immaterial reality.  Fixed, absolute, realities. 

“Becoming” is a different, just as broad, philosophical concept that asserts everything is impermanent.  “No man ever steps in the same river twice.  For it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”[1]

Who was right?  Parmenides, when he said “what is-is.”  Or Ephesus, when he said nothing in this world is constant, except change and becoming?  One can easily get wrapped in pretzels around these questions, but these fundamental questions do, indeed, have effects that influence our daily lives and awareness.

Consider the difference between Zen’s emphasis of meditation on Emptiness (a way to conceptualize/embody/unify with absolute Being) versus an evangelical Christian’s emphasis on being “born again” (a way to conceptualize Becoming as paramount).  These are very different approaches to the inner awareness that orients us within an unseen reality.  Our immersion in these questions (via methods of inquiring about nature, our religious organizations, social discourse, etc.) does influence how we think about the world, our family, and ourselves.

From the time of Jesus through the end of the fourth century A.D., what was developing into “the Christian tradition,” a rare conceptual and experiential harmony was in place between Being and Becoming.[2]  The basic worldview was held between many writers from this time period (and into the following few centuries) that there is indeed mostly ungraspable transcendent Being, and within it, as incomplete expressions of infinite Being, humans Become.[3]  Humans can’t fully embody Being, the best we can do is honor it while Becoming.  We cannot fully embody an absolute essence, but absolute essences are the context for our inevitable becoming.

A simplified understanding of the early Judeo-Christian deity is that its name is a somewhat ambiguous conjugation of “to be.”  Speaking with the deity, Moses flat-out asks the deity to describe its own name, and the reply was “Eyeh-asher-Eyeh.”[4] This is often translated in English as “I AM”.[5]  The Israelites translated their bible from Hebrew into Greek around 250 BC and the same passage got translated as “ego eimi o on,” or, “I am the One Being”[6].  In the ancient world, neighboring tribes deified and made appeals to principalities like rain, war, and lust, each being embodied by a personage, animal, or emblem of some other variety.  However, the Israelites humbled themselves under a yet-higher reality, Existence itself.  Or, maybe even more poetically, the Israelites formed a relationship with the very possibility of existence.  After all, there’s no reason to assume that existence is inevitable.  Yet, existence seems “to be” and there is serious utility in humbling ourselves before such a fact.  This was a brilliant innovation in how we can orient ourselves in the cosmos. “Being” is real, and we are entirely subject to it.  The Israelites often referred to their god as “LORD.”  (Christian bibles have maintained the same title.)  In the ancient world, where human slavery and servitude were commonplace, referring to the ultimate Cause as LORD reflected the universal inevitability of Humanity’s submission to the forces of nature.

An elaboration of this understanding came when the example of Jesus became understood as the embodiment of the Logos.[7]  This heralded a new age and orientation within Reality.  Theologically, “Logos” is an expression from the utmost transcendent, an expression from Being itself.[8]  Logos is the embodiment of Purpose.  This understanding of the finite (human) component of Jesus as the expression of the infinite and unreachable “One Being” closed the circuit in an open debate in Hellenic philosophic circles regarding Being and Becoming.[9]  Namely, that personal experiences of “One Being” are largely restricted to peak experiences not common in our daily reality[10] and only described via metaphysical language[11].  The only way for a finite entity to orient itself within an infinite structure of Being is to become.  What we are left to do is fully become that which we are; incomplete expressions of the Transcendent.   Logos is the momentum of life, fully realized, and it is accessible.

Therefore, it isn’t that Being and Becoming are antagonistic toward one another, but that they are different categories that must be related to with each their due and proper respect.  There is a hierarchy of Being within which we exist, and our proper behavior is to Become.  Being is a noun that we cannot fully experience. Becoming is an eternal action, a river upon which we drift between two unreachable banks.  Life, Growth, Becoming are synonymous. 

STRUCTURAL FRACTURE

Modern (and quite pervasive) philosophies, like Deconstruction, have effectively flattened our understanding of the Hierarchy of Being.[12]  Deconstruction, in part, informs us that Truth is only relative within an individual and pursuits of truths that transcend an individual’s interpretation are problematic, even dangerous to the “greater good.”  Fair enough.  We live in a culture confused about how to orient ourselves in a complex universe.[13]  Our ancestors worked out that we must orient ourselves as finite creatures destined to Become (for the good or the bad) within a transcendent tapestry of Being.  We have no choice but to figure out how to best play the hand we were given.  In Modernity, this is now old-fashioned and anathema.  The idea is viewed as particularly backwards if a person goes so far as to develop a relationship with that ungraspable existence of Reality, with God.  We have lost our orientation within reality and our befuddlement bleeds onto every realm in Modernity.

