I recently read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden where a beautiful and powerful exegesis of the Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4 is found. East of Eden is based on this pivotal story in the Old Testament and Steinbeck presents a deep and thoughtful presentation of the human condition, specifically as an archetypal story of the human soul. He presents the murder of Abel as an act of rejection, jealousy, revenge, and guilt. “I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul. I’m feeling my way now—don’t jump on me if I’m not clear. The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt—and there is the story of mankind. I think that if rejection could be amputated, the human would not be what he is. Maybe there would be fewer crazy people. I am sure in myself there would not be many jails. It is all there—the start, the beginning. One child, refused the love he craves, kicks the cat and hides his secret guilt; and another steals so that money will make him loved; and a third conquers the world—and always the guilt and revenge and more guilt. The human is the only guilty animal…Therefore I think this old and terrible story is important because it is a chart of the soul—the secret, rejected, guilty soul.”
Steinbeck makes the brilliant point that in the story God did not condemn Cain for his unacceptable offering but simply that God preferred or liked Abel’s offering better. What Cain did not see, did not understand was that God was simply asking for a different offering, make another attempt, “If you do what is right will you not be accepted?” This hurt Cain and he felt rejected, and when we get hurt by rejection we almost always get angry and when we get angry we do violence of some kind, whether emotional or physical, and we feel bad for it, guilty for our actions which traps and ensnares us by a guilt that needs atonement, expiation of our guilt. This is a pattern that gets played out again and again in relationships, with couples, between parents and children, with friends and others that we deem important. It is an old story that resonates with truth; rejection is the hell we all fear. So please, love one another.
I am a child of the sixties, which makes me a baby boomer, and ever since my high school and college years there seems to have been a concentrated push in our society for individual freedom. I used to be a devout follower of individual freedom until I realized how personally and socially damaging it is to follow your own way. I hurt myself and I definitely hurt other people. At the time, I never really thought about “following individual freedom'', I was just living like most everyone I knew was living.. Most of us, when we are followers of individual freedom do not think of ourselves as selfish; we are living for a greater cause: “individual freedom”, an American ideal, the right to live our way. We only see our selfishness in the wake of debris we leave behind in the damage we have done in others lives. I think it is a fundamental problem that plaques many of our societal problems today. It certainly is part of the struggle to redefine marriage and undermine its purpose and meaning.
David Blankenhorn in The Future of Marriage frames this struggle as “marriage as an individual matter” vs. “marriage as a social institution”. He describes this fundamental change in how many Americans view the meaning of marriage as the rise in the belief that the couple comes before the vow. This, of course, is individual freedom at its finest; rather than anything being greater than me, or us, such as marriage having a greater purpose and meaning to have and raise children so that our species thrives, is replaced with what ever we decide is meaningful to “us”. This is so sixties bred; and so destructive to our society! Individual freedom lovers rarely consider what is good for the “other”, like children.
Consider what he says: “On their wedding day (if the vow comes first), couples become accountable to an ideal of marriage that is outside of them and bigger than they are.” This is a profoundly important statement and one that is totally lost on followers of individual freedom: “Something is bigger, more important, and outside of me? There is no way I am going to be accountable, allow something to influence and inform me on how to live.” This perspective does not allow the vow, the promise of committed love, safety, protection, and help to one another to influence and shape the relationship. There is nothing for the relationship to hold on to, to count on, to depend on, to turn to; it is whatever seems right, or expedient, or pertinent to the moment or the need. There is no bearing, no guidance, just....whatever!
The thing that followers of this way fail to realize is that not only is this destructive, it is an incredibly lonely place to be. You are on your own making all your own decisions. The wisdom from an institution like marriage that has developed over 5,000 years is unavailable. It is all up to me, or the two of us. All because we want our own way. I don't know about you, but I want others with me along the way. It is fraught with challenges and dangers that we are not prepared to deal with alone. This truly is a madness of our age when we think we know better than something that has stood the test of time.
I recently took my son Seth on a music school audition trip to Nashville. We live in Lexington, Ky so the drive usually takes about 3 ½ hours. Seth is a great kid, he has a kind, gentle heart, just like his mother. I love his mind probably because it reminds me of myself. Seth thinks, really thinks about things. I love that. He and I can have great discussions about life, literature, contemporary events, and of course music. He knows a lot about music; I don't but like most younger people that listen to blues, jazz, and rock he enjoys the music of my era, the sixties and seventies. I do know something about that music so we have a lot to talk about and listen to.
