Sunday, January 20, 2008

History Through the Eyes of a Child

As I mentioned a while back, the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson is one of the first theorists to try show the relationship between psychological development and social thought and behavior. While I'm waiting for the coffee to perform its magic, I'll just recap the Wikipedia article:

"Psychosocial development as articulated by Erik Erikson describes eight developmental stages through which a healthily developing human should pass from infancy to late adulthood. In each stage the person confronts, and hopefully masters, new challenges. Each stage builds on the successful completion of earlier stages. The challenges of stages not successfully completed may be expected to reappear as problems in the future."

I want to focus in particular on the first stage -- birth to 18 months -- vis-à-vis what we were discussing yesterday about the terrible treatment of children in the past. Again, from the Wiki article -- it's somewhat poorly written, but you get the point:

*****
Psychosocial Crisis: Trust vs. Mistrust

"Developing trust is the first task of the ego, and it is never complete. The child will let its mother out of sight without anxiety and rage because she has become an inner certainty as well as an outer predictability. The balance of trust with mistrust depends largely on the quality of the maternal relationship.

Main question asked: Is my environment trustworthy or not?
Central Task: Receiving care
Positive Outcome: Trust in people and the environment
Ego Quality: Hope
Definition: Enduring belief that one can attain one’s deep and essential wishes
Developmental Task: Social attachment; Maturation of sensory, perceptual, and motor functions; Primitive causality.
Significant Relations: Maternal parent

"Erikson proposed that the concept of trust versus mistrust is present throughout an individual’s entire life. Therefore if the concept is not handled properly during infancy, the individual may be negatively affected and never fully immerse themselves in the world. For example, a person may hide themselves from the outside world and be unable to form healthy and long-lasting relationships with others, or even themselves. If an individual does not learn to trust themselves, others and the world around them then they may lose the virtue of hope, which is directly linked to this concept. If a person loses their belief in hope they will struggle with overcoming hard times and failures in their lives, and may never fully recover from them. This would prevent them from learning and maturing into a fully-developed person if the concept of trust versus mistrust was improperly learned, understood and used in all aspects of their lives."

*****

Now, if Erikson is close to even half-correct, it shouldn't be too difficult to detect huge societal differences based upon the quality of childcare. Among other things, we should see at a minimum a persistent lack of trust, and possibly outright paranoia. We should see disturbances in the ability to apprehend linear causality. We should see relationships tinged by anger, impulsivity, and envy. We should see a kind of hopelessness toward the world, and therefore futility about the possibility of change.

So, what does Stone find in his examination of late medieval society? He pretty much sees the contemporary Islamic world: "The violence of everyday life seems to have been accompanied by much mutual suspicion and a low general level of emotional interaction and commitment. Alienation and distrust of of one's fellow man are the predominant features.... The basic assumption is that no one is to be trusted, since anyone and everyone -- wife, servants, children, friends, neighbors, or patrons -- are only kept loyal by self-interest, and may, therefore, at any moment turn out to be enemies."

Stone cites so much fascinating evidence for his conclusions that it is impossible to duplicate it here. Remember, he's not saying that everyone was this way, only that it was the psychohistorical "mode," if you will -- just as you wouldn't say that every American is trustworthy, honest, transparent, and hopeful, even though most Americans are. It is just that, as Stone writes, prior to modernity, a majority of individuals "found it very difficult to establish close emotional ties to any person. Children were often neglected, brutally treated, and even killed; many adults treated each other with suspicion and hostility; affect was low, and hard to find."

(By the way, yes, I am well familiar with Rodney Stark's revisionist works on the Middle Ages, but I don't think they fundamentally contradict anything here; first, there was nothing "Christian" about the thought and behavior we're discussing, and in fact, Christianity ultimately pushed the populace toward a higher ideal of emotional health. Secondly, the evolution of technology took place on a parallel psychohistorical track, as there is no necessary relationship between this and other trends.)

Of note, as I was saying the other day, it is not as if everyone need be paranoid and suspicious for the entire society to become so, just as a sane Palestinian had better keep it to himself if he secretly admires the Jews, or an American university professor had better hold his tongue if he thinks there are some intrinsic differences between men and women. Under such primitive conditions, it's probably a good strategy to act as primitive as the majority of the tenured in our occupied universities.