TO BECOME A PARENT

Let’s explore this disorientation through the lens of the parent/child relationship.  If recognition of Being is recognition of that which is, then let’s look at particular ways that we as parents relate to it in our children.  We can recognize that which is in our child and react many ways.  It is indeed rare that we merely observe our child.  When we observe our child, emotional information immediately floods our consciousness.  We can like what we observe or dislike it, we can affirm it or reject it.  It can cause us to cringe, and it can cause us to want the child to somehow change or continue along the same path.   Observing our children can even give us feelings about ourselves.  For better or for worse, a child’s being is tangled in their parents’ emotional worlds.  Let’s look at two specific parental instincts that are hot topics right now, and I think they correlate with Being and Becoming.  Affirmation and confrontation.

WHAT MOTIVATES OUR OUTLOOK?

All “parenting strategies” are complicit with a particular view of Humanity and human nature.  Do we primarily see ourselves (and our children) as diversely rich entities requiring recognition and expression (Being)?[14] Or do we primarily see ourselves (and our children) as imperfect creatures who must properly develop within a sometimes-hostile world (Becoming)?  If humans develop, what shall they develop towards?  What is Humanity?  Is Humanity a mere collection of hairless apes in an accidental multiverse?  Or is there a transcendent component to Being, within which we must actively orient ourselves?  Are Humans just miscellaneous meatballs acting out pre-programmed actions in a deterministic universe, the result of one long chemical reaction and stoichiometric equation?  Is parenting a divinely-appointed responsibility?  Our actions towards our children reflect our views on these matters.

A person who believes that their child’s personality traits are baked in from day one will parent their children differently from someone who believes children must learn to become civilized.  A parent who believes there is no “purpose” to life might look to secular humanism for ethical answers while a person who believes parenting is a divine responsibility might look to spiritual resources for ethical answers.  Ethical answers from different sources can conflict.  These conflicts are displayed, in part, in the differences between our “parenting strategies.”

What is the most fundamental task of a parent?  Is our primary role to affirm our children’s emotions and psychological states?  To affirm the emotional Being of a child, just as they are?  Or is our role to encourage them to a place beyond where they are currently?  To confront them with their own Becoming towards our best understanding of the Human ideal?  Of course, like Being and Becoming, the parent’s affirmation of a child and the parent’s encouragement of the child toward confrontation of challenge are two different categories, and therefore require each their own due in fundamentally different realms.  But do we ever confuse these two reactions and make the wrong move?  Do we ever tell the kid when they know they’ve screwed up, “It’s okay, Sweetheart, you are perfect just the way you are,” when we should have said, “I understand that you’re embarrassed because you handled that poorly, but tell me how you will do that differently next time.”  Yes, of course we do.  Do we ever get angry at our child because they are not the person we want them to be?  Sure.  We can fail our children by wanting their essential traits to be different.  Likewise, we can fail our children by wanting their passing phases to be frozen in time.

Just as transcendent Being and human Becoming both exist, but at different levels, both affirmation and encouragement to confront change are required of us as parents, but toward different levels of our children’s realities.  We must orient ourselves toward these two levels of reality.  What, exactly, about our child is permanent?  And are those qualities physical, intangible, metaphysical, spiritual, emotional?  What about our child is developmental?  And are those qualities physical, intangible, metaphysical, spiritual, emotional?

Our stereotypical mother/father roles have largely worked this out on their own.  Mothers are very affirming to an infant’s needs.  This is necessary and creates a secure and healthy emotional attachment, the foundation upon which the child will build all future relationships.[15]  Seen traditionally, fathers generally push their children’s comfort zones to build resilience in a world of uncertainty and risk.[16]  There is a time and a place for each.

MANIFESTING DARKNESS, MANIFESTING LIGHT

When the roles of affirmation and confrontation are improperly channeled, unnecessary conflict will result in the household.  Here, family dynamics exists in all their nuanced and glorious opaqueness, and things get dicey. 

Can a mother’s negativity display itself in smothering the child’s potential through what might appear to be acts of affirmative charity?  Sure, we call this woman the “devouring mother.”  Think of the witch in Hansel and Gretel and her methods of gaining the trust of children that she consumes.  In the fairy tale, we don’t know what dynamics generated her bitterness toward children.  However, we do know that she affirms the desires of manipulated children to sustain her bitter existence.  Maybe she sacrificed her career to have children only to discover that sometimes it is horribly challenging and miserably frustrating.  She gains the trust of naïve children with an endless supply of dopamine and oxytocin.  Just as her momentum as a successful career woman was foiled by these little buggers, she gains the children’s trust before her shadow emerges and devours their potential in an outburst of negativity.  The more the children look to her for comfort and security, the more gratifying their confusion and pain will be to her when she ambushes them with her dinner plans.  It’s her children’s fault that she is now suffering instead of presenting at board meetings, and they will not go unpunished.