For the round trip to Nashville and back of 7 hours we listened to Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder, and Frank Zappa. A lot of Frank Zappa. Most of you have probably never heard of Frank Zappa. I asked an older gentlemen at a convenience store in Bardstown, Ky if he knew that Frank Zappa drank gallons of coffee every day. Frank Zappa was not an illegal substance abuser but he definitely abused caffeine. The guy looked at me with a blank, confused expression. I told him it really didn't matter if he knew who Frank Zappa was but since we were talking about how much coffee we all drink I thought it was relevant. Apparently, he didn't.
Seth and I talked about Frank Zappa's lack of drug abuse. He was unlike probably every other music performer of that era. Drugs and alcohol seem to go with being musicians of the kind of music we both like. Listen to Frank Zappa's music some time; you will have a hard time believing he was not on some illegal substance; some of it is pretty bizarre stuff. And yet Zappa was one of the most talented and innovative musicians of his time.
I love talking with Seth about music, not so much because it's music but because it is his passion. I am so thankful he has passion. I can help nurture this passion he has for performing and becoming a musician. What an honor and a blessing it is for a father to help his son nurture his passion. The operative word here is “his” passion. My passion would have been for Seth to be a great swimmer (he could have been but he hated competitive swimming, told me at 15 he was done). Like all parents, and maybe especially fathers, I had to learn to start following my son in his direction rather than do the directing. Hard lesson for an aggressive ex football player like me. I am used to making things happen. It has been good for me to learn to follow Seth's passion. It has helped me learn to be a better servant and I think a better father. At least that is what Seth told me. “Good trip Dad”, he said, “really good father-son bonding time”. Music to my ears!
I am reading David Blankenhorn's book The Future of Marriage, a self bought Christmas present. It is a timely read in light of California's Proposition 8, that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman, constitutional challenge in federal court.
Articles are appearing in the media regarding this, including one by Edwin Meese, President Reagan's former Attorney General, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/11/opinion/11meese.html and one by Terry Jeffrey, a conservation columnist http://townhall.com/columnists/TerryJeffrey/2010/01/13/do_three_people_have_a_right_to_marry_each_other. Both of these articles support the traditional definition of marriage that Proposition 8 upholds.
The Future of Marriage is a worth reading if you are interested in understanding what in the world all the fuss is about as to why we have to have statewide propositions or constitutional challenges on what marriage is. The fuss is whether we get to define marriage any way we want to, to whatever particular individual preference we have, or whether marriage is a standard greater than our individual preferences that affirms the historical basic organization of society, the family as a mother and a father for every child. As Mr. Blankenhorn eloquently, gently, and completely without gay bashing presents; marriage is between a man and a women because every society in the last five thousand years has figured out it is best for our children to have both a father and a mother. And because it is best for children it is best for that particular culture's ability to survive and thrive.
It is apparent, as Mr. Blankenhorn repeatedly points out, that those of us who are married have done plenty on our own to punch holes in providing children with both a father and a mother in the same home. We really don't need any more help hurting our children by being unable to live together and raise them together. Many heterosexuals live by the premise that my life is my own and I can define it anyway I want and if my partner, spouse, or whom ever I am with, can no longer agree on how to define it together, then we can just move on. It is all about me.
This is an age old battle between self will and a will or purpose that is greater than ourselves. The legal battle over Proposition 8, or the battle that homosexuals are waging for acceptance in society via marriage, or any other battle that pits individuals ability to define standards any way that suits them over and against an external standard that is there because it is the best bet for our "pursuit of (personal and individual) happiness", is really a struggle over what is good for us.
What is good for us is learning to live for someone and something greater and other than ourselves. The most destructive thing we can do to ourselves and to others is to live as if our life is our own. We must learn to balance the freedom of individual choice with what is good for us individually and as a society.
For the next few days I encourage you to pay attention to what you say and how you treat those you most care about. Listen to the words you use and how you say and use them. Pay attention to the emotional state or feeling behind your words and actions. Are you feeling irritated or angry? Maybe you feel lonely or disconnected like nothing much matters. Perhaps you are joyful or light hearted and you feel like nothing could change this good mood. Or maybe you are feeling bored. There is so much more in how we communicate than necessarily what we communicate.
When something is bothering you it is very difficult to shake the bother out. It sticks with you unless you just deny what bothers you and act like it doesn't matter. Attempting to identify and sift out emotional responses can be very difficult for some. For others it comes easily and they know exactly how they are feeling and are able to identify the feeling. This is an incredibly important skill.