For the same reason, the Parable of the Tribes teaches that we had better have as much capacity for violence as our most primitive enemy, or face being conquered by that enemy. This is why the most decent country in the world must have the biggest military. It's not a paradox at all, liberal fatheads.

In his classic Autumn of the Middle Ages, Huizinga paints a similar picture to Stone. Since paranoia was the norm, it shouldn't be surprising that people "condemned as basically sinful" the "entire sphere of the beautification of life with an exception being made in cases where such efforts assumed expressly religious forms..." He discusses at length the "gruesome fascination" with sadistic violence, and how criminal execution was "an important element in the spiritual nourishment of the people" (I would say psychological nourishment).

The courts invented horrible punishments that it is almost beyond our capacity to imagine, unless we happen to be from the Muslim world. I was going to describe some of them, but I think I'll skip it. But I'm sure you remember the scene at the end of Braveheart, when Mel Gibson is being drawn and quartered. Read here for the details of what that procedure entrailed, I men, entailed, and then ask yourself, "what kind of perverse imagination came up with this?" You can almost picture a scene from a Monty Python movie (this comes to mind), in which the authorities are trying to top each other in their cruelty. It's so "over the top" in its sadism, and yet, people watched on in fascination, as if they were viewing a horror flick:

"What strikes us about the judicial cruelty of the later Middle Ages is not the perverse sickness of it, but the dull, animal-like enjoyment, the country fair-like amusement, it provided for the people.... [They] cannot get enough of the spectacle of [suspects] undergoing repeated torture. The people delay executions, which the victims themselves request, for the enjoyment of seeing them subjected to even more sufferings" (Huizinga). It is difficult for us to comprehend "the incredible harshness, the lack of tender sentiment, the cruel mockery, and the pleasure of watching others suffer."

(Incidentally, in my opinion, liberal hysteria over our "torture" of terrorists is a transparent projection of their own naked sadism. Once you think about it, it becomes obvious, given the level of ungoverned and free-floating rage on the left. If you want to see a contemporary version of primitive sadism, just read the comments at huffingtonpost when Dick Cheney undergoes a heart procedure or Tony Snow undergoes chemotherapy. It gets so vicious that they have to turn off and hide the comments.)

Norbert Elias was one of the first to really dig into the historical evidence of childrearing practices, and draw out the psycho-cultural implications. As he wrote, "It seems as if grown-up people, in thinking about their origins, involuntarily lose sight of the fact that they themselves and all adults came into the world as little children. Over and over again, in the scientific myths of origin no less than the religious ones, they feel impelled to imagine: In the beginning was a single human being, who was an adult."

In fact, this is one of my biggest divergences from Schuon, whose spiritual insight is otherwise so extraordinarily lucid. Nevertheless, the developmental egg is undoubtedly prior to the historical chicken. As Elias puts it, "a child of the twelfth century develops a different structure of drives and consciousness from that of a twentieth century child." How could it not be, without undermining everything we know about child development? No emotionally healthy parent would ever treat a child in the manner they were routinely treated in the past. In fact, I think it is because we can't imagine it, that many historians just skip over the evidence. It's just too alien. Politically correct academics do the same thing with the contemporary Islamic world, what with its honor killings and general degradation of female children. They look but don't see.

Elias writes of how common infanticide was in the past. Indeed, I would suggest that the average pro-abortion person has more moral compunction about the procedure than the average person in the past had about outright infanticide. "Children came, they cried, they generated work, and the parents had no use for them.... Eliminating little children is easy. In ancient Greece and Rome we hear time and time again of infants thrown onto dungheaps or into rivers. Exposing children was part of everyday life. People were used to it. Until the late nineteenth century there was no law against infanticide."

Elias' general conclusion is that "a legend has become established which makes it look as if parental love and affection for their children is something more or less natural and, beyond that, an always stable, permanent and lifelong feeling. In this case, too, a social 'should' is transformed into the notion of a natural 'is.'"

But in the absence of the transcendent Ought, there is no humanity.

16 Comments:

Anonymous ximeze said...

"Now, if Erikson is close to even half-correct, it shouldn't be too difficult to detect huge societal differences based upon the quality of childcare. Among other things, we should see at a minimum a persistent lack of trust, and possibly outright paranoia. We should see disturbances in the ability to apprehend linear causality. We should see relationships tinged by anger, impulsivity, and envy. We should see a kind of hopelessness toward the world, and therefore futility about the possibility of change.