Can a father’s projection of his own inner-turmoil and weakness justify his own cruelty toward his son?  Yes.  Can the father justify his actions as a necessary hurdle that will build strength in the child?  You bet!  We call this man the “tyrannical father.”  He acts out the idea that even accidental cruelty toward his son will serve as a helpful aid when his son enters a hostile world beyond the front door.  For generation after generation fathers can justify their own bad tempers and dark tendencies as that which build character in their sons.  This justification is generally performed in post-blowup moments of shame-turned-excuse and is a convenient mechanism for deferring our own development.  Of course, in maintaining willingness to keep this inner-darkness in our unconscious we are perpetrators of future bad deeds toward our children and spouses.  To paraphrase Jung, the origin of the child’s neurosis is the unconscious of the parent.[17]  Our behavior effects our child’s understanding of the world and their mechanisms for engaging with it; their becoming.

These exact perversions occur in households daily and they perpetuate personality and behavioral challenges that echo for generations.  They result from misorientations toward Being and Becoming.  In these narrow examples, we over-esteem a very low form of our own Being and project the need to Become on those around us.  However, once confronted with knowledge of our own dark proclivities to violence, rage, malice, resentment, and general miscreance, it is our responsibility to integrate these traits in ways that no longer subjects others to suffering.[18]  This is difficult work, and is merely one more category lumped into the phenomena known as “becoming an adult.”[19]  To become an adult in the Modern West is to do so in the context of ideologically-possessed public discourse and eviscerated religious structures.  Dicey, for sure. 

PROPERLY AFFIRM, PROPERLY CONFRONT

An element that is relevant to both parenting and self-care is the way which we orient ourselves toward Being (which transcends our own individuality) and Becoming (individual, family, community development).  Recognize the spark of Being in all people, and positively participate in their inevitable tendency to Become.  Said non-metaphysically:  Affirm human dignity and encourage proper human development.  Do not merely affirm weakness and confusion when encouragement will improve the situation.  Growth is Life.  Life is Growth.  When children are confused or in trouble, they need an adult to help them with the tyranny of painful immaturity.[20]  This help often comes in the form of a broader perspective or a re-statement in your belief the child’s ability to survive the situation and maybe even improve it.  After all, to encourage someone means to instill courage in that person, to conjure their inner-strength out into the world.

A spectacular example of a parent’s proper alignment with Being and Becoming is the story of Mary with her son Jesus at the wedding of Cana.[21] I will paraphrase.  They are at a wedding party.  Jesus had not yet unleashed his potential as Logos and was apparently a little uncertain about the matter.  Mary, who was aware of his potential and his latent capabilities, felt the urge to prompt her son out of his comfort zone.  Meanwhile, the party runs out of wine.  Mary tells her son, “Hey, son, they ran out of wine.”  Her son, perhaps feeling a little self-conscious about his mother’s expectations of him, says, “I’m not ready yet.  It isn’t my time.”  Because Mary knows her son so well, and knows what type of pushing, and how much, will end poorly, she doesn’t push him directly any more.  She has provided a space of possibility for him.  She has informed her son that she knows the seed that is growing within him needs water and sunshine.  She provided some.  She tells the servants at the party, “do whatever my son asks you to do.”  She might as well have told her son, “I have known you since before you could talk and I know who you are.  You might be uneasy with yourself, but I am not.  You are great, and this is a chance to show yourself to the world.  Be the Logos that can transform the mundane to the spiritual.  Son, turn water into wine.”  The rest is history.  Mary honored his Being while prompting his Becoming.  She affirmed his dignity while encouraging his growth.  Nearby were six stone jars used to hold liquids for Jewish rites of purification.  Jesus told the servants, “Fill them with water!”  After they did so, Jesus told them to pour some out and give it to the chief steward.  After tasting it, the chief steward declared that this water for traditional Jewish purification has been transformed to a “spirit,” wine.  At his mother’s prompting, Jesus revealed the transformative power of Logos.  Atta girl, Mary.  A serious parenting “win.”

We sometimes talk of the “character” we instill in our children.  The Greek root of character is “kharássō,” or, “I scratch, engrave.”  As a noun, “kharaktḗr,” is an engraving instrument, a person who engraves, or a stamp.[22]  To have “good character” or “bad character” is to have been “well-etched” or “poorly etched” during your life.  Good character is not instilled via passive affirmation.  If we can agree that instilling “good character” is desirable then we must investigate what generates good character.  Is it merely affirming our children’s qualities as sufficient?  No!  It does no good to delude them with the impression that their current manifestation as fragile and larval selves is sufficient to engage with a hostile and thorny world.  They must obtain the necessary tools and garments[23] with which to face the world beyond our front doors.  Yes, affirmation is critical for a child.  We must affirm their potential.  We must affirm their sacred and fragile spark of Humanity while carefully fanning it.  We must affirm the Being within them while encouraging their Becoming.  For their own well-being, we must simultaneously honor their innocence while conjuring their potential.  Confrontation with the world, affirmation of fragility, Being and Becoming are not mutually exclusive but must be artfully employed and honored in the right dimensions.  Only a parent has the amount of love and dedication required to work out such intricacies. 

