Raise to rise right
All of us face this one practical question continually; especially if we pay any heed to where we are headed. It has been there from the beginning of times. It will be there till the end of times. So, it makes sense to face it.
That question is -- to what extent am I a free agent of action, and to what extent, a creature of circumstances? How we figure out this has a substantial bearing on the way we parent children. If we are a mere lump of clay shaped by blind chance, even our most heroic efforts could prove fruitless. If, on the other hand, we have even an outside chance of shaping our ‘destiny’, it makes sense to chart our courses, keeping our eyes on current wisdom and insights that have been valid from time immemorial.
To put this in the words of St. Paul, ‘Should we conform to the pattern of the world? Or, should we, instead, ‘be transformed’ through an awareness of the Will of God?
It took me a long while to realize how passive I was in this respect! It took me longer to realize that this was because of my spiritual laziness and haziness. It took me still longer to understand this laziness in perspective. It is not long ago that I realized that I am led mostly by my ‘inclinations’. And my inclinations are vulnerable to, if not wholly shaped by, the spirit of the times. So, there is a need to go beyond inclinations, and to live by reasoned strategies which includes an intuition also of Providence.
As Shakespeare’s Hamlet says, “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” He could not have said this, if Jesus had not said, “Even the very hairs on your head are numbered. Not one of them falls down without your Father in heaven knowing it.” (Like 12:7). The practical effect of this awareness is that it saves us from being slaves of inclinations. Inclinations are a practical reality; but they are incomplete and, at times, unreliable. They need to be counter-balanced by a contrary force, if we are to be balanced in life.
This, being a foundational principle of life, needs to be factored into the parenting we practice.
Now consider a related issue that Jesus highlighted from the Cross of Calvary. “Father, forgive;” he cried out, “for they know not what they do.” This holds good contextually and universally. The fact is that most of the time we do not know what we are doing. Of course, it involves a dilemma. We cannot know anything fully except by ‘doing it’; because mere theoretical knowledge falls short of understanding. Or, as T. S. Eliot says, “We know and do not know.” So, it is impossible that, relying only on our own prudence -- which is always evolving and, therefore, incomplete -- we can act wisely. We can make up for this limitation by taking advantage of spiritual and universal principles.
Rational and spiritual faculties are never perfected, says Immanuel Kant, in the life span of individuals. They are perfected, if at all, only in the species. This brings us to two conclusions. First, we need to take advantage of the accumulated and growing experiential wisdom of our species. Second, even this being limited, we need to also look beyond this precious gift of the past to the present, and complement ‘tradition’ with ‘revelation’.
The need for doing this becomes clearer to us, if we reckon Sigmund Freud’s emphasis on the importance of early rearing in personality formation. Parenting is the decisive factor in creating personalities of different orientation, such as --
(a) Authoritarian personality. Individuals of this kind want either to tyrannize over others, or be tyrannized over by domineering persons. They are the two sides of the same coin. Going by Erich Fromm’s argument in his Escape from Freedom (1941), most people belong to this category. We surrender ourselves submissively to forces and persons whose value we exaggerate. At the same time, we treat those ‘below’ us with corresponding and compensatory sadism. Those of authoritarian personality are incapable of happy and healthy relationships based on equality.
They are deficient in internal resources; and are, therefore, controlled by external forces and personages. Habitual shape-shifters, they have something of the chameleon in them. They seem to sail through life; but they remain, inwardly, in a state of low-grade existential fever.
Authoritarian personality is a by-product of exasperating parenting, riddled with insensitivity, coerciveness and arbitrariness. It is aggravated by the use of ‘fear’ in keeping children in leash, as in saying, “If you don’t brush your teeth, the policeman will catch you!” Or, “If you don’t say your bed-time prayer, God will punish you”.
(b) Addictive personality. The addictive personality is characterized by an incapacity to handle personal freedom. It is a pathological version of the negatively authoritarian. Such individuals need somebody or the other to be in charge of their life. They are ever willing to abandon decision-making to others. This is because they are reluctant to assume responsibility for themselves, much less for themselves. Their attitude to work and relationship is escapist. Such persons live self-condemned to a subterranean life from which freedom of thought and action is excluded. The personality of an addictive personality is marked by ‘evasiveness’.
(c) Wholesome personality, is fortified by inner resources and diversity of interests. Such a person is able to relate to the given context in a state of reciprocity. His strategy will be neither of passive conformity nor of compulsive resistance. He will impart a personal flavour to his context, even as he blends with it. This means that a wholesome personality is committed to ‘perfecting oneself’. Jesus said, “Be thou perfect; even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (St. Mathew 5:48). Individuals of this kind are characterized by inner integrity and integration. Above all, they are distinguished by ‘balance’, or existential equilibrium.
We need to distinguish two significant attributes of such a personality. A wholesome personality is distinguished by an assortment of diverse needs and interests. “Man,” Jesus said, “does not live by bread alone; but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (St. Matthew 4:4) Do you want to assess a person fairly, or judge him aright? Just reckon what his characteristic interests are, and their range! It is alarming how fast the extent of our interests is shrinking today. The pig is a despised creature, because of its exclusive interest in its stomach. Haven’t you seen a pig going around, digging its nose in the muck? Why? Because it is interested in nothing more than filling its belly. Human beings whose interests are similar, are its country cousins.
One of the things that parents must do for is to refine the needs, and diversify interests, of their children. Thanks to the stereotypical assumptions we harbour about children, we fail to see their higher needs and scope. The greater the diversity of the interests our children cultivate, the higher, nobler their needs, the better they would be as human beings. But, to be able to serve them effectively in this respect, parents need to have higher needs and interests themselves!
I sense everywhere a growing vexation, a closed mess of mind, to looking beyond familiar routine and habits. People call this, quite erroneously, their ‘comfort-zones’. In truth, this should be called their ‘burial-zones’; certainly so, in light of personality development. I believe it as somewhat likely, even if the text is not explicit on this count, that Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, was living like this. Such a life is de facto death, humanly speaking. The text, at the very least, highlights the contrast between Martha and Mary in respect of their interests. Today, in the wake of the brutal ascendancy of the consumerist-materialistic culture, it is already a serious issue universally. Jesus’ words have a special resonance for us today, “Come out!” The counterpart in the writings of Plato, in The Republic, is ‘coming out of the cave’ of twilight existence.
Parents are in a position limitedly analogous to that of Jesus. They have the opportunity and authority to say, “Come out!”, to their children by way of the parenting they practise. But, to do that they need to be doing justice to themselves, rather than languishing in a twilight zone of mere existence.