This Chapter is a prelude to our further exploration of connecting to our essence. I hope to explore some thoughts on the phenomenon of “Nurture” in the discovery of our essence, because our experiences in our family of origin can either enhance or obscure our sense of ourselves. When nurture obscures or blocks us from discovering who we truly are, it wreaks havoc on our sense of self and our self-esteem. I also hope to shed some light on how damage to our sense of self can begin to be repaired. Here’s a remarkable poem from Alexander Pope to send us on our way.
An Essay on Man: Epistle II
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the skeptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself abus’d, or disabus’d;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the World.
Though Alexander Pope’s poetic essay may sound a bit strange to our post-modern ears, with a couple of readings, the cogency of his understanding of the human condition becomes apparent. He understands the bi-fold complexity of human existence, and captures the either/or dualities of life: skeptic or stoic; strong or weak; acting or resting; preferring either body or mind; thinking too little or too much; thoughtful or passionate; abused or disabused; rising or falling; lord or prey; in truth or in error: Like it or not, we are born into a bifurcated world of good and evil, right and wrong, sanity and insanity, success and failure, and we must learn to navigate life without making wrong turns and ending up feeling trapped or disappointed.
As I read Pope’s words, my earliest learning of life’s polarities came to mind. This insight initially came from Miss Francis of the Ding Dong School TV show: Do be a Do Bee and Don’t Be a Don’t Be! My Mother thought very highly of Miss Francis, who was the children’s Emily Post, very focused on manners and good behavior. Soon we had Miss Francis’ motto on the kitchen black board.
As you might imagine, my sister and I definitely wanted to be Do Bees. We wanted to be cheerful and smiling, not grouchy and unhappy. My Mother coupled this motivational tool with the prize of getting to open a window in the Advent Calendar at this time of year. Starting in November for the 40 days before Christmas, my sister and I would take turns opening one door after another, counting off the days until Santa would arrive, but if either of us were bad on a particular day, that child would lose their next turn. As I remember very few turns were missed. Mom had taught us the words to “Santa Claus is coming to town” when we were very small, and she would sing it to us or with us regularly, reminding us in the most pleasant possible way that we better not pout or cry, and that we better be good, because Santa was coming to bring us wonderful presents or a horrible lump of coal! Her version of Santa was of an all knowing presence who watched over us to see if we were sleeping or awake, bad or good, for goodness sake!
Her motivational training was spectacularly effective, and with my Father as the enforcer should we get out of hand, we became very, very good indeed. As Robert Bly points out about himself and his brother in his “Little Book about the Human Shadow,” children trained in this way become very good children indeed. My Sister and I came to be known as those nice Goforth children. What we didn’t realize was that we were giving up important parts of ourselves in the process. One of the things we gave up was being in touch with what we felt or wanted and being free to ask for it. We were very focused on pleasing our parents and reaping the rewards of being Do Bees. To this day, if I ask my sister what restaurant or movie she would like to go to, she will say that she is fine with my choice, and then add the tag line, you know me, I’m easy.
What I am getting at here, is that the particular way each of us are raised, whether we’re nurtured or punished to motivate us to fulfill our parent’s sense of what good children are like, will have a very powerful effect on us. My sister and I were loved and taught to be good in ways that seemed really neat at the time, but something of our essence was lost in the process. If we begin to think about how children who are punished with anger, severe criticism, and even physical abuse can be affected by their parent’s tactics, it may begin to dawn on us that these children may learn to be good, but they will feel badly about themselves, at once both rejected and unsuccessful. Both good children and bad children will have a whole lot of work to do to discover their essence, who they truly are at the core of their being.
I believe from my own experience and from my work as a psychotherapist, that children who are over trained and socialized, whether by more “nurturing techniques” like my sister and I were, or by severe criticism and punishment, will grow up with serious inhibitions in important areas of their lives. They will reject parts of themselves that don’t meet their parent’s expectations, and they may also take serious blows to their sense of self and their self-esteem. Here is what can happen internally when such a child has the impulse to do something that is either overly creative or utterly forbidden. This inhibition fires off in the brain:
Because these inhibitions and over adaptations are the result of “Nurture” rather than “Nature,” the tools for correcting the damage come mostly from psychotherapy and from our personal understanding of the impact of how we were raised. This is why therapists ask us to examine our personal history, the dynamics of our parent’s relationship, and our relationship to them, and to recall what it felt like for us growing up in our particular family. When we begin to reflect on these childhood and adolescent experiences, we have the opportunity to deconstruct our beliefs, our fears, and our anger and resentment. This is a peeling away process to an important extent, but it is also a process of learning to love and accept ourselves as we realize all the things that have affected and influenced us. Doing this work can make the work of connecting to our essence much easier, because we have sorted out what comes from family influences and what rightfully belongs to us at our core.