Suppose every individual has a particular capacity, unique to them, for resilience and strength of character.  (There is room for debate over that idea, but bear with me.)  Resilience and strength of character are not merely generated by will.  They are tapped, conjured, called upon, only in the personal confrontation with challenge, difficulty, and complication.  If strength of character and resilience are manifest only through confrontation and engagement, and every individual has a unique capacity for resilience, then there must be, for every individual, a given volume of duress required for the child to manifest their latent potential.  Let me rephrase that.  To maximize a person’s resilience is to optimize their exposure to challenge.  Notice I didn’t say “maximize their exposure to challenge.”  Optimize.  One of our primary parental duties is to know our children so well that we know what kind of challenges and how much of those challenges will foster their optimal development.  We can only gain such knowledge after we first affirm their individual sovereignty.  After we honor the Being within them, we get insight into how to best help them Become.  The parents’ broader world view will invariably affect the process.

An important consideration, that we often apply unconsciously, is that when we interact with a child, we are not simply interacting with them at their current age and role.  When we interact with our child, we are interacting with multiple people simultaneously.  When we offer guidance, for example, we are actually becoming involved with the future child.  At all moments, we are dealing with the present child, future student and her study habits, the future girlfriend and her emotional fortitude, the future spouse (and her ideal husband!), the future employee and her reliability, et cetera.  To get really spacey, we are actually even dealing, maybe too much sometimes, with a child from the past who lives only in our imagination and hopes.  The point here is that the desired outcome of parenting is not merely a pleasant child, but a competent adult.

COMFORTABLE DECAY VS.  UNCOMFORTABLE GROWTH

In a culture of immediate gratification, resilience is under attack.  The attack is not coming from individuals as much as it is from conditions of material well-being and ease.[24]  I don’t know anyone who would debate that in the face of flamboyant material wealth we are experiencing a problematic volume of psychological dis-ease.  In such a world, might a customized austerity be the best gift we can give our children?  In an absurdly cruel irony, material and physical well-being might just be the source of our unhappiness.  Now, perhaps more than ever, we must grapple with our responsibilities towards our children’s needs to Become.  Paradoxically, this modern era of material fecundity is confronting adults with the inner, immaterial, realm as the location where we are to confront our most productive challenges.  If meaning can be generated by physical deprivation[25] what generates meaning in physical opulence?  The Modern landscape for making meaning and Becoming must lay largely inside ourselves.

PRIORITIES

There is indeed, largely ungraspable, transcendent Being, and within it, as incomplete expressions of the infinite, humans Become.  But become what, exactly?  Exploring that question is our parental task.  If parenting a child is a window into a reality bigger than ourselves, then the only proper response is our own personal transformation toward the highest ideal. 

Am I suggesting that we abandon our pursuit of practical parenting tips for meditation upon ancient abstractions?  Of course not.  But while we might busily read books and worry often about our children, we must not confuse motion with progress.  Let us remain tuned to the more fundamental frequencies that govern our lives and listen through the static of the culture’s conflicting manifestations of noise.  Let us, from time to time, deliberate upon our understanding of Humanity and what our fundamental parental responsibilities are.  Let us, from time to time, deliberate upon our personal orientations with Being and Becoming.  If we live in an expanding universe, then a part of ourselves is expanding as part of it.  We can’t help but Become.  Let’s do it properly.


[1] This is how Plato summarized Heraclitus’ position in his dialogue, Cratylus.

[2] Evelyn Underhill’s magnificent treatise on the subject, The Mystic Way (J. M. Dent and Sons, 1913), focuses squarely on the time period of Christ through the end of the fourth century A.D., while the theology of what was to become The New Testament was being hotly debated and ironed out.  She carefully puts the psychology and spiritual practice of the early Christian mystic in the context of the then-current spiritual, ritual, and philosophical trends and leanings.

[3] This is evident in the Johannine biblical writings, many biblical Pauline passages, and writings of Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Plotinus, and Proclus, to name a few.

[4] Exodus 3:14. See discussion in Jewish Publication Society’s Torah Commentary: Exodus.

[5] Exodus 3:14. King James Bible, New Revised Standard Bible.

[6] Exodus 3:14. This exact translation is used in the Apostolic Bible Polyglot, Second Edition, 2013.  

