We arrive needy. We are not the only creatures who arrive needy. Baby birds cannot fly straight away and rely on Mama and Papa Bird to bring worms to enable strength-gathering to face inevitable eviction from the nest.
"A sea otter spends its whole life in the ocean but cannot swim or feed itself when it is born. The mother carries her pup on her belly most of the day while she floats on her back and cleans and feeds it. When it’s time for the mother to dive for food, she wraps her pup in kelp to hide it from predators. A baby sea otter needs a thick coat of fur (500,000 hairs per square inch) that with regular grooming by mom, keeps the pup floating on the ocean surface like a cork until her mother returns." ~ ©Clare Hodgson Meeker www.claremeeker.com
That’s a whole lot of work right there for Otter Mom.
But what does differentiate us from most other animals is the duration it takes for us to develop, and to be fully functioning as independent for the kind of animal we are (social, relational, cultural). It takes much longer - as in way, way longer - than the development requirements that other animal babies need to reach, in order to have their capacity to survive and thrive - independent of their parents - arrive at the level it needs to.
In my work of the last 36 years I have been fascinated and driven by understanding this dynamic of having needs, and the ways in which we either succeed or fail in getting them met.
To reiterate: we arrive needy. In this way we are like our fellow creature infants. We need food, we need shelter, we need safety. We also come with inbuilt mechanisms for having those needs met.
We produce a sound (crying) which escalates in intensity as a way of signalling an unmet need. This sound is designed to be intolerable to our care-givers who will therefore do whatever it takes to satiate the need so that the sound stops (unless they are really badly damaged humans - see next paragraph for more on this rather tricky scenario).
Before long we also learn to imitate a particular kind of facial expression - smiling - which produces, for the most part, a phenomenally satisfactory response from whomever we bestow it on, namely connection and attention. Since we are the infant version of a relational species, this ability to gain and keep benign attention focused on us by smiling proves to be a very effective survival strategy.
Unfortunately for us, we have one monumental obstacle to overcome in getting our needs met as human babies. We are relying on people who are carrying with them the consequences of not having had their needs met, to meet ours.
What human babies really need in order to not only survive but thrive and develop into fully functioning independent human “grown-ups”, is parents and/or caregivers who are themselves fully functioning independent grown-ups.
And as Mr Shakespeare would say “therein lies the rub”.
A very dear friend of mine once told me a tale of how she had to leave her babies with their father and go far away (we’re talking literally the Outer Hebrides) in order to do the inner work needed to overcome the rage she experienced when what her toddler and infant needed from her was the kind of mothering she herself had never received.
To be asked to give from an empty vessel is enough to make anyone feel helpless, inadequate and fearful. These are not feelings that make for good parenting.
It’s the archetypal vicious circle. The more they need from us that which we are ill-equipped to produce (because we never experienced it ourselves), the more both we and they spiral in a vortex of unmet needs. The little ones desperately need us to be adequate, the big ones are in a Greek tragedy: epic proportions of inadequacy.
Add into this messy mix the acquisition of language - “the house of being” says German philosopher Martin Heidegger (regulars know by now how much I love that quote!), and the layers of complexity deepen. With each experience of unmet need plus language, both that of our parents’ and our own, we start to interpret the events and formulate assumptions. In the Thinking Environment we sometimes refer to these as bedrock assumptions: about ourselves, and about the way the world is.
And then it gets even gooier! Because assumptions drive behaviour, and the behaviour they drive generally produces results that confirm the assumptions, so they harden into beliefs which drive whole patterns of behaviour about how we are not worthy or deserving of getting our needs met - and so we don’t, and on it goes.
In case anyone, by now, is finding themselves wondering if I’ve gotten out of the wrong side of the bed in 2022, and that this is a gloomy note on which to start the year, fear not! Because the flip side of this conundrum is that assumptions are made up in the first place. And therefore ……. Yes! You guessed it. They can be changed.
It’s not always easy because the early ones were generated in response to what felt like threats to our survival. From food, shelter and safety we quickly graduate to more nuanced needs like approval and self-esteem (crazily interlocking needs, difficult to have one without the other - a real chicken and egg dynamo duo), and when we fail to meet our parents' needs for compliance with a whole raft of illogical requirements for which they have no explanation other than “because I said so”, approval gets withdrawn. It’s like living directly under the guillotine.
And, to top it all - and this really does take the biscuit, part of the psychological survival-wired pattern of logic in children is that it’s better to blame oneself for what’s going wrong in these scenarios than come to the much more accurate conclusion that it is one’s parents (on whom one is still dependent for food, shelter and safety - of sorts - ) who are faulty as all heck. So, we assume we are not worthy, not good enough, not loveable, not deserving and then set out (unwittingly) to prove ourselves right. Survive we do. Thrive, well not so much.
Until! We go back to Heidegger. And we realise that language is the house of being, and that we are the authors. We have been all along. And that minds are made for changing. Then, if we are lucky, we find ourselves a Thinking Partner and we think our way out of the box of our self-imposed constraints. We surface and remove the untrue, limiting assumptions, and we create afresh. We generate new ones, liberating ones. And then we apply our liberating assumptions to our needs and we discover what true independence is: our ability to meet our needs ourselves. And then we grow up.
The vision of The Global Faculty of Thinking Environment Teachers is for every human being to be born into and live, from birth to death, in a Thinking Environment. Imagine that world! May whatever each of us does with our wild and precious lives this year contribute to that! Amandla! Amen! Haux Haux!