Parental Kindness

“Our lives, from the beginning, depend upon kindness, and it is for this reason, as we shall see, that it terrorizes us.”
On Kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor


We will not be able to respect the earth until we are able to respect ourselves. We will not be able to respect ourselves until we understand the value of the individual, a value not defined by any social group. In our time of mass-market-man the pressures to conform to the collective are everywhere. Mindful Ecology looks to rebalance the scales a bit. Today that involves us in an exploration of childhood development.

According to the psychoanalytic theories, kindness starts  in childhood as a sort of bribe for keeping the needed parental attention focused on ourselves. As we have seen, the human mammal has the longest childhood of any animal. Throughout this extended stage of development we are wholly dependent on the kindness of our care providers for everything from food and warmth to protection from the elements and predators. It is critically important that the child keep the relationship with its parents viable if it is to reach adulthood. How can a small child do this? By being lovable enough for the parents to watch after it. This is the birth of kindness as a bribe, “an insurance policy against deprivation or neglect,” as On Kindness has it.

This bribe kindness is a type of false kindness rooted in the fantasy world of the child’s magical thinking. By the lights of this psychoanalytic story the mind of the child is prone to two types of fantasy. One type of fantasy is that the child can satisfy all their needs by themselves, that they have no need of other people and in fact resent whatever obligations other people place on them. Here is a narcissism we can easily recognize as one of the more insidious features of modern culture; the claim that the rich and powerful became that way all by themselves and so have no further tax obligations to the society which fed, clothed, housed, taught, and provided the opportunities they took advantage of. The other type of early mind development the child needs to be weaned from comes from the other direction; they need to be weaned from complete dependence on the mother for their survival and well being. The child cries and the mother appears. ‘Wow, I have such power’ the young mind rightly concludes. The child cries and the mother does not appear. Whatever is the child to think?

Fantasy does not have what it takes to satisfy our inner and outer needs. The spaghetti you see, smell and maybe even taste in your imagination, will not nourish your body, however well developed your skills at visualization might be. In the exact same way the romantic relationship your fevered imagination conjures up will never be able to satisfy the needs of the heart or loins for long. When we eat the  menu instead of the meal we are left malnourished. It is by renouncing the world of magical fantasy that we find there is an opportunity to be nourished by reality; we eat the spaghetti, we come to know our partner as a real human being.

So how does this weaning away from fantasy kindness occur? By recognizing the truth of the frustrations we feel. No parent has ever been able to satisfy every desire of any child ever born. Frustration is the inevitable result. The child comes to experience the truth that they are unable to make everything better for themselves or for their parents. The child also awakens to the fact that they are unable to remain satisfied or experience well being only from the resources they can draw out of themselves. The hubris of false kindness fails to achieve the developmental tasks required for growing up. To grow up we have to recognize psychological interdependence; that we need others to nourish our real needs and that a reality exists that is mostly unresponsive to whatever we might wish, feel and imagine.

In the fall of the false kindness there is a chance for real kindness to be born.

False kindness fails to recognize that there is an element of hatred in our emotional life. Rage is the reaction we have to frustration. Learning to tolerate frustration is the beginning of learning real kindness. Unlike the fantasy that insists it can make things all better, real kindness accepts that there are forces much bigger than us that sweep us into pain and heartbreak even when we wish it were otherwise. Compassion and kindness are born from the recognition that in this we are, in fact, just like all other sentient beings. The classic set of sickness, old age and death are often brought up as subjects worthy of contemplative time. In this context we can see how they are avenues of strengthening real kindness by looking at exactly the kind of things false kindness finds so uncomfortable.

This brings up a very important point. There are meditation practices that are capable of healing us and meditation practices that are capable of maintaining our neurosis, even meditation techniques designed to bring about temporary psychosis in the context of complete personality reformation. The meditations a Mindful Ecology is interested in are those that “steady the mind and open the heart [to] be more present to our world” instead of those spiritual teachings and practices that “cut the nerve of compassionate action,” as Joanna Macy taught in ‘On Being With Our World’ found in A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency.