So, what does Stone find in his examination of late medieval society?"

Late medieval society???

Was sure you were citing Koskids/Huffnpoop etal.

Ok, back to reading

1/20/2008 09:54:00 AM  
Anonymous liberal fathead said...

OK, not really, couldn't resist, this is Will, and I'm not a liberal fathead. Well, I'm not liberal anyway.

>>if the concept is not handled properly during infancy, the individual may be negatively affected and never fully immerse themselves in the world <<

I do realize that infant neglect of the sort being discussed here results in a kind of "karmic knot" psychological binding to the family, perversely so, that is. Still, I have to wonder if it's also a distancing from family, tribe, etc., that, under the right conditions, and given the exercise of the human will, (which I don't believe ever entirely absent even in the worst environment), can't lead to a spiritual "escape velocity" - in other words, a genuine spiritual transcendence in which one does, in fact, transcend the psychological familial straightjacket.

Put simply (to the point of asininity, eh?), one could suffer from lack of trust due to childhood abuse/neglect, which ideally would spur one to seek out a source in which one could place real, permanent, indeed, eternal trust, which could eventually lead to discovery of and trust in *the* Source.

A tortuous journey, obviously, and an unlikely one, and yet - as we know, resistance is necessary for human spiritual growth. I've always waxed wondrous over the fact that such spiritual titans as Eckhart and St Francis could even have existed as exceptions in the times in which they lived, Are we to assume that the parenting they received was likewise as exceptional as they themselves were?

And given the improvements in parental care over the centuries, shouldn't we then be seeing, have seen, an exponential increase in saints?

I tend to think that it all comes down to how one perceives the nature of challenge, of trial and suffering.

1/20/2008 01:05:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

"Put simply (to the point of asininity, eh?), one could suffer from lack of trust due to childhood abuse/neglect, which ideally would spur one to seek out a source in which one could place real, permanent, indeed, eternal trust, which could eventually lead to discovery of and trust in *the* Source."

In the best cases, that is exactly what happens. For examples of the best and worst childrearing practices, I personally need look no farther than my own family in the past couple of generations (both sides). I was blessed beyond measure to have parents who did their level best to give their kids better than they got.

"I tend to think that it all comes down to how one perceives the nature of challenge, of trial and suffering."

Also true.

1/20/2008 01:30:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Will:

Yes, at the very least, one must be aware of historical ironies and unintended consequences-- of how the bad often leads to the good, and vice versa. Because of a difficult childhood, many people realize early on that "this can't be my home." Conversely, an indulged modern childhood may lead to adult frustration that one cannot achieve fulfillment on this plane. In other words, they may feel "too" at home, and therefore never be able to transcend.

It's hard to know if great people of the past achieved their greatness because, or in spite of, early deprivations and abuses. There must be a balance somewhere. I definitely don't want to fall into the trap of believing that we could create paradise on earth with good enough parenting.

1/20/2008 01:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read some things about chilhood in tribal/traditional Muslim families that make me question whether it is the birth to 18 months timeframe that is the problem. Necla Kelek, a TurkoGerman sociologist describes how very young boys must more or less renounce their maternal love in order to be men. At 7 and 8, they begin to see their role as watching over their mothers (and sisters) in a controlling manner. It may be that the violence of the separation from the mother is more the problem. If you can read German, I highly recommend her book "Die Verlorenen Sohne," which is available at amazon.de.

1/20/2008 02:05:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I think a problem in the Muslim world is exactly the "oedipal triumph" you describe (possession of the mother), which leads to guilt, anxiety, splitting, and disordered psychosexual relationships in general.

1/20/2008 02:14:00 PM  
Anonymous will said...

Julie -

>>I was blessed beyond measure to have parents who did their level best to give their kids better than they got<<

Very good. But to just to clarify what I was saying, I did not parents who did their level best, what with a generally absentee father who failed to be a father and an embittered mother.

As I result, I was very much the "incomplete" soul and I knew it. Had I been an inner city kid, I no doubt would have sought completeness in a gang and whatnot. Fortunately or providentially, my background was cultured enough so that I sought completeness via philosphical quest, art, and so forth, and eventually, spiritual inquiry and self-examination.

I like to think I've made some modest spiritual gains in my life. To be honest, I'm not sure at all this would have happened had I not been deprived of a psychologically sound parental upbringing. Sure, I probably would have been happily, securely "average", whatever that is. But . . .