[7] See especially, preface to gospel of John where the metaphysics of relations between Logos and ultimate Reality are elaborated.  For more on Logos, read Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BC).  There is ongoing debate regarding whether or not the Johannine gospel grew out of ancient Greek questions or ancient Hebrew wisdom literature.  That is beyond the scope of this article.

[8] See an appendix in David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament for a thorough treatment on the prologue to the gospel of John and a look at Logos.

[9] See Pauliina Remes, Plotinus on Self: The Philosophy of the ‘We’, Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007, where in the first chapter, the author explores Plotinus’ ontology of eternal existence and the fluidity of temporal becoming within the human composite.

[10] Moses’ encounter with I AM in a cloud.  Also, the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor and Christ’s Ascension.

[11] For example, Jesus’ seven “I Am” statements in John, and Paul’s description of physical versus metaphysical existence (I Corinthians, chap. 15).

[12] For a comprehensive discussion regarding both the dignity of Modernity (differentiation of art, morality, science) and disaster of Modernity (dissociation of art, morality, science) see Ken Wilber’s books, especially The Marriage of Sense and Soul.

[13] Much is made about the absurdities in the denial of anything transcendent so I will not belabor the point here.

[14] Consider that Rousseau’s interpretation of “blank slate” as it relates to the un-cultured mind of a child as effectively worshipping the child’s Being.  His ideas of the uncorrupted “noble savage” also apply to the uncivilized child.  Here, instead of looking above the child for ultimate value, he either flattens the hierarchy of Being, or deifies the child’s innocence (both moves are effectively the same.)

[15] Mona Delahooke, Beyond Behavior.

[16] Warren Farrell, The Boy Crisis.

[17] “There can be no doubt that that it is of the utmost value for parents to view their children’s symptoms in light of their own problems and conflicts.  It is their duty as parents to do so.  Their responsibility in this respect carries with it the obligation to do everything in their power not to lead a life that could harm the children… Parents should always be conscious of the fact that they themselves are the principle cause of neurosis in their children.”  C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 17, par 84.

“What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents… have not lived.  This statement would be rather too perfunctory and superficial if we did not add by way of qualification:  that part of their lives which might have been lived had not certain somewhat threadbare excuses prevented the parents from doing so.  To put it bluntly, it is that part of life which they have always shirked, probably by means of a pious lie, that sows the most virulent germs.”  Ibid, par 87

“Parental influence only becomes a moral problem in face of conditions which might have been changed by the parents, but were not, either from gross negligence, slothfulness, neurotic anxiety, or soulless conventionality.  In this matter a grave responsibility often rests with the parents.  And nature has no use for the plea that one ‘did not know.’” Ibid, par 91

[18] “Every individual needs revolution, inner division, overthrow of the existing order, and renewal, but not by forcing these things upon his neighbors under the hypocritical cloak of Christian love or the sense of social responsibility or any of the other beautiful euphemisms for unconscious urges to personal power. Individual self-reflection, return of the individual to the ground of human nature, to his own deepest being with its individual and social destiny here is the beginning of a cure for that blindness which reigns at the present hour.”  C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 7, p. 5

“Every advance in culture is, psychologically, an extension of consciousness, a coming to consciousness that can take place only through discrimination. Therefore, an advance always begins with individuation, that is to say with the individual, conscious of his isolation, cutting a new path through hitherto untrodden territory. To do this he must first return to the fundamental facts of his own being, irrespective of all authority and tradition, and allow himself to become conscious of his distinctiveness. If he succeeds in giving collective validity to his widened consciousness, he creates a tension of opposites that provides the stimulation which culture needs for its further progress.”  C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 8, p. 111

“We do not sufficiently distinguish between Individualism and individuation. Individualism means deliberately stressing and giving prominence to some supposed peculiarity, rather than to collective considerations and obligations. But individuation means precisely the better and more complete fulfilment of the collective qualities of the human being, since adequate consideration of the peculiarity of the individual is more conducive to better social achievement than when the peculiarity is neglected or suppressed.” Collected Works, Vol 7, p. 267

[19]  “It is not possible to live too long amid infantile surroundings, or in the bosom of the family, without endangering one’s psychic health. Life calls us forth to independence, and anyone who does not heed this call because of childish laziness or timidity is threatened with neurosis. And once this has broken out, it becomes an increasingly valid reason for running away from life and remaining forever in the morally poisonous atmosphere of infancy.” C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 461

[20] A modern dilemma is the treatment of young people’s ideas about sexual preferences and gender identity.  We know positively that parental abuse can affect psycho-sexual development in children.  In public discourse, it seems we know more about how to identify certain types of abuse and how it affects our children’s psycho-sexual development than we know about proper adult handling of the child’s confusion and uncertainty on such matters.  What is the opposite of abuse when our child surprises us with questions or statements about their own identity?  When does guidance become hurtful (and is that hurt harmful)?  When does affirmation become abusive?