Just as there are numerous ways in which the developmental tasks we are discussing can go haywire, so there are a number of ways spiritual practices can also go haywire. The reasons are not unrelated. There are many so-called spiritual teachings (not to mention economic and political) which, instead of maturing the human psyche, are designed to keep it in an infantile state. Many of the more destructive groups in our society seek just such an outcome; a nice child-like herd of customer-converts that will not protest too much when they are used and abused.

It is rather obvious to us in the West that some Islamic parents are willing to use their children to advance their own religious and political agendas. The twelve year old suicide bomber apprehended by authorities last week is a vivid example. We recognize parents and groups that do such things as cold and cruel. More charitably, we might say their abstractions about god and heaven have made them sick. Because Christianity does not include the idea of a jihad holy warrior we do not even seriously consider the abstractions by which these adults rationalize these kinds of activities as being worthy of our rational attention. However, we in the West should not be too quick to judge since we are captured by our own abstractions. We are unable to appreciate the same dynamics are at play when, say, a teenager trying to leave the dogmatic religious cult or the abusive parenting of their childhood commits suicide or dies from an overdose. School shootings differ from bomb vests but there is a streak of fanaticism and mind programming recognizable in both.

Using children is a far more pervasive problem than it might at first seem. We become enraged when our moral right to exist is denied by someone treating us as an object to be used, not a person to establish a relationship with – and we all know how we feel once we discover we have been used. Piling up un-payable toxic debt and irreversible climate change is just so much more of the same use and abuse. Add uncontrolled access to pervasive pornography and images of violence, torture and carnage and our social war on the innocent is complete. We seem to get a kick out of terrifying our children, as if we could take our revenge for everything that has disappointed us about life under Babylonian Capitalism by taking it out of their hides. It would be the height of folly to think such intergenerational extremism will never face a day of reckoning.

A powerful survival instinct tells us that when we are beaten we should hit back. When parents lash out at their children they create the frustrated rage of a small sentient being unable to effectively defend itself against giants. As the parents almost inevitably assure the child that these physical or psychological attacks are ‘for their own good’ the child is left very confused. The developmental tasks of the child’s psychic maturation includes recognizing that hate is included in the ambiguous emotional life of an adult in love. Growing into this insight is already confusing and difficult enough without adding additional burdens. The adult can understand that there could be no hate without some element of love involved; if there were no love there would be only indifference. Nor can there be adult love until someone knows quite clearly what they hate about non-love. Sexual attraction may involve an element of cruelty, as the Freudians insist, but whatever sadomasochistic patterns might be involved, there is no rational way to confabulate the love found in relatively healthy homes with that found in S&M dungeons. Reasoning depends on proper emotional responses, as we have seen established in the neuroscience work of Dr. Damasio. Reasoning also depends on duality and here, where love and hate are the dualities involved, is where it is most difficult to reach the maturity of emotional life that fully supports reasoning well. Real kindness is the one guiding light. That is its power.

Parents will hurt their children, none are perfect. Nor is a pain free childhood something we should imagine would do us any good anyway. Healthy parents are able to recognize that they get frustrated at times and act in ways that they later come to regret. They model how an adult can accept life’s shadow side without allowing it to destroy one’s basic gratitude for being alive. After all, to have children consciously is to say you believe that, in-spite of all the pain and horror involved in a lifetime of experiences, in-spite of all the dangers of nuclear war and ecological destruction, it is still worth it to experience existing. This is a relationship with the archetypal shadow as something workable. It teaches what it means to be a human being by avoiding the inflation of the elect, who project the shadow, and the bestiality of the damned, who are consumed by it. When healthy parents model such stoic acceptance of human life as it really is, they teach frustration tolerance to their children. It equips their children well for dealing with life’s inevitable ups and downs.