So, I have to count my upbringing, as tumultuous and painful as it was at times, as a blessing. And I don't mean an accidental blessing. I mean a by-way-of Providence blessing.

1/20/2008 02:27:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Will,

"But to just to clarify what I was saying, I did not parents who did their level best, what with a generally absentee father who failed to be a father and an embittered mother."

Actually, then, our situations are closer than you might think. They did the best they knew, and did far better certainly than their parents - which is not to say they were perfect. My parents divorced when I was a teenager, and I was glad. My worst fear, at that point, was that my mother would leave - not because my dad was bad or abusive, but rather because in a lot of ways I was the adult in the relationship.

Like you, I am who I am because of who I was and the situations I had to live through. I don't regret any of it. I also don't plan to repeat the patterns - and so far, I haven't. Life is traumatic enough without adding to the chaos. I just hope when I'm a parent that I can give my kids the balance they need to live the best and most fulfilling lives they can.

1/20/2008 02:47:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Speaking of choices vs environment, I believe the future hope in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan lie in the children our troops so positively effect.

We will know more in a decade or two, but those guys are doin' more than just winning the war...they're sowing seeds of hope; planting concepts and ideas and demonstrating virtues that most of those children never would've seen much less considered.
I believe that will have a profound effect on the next generation.

God does, indeed, move in mysterious ways, and he honors our freedom to decide which path we'll take.
I'm certainly grateful for those key people in my life who saw in me something I didn't see, and who did all that they could to help me make informed decisions regarding life and death and everything in-between.

Like Will said, those hardships can be a huge blessing. It all depends on how we choose to respond to those challenges.

1/20/2008 03:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Nicholass said...

When I was a small boy of around 6 or 7 my mother decided I needed to take enemas twice a day, drink carrot juice, and avoid bread.

I became very thin and turned a light orange color.

Later she began to have me eat things like eggshells and little chunks of raw liver, or brewers yeast mixed with water. She gave me a supplement called DHE that made my prostate gland enlarge.

And yet, I never complained or suspected her of doing anything wrong, but when I turned about 40 years old I saw that it was all wrong.

I've forgiven her and I'm of normal weight and reasonably happy, but still, why do you suppose she treated me this way?

I'm puzzled and hurt by my experiences.

1/20/2008 04:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Jim said...

I wonder how the child offered for sale on Craig's list will fair

1/20/2008 04:27:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I might add that it has always been known that certain children are incredibly resilient, and seem to be able to shake off the most horrible trauma, while others who are temperamentally more sensitive can be crushed by routine frustrations and disappointments. In fact, the human race probably couldn't have survived without a fairly large number of the former.

Another way of putting it is that the individual soul is a wild card in all of this.

1/20/2008 05:47:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Not to mention that certain souls are born with a divine mission that they will be driven to accomplish despite the odds. The mission needn't be strictly religious. One immediately thinks of Alexander, Churchill, Lincoln, Washington, MLK, and so many others.

1/20/2008 05:54:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

By the way, Bob, thanks for this series. It has been very thought provoking.

1/20/2008 06:44:00 PM  
Blogger Van said...

"But in the absence of the transcendent Ought, there is no humanity."

And where the individual perceives that... that something ought to be... what gets the 'I' to break through the habits of seeing and doing, to see what is as it is, in order to see what ought to be? Pampered or persecuted, either one is just as able as the other to obscure. What can a culture contribute to that?

Science and reflection, attention and reflection. For all its faults, the West is the only one that contributes that, and exalts those who break the old illusions. Oh sure, not on the ground, not someone here and now in your business or neighborhood, no one really wants someone stirring things up in their neck of the woods, but as an Ideal, only the West recognizes the troublemaker as the indispensible Hero.

They are the ones who dare to see what ought to be ...what's the line? 'Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not'.

Attention and reflection... when the 'I' is present, then the I Am can be too... or three.

1/20/2008 08:49:00 PM  
Blogger Magnus Itland said...

nomo,
I got The Nativity Story that you recommended a while ago and which I then immediately ordered from Amazon. I watched it this Sunday and enjoyed it greatly.

I also started to wonder whether modern civilization could even have come to exist had not the Nativity Story been burned into our minds year after year, generation after generation, millions of times through the centuries.

1/21/2008 05:38:00 AM  

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