As human beings we have this in common, our self-reflexive consciousness. We are aware of ourselves, whether we like it or not, and from this self- awareness a multitude of insights and revelations can develop that can be of great help to us in healing our wounds and the over-adaptations of our childhood. In addition, this therapeutic process can lead to important realizations about who we are and how we can fulfill our hearts desires.
If we want to survey the theories of human nature that have developed over the course of more than two thousand years, we will discover a rich and enlightening history dating from the time of Hippocrates (460-370 BC) evolving right on through to this moment in time. In doing so we will find two significant paths of evolving understandings. From the prevailing theory in the time of Hippocrates about the nature of human beings that was based on an understanding of the Four Humors: Sanguine; Choleric; Melancholic; and Phlegmatic, theories of our nature were derived. The “humors” were thought to influence the temperament and primary dispositions of humanity. From this point of view, it was thought that practitioners could predict the moods and illnesses that certain types of people would be subject to. This theory of diagnosis was adhered to until the 19th Century.
The ancient philosophers and scientists, Socrates, Plato, and Hippocrates among others, understood that we human beings differed from one another in important ways that could be studied, reflected on, and understood. Doing so could be very helpful in the diagnosis of emotional problems and physical illnesses. This was one side of the Nature vs. Nurture debate that I refer to in my subtitle. The Nurture side of the equation was that we humans were more alike than different and that our differences were the result of flaws, wrong turnings, poor choices, mental illnesses or abnormal psychodynamics in our family of origin. This view, represented in the modern period by psychoanalysis, suggests that our differences are created in our response to how we are parented in our family of origin, and that through the process of psychotherapy we can become well-adjusted participants is society.
The “Nature” school of thought is well expressed in the opening lines of the first edition of the book “Please Understand Me.” David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates write, “If I do not want what you want, please try not to tell me that my want is wrong. Or if I believe other than you, at least pause before you correct my view. Or if my emotion is less than yours, or more, given the same circumstances, try not to ask me to feel more strongly or weakly. Or yet if I act, or fail to act in the manner of your design for action, let me be. I do not, for the moment at least, ask you to understand me. That will come only when you are willing to give up changing me into a copy of you.
The point of their work is similar to the perspective of this series of articles. “People are different in fundamental ways. We want different things, have different motives, purposes, aims, values, needs, drives, impulses and urges. We believe differently, think, conceptualize, perceive, understand, comprehend, and cogitate differently. Our manners of acting and emoting, governed as they are by wants and beliefs, differ radically.” What this point of view leaves out of the picture is that peoples’ circumstances also vary radically. Where we are born, who our parents are and how they parent us, the social status and social position of our family, our gender, our race, our state of health and well-being, our intelligence, both intellectual and emotional, our talents and abilities all can potentially have a dramatic impact on the course and outcome of our lives. This is the emphasis of the “Nurture” school of thought. My main contention is that we need to understand both of these schools to fully understand our nature and condition as human beings. This is not an either or matter in which we need to choose the best theory. This is a both/and event through and through. We need to embrace and understand both sides of the polarity of Nature and Nurture to fully comprehend ourselves, our motives, our emotions, and our dreams and desires. In doing so, I believe that we will not only be able to understand and accept ourselves and heal our wounds, but also that we can begin to awaken to our true nature.
In this chapter, I have attempted to show how variations in how we are “nurtured” can affect our growth and development as persons, and, at times, thwart us in our attempts to discover our essence. In my next installment, I will explore more tools for discovering our true nature.” These tools will include the Myers Briggs instrument, based on the diagnostic polarities of Carl Jung, and the elaboration of that tool found in the books of David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates.
As always, I offer my thanks to my readers for following this blog and for your questions and suggestions. My appreciation and gratitude to Toby Landesman for her amazing photographs.
Article Written by Tom Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.