[21] John 2:1-11

[22] Wikionary.org here and here

[23] Jonathan Pageau’s analyses of “garments of skin” (Genesis 3:21) and symbolism of hair are fantastically worthwhile.

[24] “Psychological insecurity, however, increases in proportion to social security, unconsciously at first, causing neuroses, then consciously, bringing with it separations, discord, divorces, and other marital disorders.”  C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol 17, par. 343

[25] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Warning to the West, Gulag Archipelago.

Our Highest Identity

Is our culture moving backwards? 

In the last hundred years we have seen a tremendous change in society. In the West, rights and privileges have expanded and there is relative peace and prosperity. Until recently, it looked as if Martin Luther King’s dream for his children, “not to be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” was a real possibility.

But today group identity is increasing in importance. Rather than seeking to look beyond race, today at the University of Minnesota it is deemed a ‘microaggression’ to say “There is only one race, the human race”, because it denies the individual as a racial being.* Little girls’ clothing bears girl-power logos like, “the Future is Female.” Many say these efforts are to correct imbalance and educate children about bigotry and their own “implicit bias” (depending on their race), but to me it seems incredibly divisive. Academia in Social Sciences focus much of their research on the differences between groups and how one group victimizes others. Rather than seeking reconciliation and understanding, politically-motivated professors seem determined to increase tension. Douglas Murray, in his recent book, The Madness of Crowds, told of a recent speech given by a professor at Boston University, who she said, “I’d like to be less white, which means a little less oppressive, oblivious, defensive, ignorant, and arrogant.” Murray writes, “To her audience in Boston she also explained how white people who see people as individuals rather than by their skin colour are in fact ‘dangerous’. Meaning that it took only half a century for Martin Luther King’s vision to be exactly inverted.”

Every human being is intended to have a character of his own; to be what no others are, and to do what no other can do.

William Henry Channing

Supremacy of Group or Self?

The current era of “identity politics” is worrying me. I hate to step into “political” realms in my writing, but as parents I think it is critical that we see these new trends for what they are – an undermining of individual freedom.  I think perhaps, in part, I am particularly concerned because I am raising bi-racial kids in an race-obsessed society. I am not as worried about the prejudice or racism my children will face, as the rising supremacy of groupthink. I have seen what being a member of a group often requires – a sacrificing of self and conscience to preserve the identity of the group.  I have seen the backlash received by those who are judged unworthy by other members of the group.  

I remember in high school that I loved watching  skateboarders do their tricks and was incredibly impressed by their abilities. I wondered why they all ended up dressing and speaking the same way – baggy pants and long hair.  Why did they all do pot behind the school? They all seemed to be rebelling against the world’s expectations – but they were all rebelling in the exact same way, only creating a smaller world of expectations.  In our teenage years, we lack confidence; we are seeking for our place in the world. Often, we end up attempting to find identity in a group. We outsource the work of discovering ourselves and instead become a cookie cutter image of the next skateboarder.  But what if one of those kids had decided – I love skateboarding but I will remain a unique person of character and not identify myself merely as a skateboarder?  Then he could freely choose to not smoke pot and wear whatever pants he wanted.  It would be tough to break off, but then he could be free of their limitations. He would gain the power, as an individual of choice, to show a higher way to his skateboarding friends. Skateboarding would be something he enjoys, not a confining group with stifling definitions. I hope the increasing focus on group identity is a stage our society and teenagers can grow out of. 

Parliamentary Recruiting Committee Poster, London

“The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.”

Albert Einstein

My kids favorite football player is Russell Wilson.  He was once asked to respond to statements made by some other football players complaining that he wasn’t “black enough”. I found his response interesting.  

“In terms of me, ‘not black enough’ thing, I don’t even know what that means. I believe that I am an educated young male that is not perfect, that tries to do things right – ,that just tries to lead and tries to help others and tries to win games for this football team, for this franchise. And that’s all I focus on. … I think, for us, there are no distractions at all. I think it was people trying to find ways to knock us down.”

He seemed confused and uncomfortable by the line of questioning. It is obvious that in his own personal “hierarchy of identity,” Wilson saw himself as – Russell the individual – on the top, or near the top of his self-identity ladder. Who knows where his other identities were positioned?  Maybe he put quarterback above African American; maybe he put Christian even above Russell (he is devout). But it occurs to me that where we place our various identities on this ladder is also where we place our value, our responsibility, our actions and our worth. 

“Achievement has no color”

Abraham Lincoln
Russell Wilson, Quarterback Seattle Seahawks

Group Identity: Glory and Blame

The other day I was listening to the classical radio station and the male DJ said, “This was conducted by the first female conductor from Hungary. What a step for women everywhere and a sign of a progressing society!”