In the language of attachment, this is the ability of reflection. We are able to step back and observe our emotional reactions without being consumed or controlled by them. You are then able to talk about what you are feeling with some degree of objectivity. Reflection also includes our thoughts and physical sensations. It is self awareness of our internal life and without it we are unable to understand ourselves and consequently unable to empathize and emotionally connect with someone else.
Most of us have some capacity for reflection or self awareness. It is developed in the flow of our primary family relationships and it is directly related to our degree of emotional security. Children of chaotic, abusive, or emotionally neglectful families have very little capacity for identifying and communicating their emotional states. In emotionally charged moments they are likely to be caught up in a sea of swirling and sometimes violent emotions which carries them along in a fearful rush. They are emotionally hijacked and the thinking, self observing part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex, is disengaged. The only thing that is communicated is raw, negative feeling. And it likely overwhelms whoever is on the receiving end.
For the majority of us who are able to manage our emotional reactions and actions in the heat of the battle, we still experience them, along with negative thoughts and physical reactions to the battle. And we need to do something with them. If as children we were able to go to our parent and receive comfort, support and understanding then we likely are able to seek someone out and do the same thing.
It is very important that we realize how much we need each other to do this. Too often we stuff what we are experiencing inside. As you're paying attention to the emotional background of your words and actions and you become aware of your thoughts and feelings, let the other person in on your experience. It is amazing how this simple act of sharing our insides opens the door to healing and deeper intimacy.
I have recently become aware of the connection for me between feeling bored and over eating. This might be obvious to many of you but it was a revelation to me. I never really realized how often I felt bored and that I really did not know what to do with the feeling. I had no self awareness or capacity for reflection regarding feeling bored. And I dealt with the emotional agitation this caused by eating. I am learning to pay more attention to when I am feeling bored and what is boring me. I am talking about this with my wife and other people I trust. And I am consuming fewer calories, and letting my wife get to know more of me.
There were a couple of new events recently that caught anyone's attention who saw them. One was the brutal beating of a young girl shown on You Tube by her so called friends and the other was a report on out of control behavior by students on spring break. According to the Florida story on www.momlogic.com spring break is not what it used to be. The extent and degree of drinking, drug use, and sexual promiscuity is significantly increased from twenty, fifteen and even ten years ago. If any of you went on spring break during those years then you can imagine how severely dysfunctional and self destructive the behavior must be for it to be considered distressingly worse. No wonder parents worry about their kids.
The O'Reilly Factor reported on this story and had a "Family Therapist" on to discuss and analyze the issue. Like the "animalistic beating" of the teenage girl by a gang of "girlfriends" these students were displaying and strutting their stuff for a camera and the video finds its way to the internet. After a shallow and silly comment by the family therapist that the problem is due to extended adolescence without adult responsibility O'Reilly redirects that a significant factor to this display of extreme behavior is a lack of shame. That is, they do not care who sees them. That is the point of shame; not wanting to be seen. If you have a sense of shame, you want to keep your shameful behavior in the dark so no one knows what you did. If you lack shame you put it on display and shove it into peoples' faces.
Lack of shame is a calloused and hardened place to be. Most likely, many of the kids on spring break will wake up horrified by what they did and said for all to see once they are not under the influence of substances. The beating of the young girl is another story. There is no report that they were "under the influence" of anything other than brutal rage. All of this raises significant questions for our culture.
The two commentators rightly conclude that a lack of parenting plays a significant role in lack of shame. That begs the question how parenting affects the development of shame. A lack of shame reflects an absence of value, meaning and purpose. Kids without shame are those kids that have figured out whether consciously or not that they are on their own. Their lives feel purposeless, meaningless and valueless because they believe deeply in their being that what they do doesn't matter to anyone. So what does it matter how they act or who sees it?
The most effective parents are those who have a meaningful relationship with their child. Their child knows, despite all the struggles, battles, arguments, and drama that their parents love them more than they love themselves. These are not "helicopter parents" hovering endlessly over their kids directing and protecting them. These are parents who genuinely love being with their kids and invest their lives in giving them life. Their kids know their life has value, meaning, and purpose because what is more important than anything else, more important than what they do or how successful they are or what kind of trouble they cause, is having a relationship with their child. "You are my son or my daughter and I love having you as a part of my life."