Unhealthy parents are unable to stand the sight of themselves as sometimes being bad parents. To even broker the thought is to open up realms of personal shame in which they feel broken, flawed, and even satanically sinful in the very core of their being. For such parents, all the horrors of adults using their children can only be accepted by being white-washed with the magical incantation, ‘it is for your own good.’ The child abused sexually, physically, psychologically or spiritually is receiving a message that undercuts their burgeoning ability to reason clearly. They are told, by the actions that speak louder than words, that hate is love. This is part of the reason Alice Miller is so adamant in The Body Never Lies that abused children must come to the point of expressing their rage at their abusers. Only in this way can the mind regain confidence in its ability to reason. It is necessary to see through the double bind that can drive people crazy.

George Orwell had a lot to teach us about such stinking thinking. In 1984‘s Newspeak we are taught many of the clichés we still fall prey to if we are not thinking carefully. “Hate is love” might be the most recognizably goofy but some of these thought stoppers still have us mesmerized. “War is peace” is one we Americans seem to have a real problem with, considering the size of our military budget as opposed to the proportion of public funds dedicated to the health and well being of people and the environment.

Navigating these emotional waters of love and hate during childhood development is no easy task even when abuse is not in the picture. When acute childhood events are also part of a person’s childhood experiences they leave a lifelong propensity towards a variety of problems ranging from violence to substance abuse. This is why child abuse is considered as evil as it is: it leaves marks, programming people for life. It is true that such broken people can honestly say ‘forever changed, not forever damaged’ but it is a Pollyanna view that refuses to recognize the reality of the harm done by our barbaric childhood rearing practices.

In healthy childhood development the mother is able to regulate how much hate the child experiences, modulating it in such a way that the development of the child’s psyche is not unbalanced by the terror and fears such exposure entails. Real kindness is born from the recognition of our shared ambiguities and frustrations (as well as our shared love and bliss). The child uses its anger to expand its world beyond the mother and father in a sincere search for relationships with others. Kindness is the fellow-feeling that guides us through the development of friendships. Among our peers we learn to stand on our own and begin to discover what it takes to provide for the unique needs of our individual psychological makeup.

Homes full of fundamentalist religious or political beliefs add all manner of spooks and devils to this universal process by coloring the first glimpses of the heart of darkness with fantasy filled assertions of absolutes. Such parents are incapable of empathy because their filters of fear keep them reacting to their own projections. It can be very difficult for people raised in such environments, at any age, to separate the reality of hate and love from the magical fantasy versions.

“A society that romanticizes kindness, that regards it as a virtue so difficult to sustain that only the magically good can manage it, destroys people’s faith in real or ordinary kindness. Supposed to make everything happy and right, magical kindness cannot deliver the realistic care and reassurance that people actually need. Magical kindness is a false promise…
For some people, their dependence on their parents when they were children was so unbearable that it can never be risked again. Concern for parents felt like self annihilation and brought them up against the limits of what their love could do. Every child wants to cure his parents of whatever makes them unhappy, and every child fails at this. That experience alone can make a child begin to doubt the value of his kindness, because it isn’t magic.” On Kindness

The epidemic of stressed out parents churning out infantile adults is threatening to remove our ability to reason about reality all together. Magical incantations will not save us from the consequences of our ecological ignorance, complicity with destructive groups, seduction by charismatic leaders or remove the corruption of our institutions and social arrangements. Too much of what passes for public life is little more than the rage of the frustrated child refusing to accept the limitations inherent in our being human. (Remember the crucifixion image?) This leaves us, collectively and individually, prone to any con that comes along promising  to magically make everything better. As  Kunstler has it, there is indeed Too Much Magic.

The alternative is clear and it is the same for our social life as it is for our individual lives. Once we are free of the enchantments that keep us enslaved to our magical thinking, we are able to use reasoning, coupled with imagination, to develop a knack for setting realistic tasks that make the world and our lives within it, not perfect, but just a tad better. Turn your attention to the many ways in which existing arrangements cause the death and destruction of species, peoples and lands. It is not hard to find realistic tasks that would make important improvements. First, however, we have to stop looking for mommy and daddy to tell us what to do. We first have to grow up and accept that there are limits to growth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.