I found this statement very patronizing. Perhaps I was projecting, but I assumed this woman had the same personal hierarchy ladder I did – putting her individual self on top. If I were this conductor and heard women and society given the glory, and my own name mentioned as an afterthought – I would have felt cheated. She likely did have to overcome a lot because she was a woman, but she is the one who overcame. Instead of honoring her personal accomplishment, the credit went to her gender and society.

The downside of placing the individual on the top of the identity ladder is that the person has to take the responsibility and the blame. Many of us opt to stand on the group identity rung because responsibility can be swallowed up by the group. It’s like fighting in a crowd – you become a nameless and faceless actor. But more importantly, you can be a victim of an entire group’s circumstances – whether or not it is an honest reality for you. I personally am only too willing to step down the ladder a few rungs and say it was not me that was at fault, but the repression brought upon me by one of my identities. I can step down to my mother rung and complain, “Our society is not family-friendly anymore; it’s so hard to raise competent kids with all these electronics,” despite the fact that I have the capability of preventing access to electronics. But when my children succeed, I don’t give glory to mother-kind for overcoming, or praise society for supporting me. No, when my children achieve, I get to boast on my personal Facebook page.

Country Girl Leaning Against Ladder, Silvestro Lega

Confusion of Shifting identities

Rather than giving ourselves strict identities we usually end up moving up and down the ladder whenever it suits us, taking credit individually and then abdicating it to a sub-identity when things get tough.  This is not to say that some of our identities do not cause hardships – they do. However, I believe that if we place ourselves on top – unique person of character- and the buck stops with us, then we will be properly oriented toward the world. But we have to stay there, in good times and bad. This is where we gain the strength to face the hardships lower down. This is where choice happens, where progress is made. We accept that the identities below us will influence us for good or bad – but they are secondary to us – as an individual of free will.  

When society starts placing group identity higher than individual identity, it creates a world that doesn’t know where to hand out blame or glory. Rather than Russell Wilson being a unique person of character, he was given a new identity by his interviewer: black man of character. Well that seems fine, there is certainly nothing wrong with being black – but what if the first part of this new identity (black man) is questioned by other members of that group? Is he really black enough? If that identity is given precedence, then failing there is more important than failing at character. Being honest and hardworking matters little now, only not being good at being black.

We all want to see the end of racism, sexism and bigotry.  But how do we do that? Bigotry is one thing only – refusing to see the individual. Let’s not go back to labels. Let’s not assume a person’s views or judge them for not holding to the expectations of a group.  Let them show themselves to us.  

“Once you label me you negate me.”

Søren Kierkegaard

The Rung of Character

Mt. Elbrus, Nikolaj Alexandrowitsch Jaroschenko

The rung we stand on is where we get value.  When we stand as an individual, we expect to be treated as an individual. We know we will get the blame but we also  know we will get the credit. We know that the choices we make are made by us and that we are not victims of the choices of other members of a group. We do not have to fall in line with the expectations of a group or make the mistakes groups often make. We will certainly experience difficulty because of identities below us on the ladder.  Racism, sexism, bigotry are real things. But if we stand as an individual of character, we find the strength to face the battles below us on the ladder, and we gain the confidence to let struggles below us not define us.

“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

Rudyard Kipling

As parents, we must teach our children to stand on the rung individual character. If we start to see our child conforming to a group by dressing, speaking, or acting in line with the expectations of friends or online discussion groups, we must remind them where confidence is built. We must teach them that when they give up their individuality, they give up freedom. We must be examples of free will, unswayed by others expectations, unashamed to live life independently and obeying our own conscience. This will require more sacrifice and responsibility, than those that opt to define themselves by group. But our children’s self-worth will grow as they see that their choices can improve their lives, and that they can live one rung above the childish fray of cliques and “in-groups”.

Transcendent Identity

“To see God is to stand at the highest point of created being.”

George MacDonald
Ladder of Divine Ascent, 12th Century Icon

The limitation of group-identity is you get worth and judgment from the group. But despite its preference, the rung individual of character also has a weakness. If we seek validation from the individuals of this world, we will only be valuable according to earth-bound measurements – beauty, intelligence, wealth, performance. These terrestrial measurements are shaky; they don’t take our internal world into account – our soul – this is a world only God can know.

“Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God…we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

1 John 3

As a Christian I would say there is rung above individual of character, and that is the rung of a Child of God. A Child of God does not get his/her worth from individual accomplishment, or group accomplishments – but from God Himself. This rung is safe and stable in its height, it has a strong Hand steadying it. The worth and value gained from this identity does not change with worldly praise or disdain. God looks at us as his children who are forever learning, having successes and failures, but secure in his love. Faith and sacrifice are required to stay on this rung but the peace and joy we gain surpasss any glories the world can provide.

“Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.”

C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian

I think this song, by Lauren Diagle, should be a soundtrack playing in every young and grown woman’s heart. I listen to it when I need to be reminded to move up to the Child of God rung, to accept the value given me by God, not the condemnation often given by the world. “In You I find my worth, in You I find my identity”…

-Ally

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Relevant Resources:

Interview with Douglas Murray on the modern epidemic of Identity Politics

1917 and Remembering Who We Are, Bishop Robert Barron (A great piece on how following the wrong identity can lead to horrific tragedies – such as WWI) https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/1917-and-remembering-who-we-are/26302/

*Microaggressions at University of Minnesota https://sph.umn.edu/site/docs/hewg/microaggressions.pdf

The Patience of God

“This Helper who will, in the long run, be satisfied with nothing less than absolute perfection, will also be delighted with the first feeble, stumbling effort you make tomorrow to do the simplest duty. Every father is pleased at the baby’s first attempt to walk: no father would be satisfied with anything less than a firm, free, manly walk in a grown-up son. In the same way, ‘God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.”

C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity)

The relationship between God and his children is a model for the ideal relationship between parents and children – easy to please, yet hard to satisfy.  I love the analogy of a baby learning to walk. As parents, we want our children to walk. We know we can’t do it for them; they have to figure it out themselves. But we still have a powerful role to play, a Helper as they stumble uphill towards greatness.

How we react to our children’s first steps and the role we play in their striving will frame their experience in life. Sometimes we may want to discourage our nine-month old who is already trying to walk. She is still a baby, she will hurt herself! I am not ready for her to grow up. While an understandable reaction, this is Stifling Motherhood – low expectations and ultimately selfish. Other times, as was the case with my overly-contented babies, we are frustrated by our chubby 14-month old who is still satisfied with his crawling. Is there something wrong with this kid? Why can’t he just walk! This is Disappointed Motherhood. Because our expectations are too high, we miss being present with our current child- the glorious crawler. We have already forgotten our joy at his mastery of that long-awaited skill.

As a previous post explained, we need to have proper expectations for our children. These should be high, but adapted to each child’s capabilities, personality, and talents. We can have high hopes for our child but we must also glory in every feeble step they take- no matter how imperfect or delayed. Expectations become a burden when children feel incapable of achieving them, or when parents never seem content with their efforts. 

Girl with Watering Can, Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The Answer of Patience – Joy

So what is this God-like attribute described in the quotation above? How do we maintain our hard-to-satisfy expectations while glorying in our children’s journey? The answer – Patience. God looks upon our feeble and halting steps here on earth as a Loving Father towards his learning toddlers. Just as we would never shame our two-year-old who tearfully admits to knocking over the lamp, He does not chasen us when we trip and fall short of perfection. He freely forgives, if spiritual toddlers even need forgiveness. God may well laugh at our distraught anxiety at our imperfections – just as I chuckle at my three-year-old’s frustration that she can’t ride the hoverboard like her big brother. He knows the timeline, he is in no rush, but the expectation remains the same. Our immaturities do not demand condemnation. They simply require patience and perseverance. Perfectionism is the thief of joy.*

A few years ago, I began praying for patience every night – having 5 kids under 7 can do that to a woman. One night after a day full of my own impatience, I had the thought, Maybe I am doing this wrong. Do I even really know what I am requesting? I would pray, “Please give me patience with these kids’ disobedience! Give me patience with my cold and moldy basement apartment! And please give it to me now!” I don’t think I actually wanted patience. I wanted my wishes granted. I wanted submissive kids and to get out of that basement.

So what is the patience we seek? It can’t simply be learning to wait because necessity requires that. It also isn’t an ability to stop wanting things. We need our desire so we feel compelled to crawl, walk, and run. Good desires should not be abandoned on the altar of “patience”, and waiting without action is no virtue. What we need is to develop God’s patience. Patience is finding joy while we wait. We don’t wait to have joy when our kids are perfectly compliant or our house is above-ground but we find pleasure in the here and now, while we wait. Rather than begrudging that my chunky baby wasn’t walking, I could glory in his crawling. Instead of complaining about living in dilapidated student-housing, I could buy heavy curtains and rejoice in my space-heaters.

“The principle part of faith is patience.”

George MacDonald

When our children start to walk, but continue to fall; or when they get discouraged and refuse to attempt the journey into our welcoming arms, we show them God’s Patience. We also accept that our Helper’s patience is there for us as well, in our stumbling steps as a mother.  We strive to be better, and delight in each and every small stride. We bless our children with a joyful mother, modeled after our joyful Father, glorying in their small steps toward greatness. 

  • Ally

*I hope to do a future post on dropping the load of worldly “perfectionism”.

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