I was talking to my therapist the other day–auspicious start for a blog post innit?–mainly because I pay her to give me an hour a week in which to think of something to say out loud which is itself a major exercise in social willpower for me not that in my universe “the will” names something at all legible as such but this may be idiopathic or really I am not going to try to explain the problems I have with it right now.
But so a topic arose as it frequently does concerning the tenets of the Judaism that she follows in relation to such things as the Buddhism we are both interested in and the Christianity I was raised to believe but walked away from for the sake of self-preservation in early adolescence which was a late adolescence which is why at 16, 17 I was only in early adolescence and the question we were looking at that is the other day my therapist and I not in 1978 was what does each say about self-anything. Self-regard, self-care, self-compassion, self-hatred, self-ish-ness–we mentioned all of those and probably some more self-doings/qualities/things.
I do not know precisely which sort of Judaism she follows but it is likely not Conservative or Orthodox but I have not asked so that is what it is a likelihood and not a confident assertion. But she said that if you are Jewish, then the general form of a prescriptive rule is, in her words, “Do this–unless it is not healthy for you.” I drew from this that the Jewish Rules are serious but they are not intended to do harm and so one is more or less obliged to be mindful about the consequences of following a rule and that includes a mindfulness toward oneself.
I pointed out that although one might think to look for this same principle in Christianity what with its shared history with Judaism, regard for the self seems not to have translated well if at all. What I hear from my Catholic friends is that Catholicism did not pick it up and what I have experienced of it tells me that Protestantism did not pick it up either or at least the more conservative parts did not or at least not the evangelical and or fundamentalist and or dominionist strains with which I am far far too well-acquainted.
Anathema, actually, is what would be any principle of caring for oneself first rather than others, and especially powerful others, and especially powerful others holding positions of authority who have laid down rules they expect you to follow. It is not that the self is any kind of illusion. The self is eternal. The self will survive the self that is the death of “the flesh” and be judged according to how well it withdrew from and overcame its fleshy self during its earthly bondage to it.
I walked home with visions of Platonic horses pulling chariots this way and that but in the ten minutes it took me to go the four blocks I drew out for myself something like this:
Fundamentalist Christianity has done with the Platonic idea of the unruly horse leading the disciplined horse astray and the chariot of the self to ignominy that which it does best with most ideas it did not come up with from scratch. It runs them all the way through the very ends of logic and out the other side and then continues on indefinitely or until it reaches a level of sufficient cruelty toward the negative term.
There is always a negative term.
So unlike the Buddhist self which might be said to be not real or to be an illusion or at the very least impermanent and delicate and subject to the same decay and entropy as any other phenomenon arising from a collection of living matter and so in a practical sense something for which attachment leads to grief this fundamentalist self could not be more real existing as it does in a physical dimension for now and a spiritual dimension forever. More precisely the earthly part is split from the really real part that must purify itself of itself or of its other self.
Bajillions of academic points of departure await. I am not going to take any of them although they might sneak in anyhow. Because experience is more compelling to write about much of the time or that much time that I spend trying to estimate what style to aim for forgetting that style will emerge according to the general outline I am trying to follow and who made that outline because who wants to speak. And so I quote many preachers, sunday school teachers, evangelists, and those traveling revival preachers who had the precise amount of charisma to charm a congregation for a week or so before they needed to move on lest anyone get worn out in the spirit.
Something like this and many times in slightly different ways sometimes but sometimes the same phrase once and twice and three times with a rising voice for emphasis maybe a pointing finger often an intense, penetrating gaze and then quickly whisper and hush and the air crackles and stirs until down to the heartbeats auditioned by their own bodies for some measure of faint resonance or conviction stirring almost without pattern or rhyme. until now.
We must die to the self. The self is evil. The self is in thrall to Satan. The self was born separate from god (or the universe or everything but not out loud). The self will lead you that is the real you astray. You must not listen to what your self wants. The self must be deprived of its fondest wishes. The self must be rebuked. The self must be conquered, subjugated. The self must be denied that is it must come to know itself as abject as fallen as unworthy as treacherous mad sick mistaken broken beyond humanly-possible repair so dangerous and to be endlessly blocked from getting what it says it needs or wants at least until it admits to its own degeneracy and begs for forgiveness rather than mercy because mercy is not on offer even though the word is invoked so frequently that one might think it meant something quite unusual.
Otherwise we risk ‘Hell’: that catastrophic condition worse than death where all connection and light are extinguished not just forever but repeatedly taken away to heap loss upon loss and anguish upon anguish.
Because God— well here things get quite out of hand and I am not really in the mood to draw out the entire Protestant or conservative or fundamentalist or evangelical Christian cosmology, but as many have pointed out the fundamentalist Christian version of God has a way of looking like an authority figure with some baggage of his own flying into fearsome rage if any of his children dare to withhold affection or wish him ill or even look at him wrong. The point of salvation–be it whatever any given congregation determines it must be–is not the point at which the self gets a break from the
well I will go ahead
Is that clear? I mean is this as clear to you as it is to me? However large a line can be drawn around the Christianity that treats its selves this way and I think the question I am going to pursue next is where the line itself might have begun with the Reformation or prior to that but wherever it began did that particular articulation of Christianity could it have emerged out of a culture in which abuse, that is intergenerational child abuse along several spectra was not endemic or (about to or already become) foundational?
Explanations and analogies are only what they are because we who come up with them are good at seeing patterns but patterns are sometimes nothing but pattern rather than the expression of some force more fundamental than that perceiving the pattern. This is how the question arises for example whether the patterns we see in the positions of celestial bodies relative to this celestial body as it would be looking up at somewhere else’s ceiling are interesting pastimes or alignments of cosmic forces whose influence on us is related somehow to the patterns we have been able to elaborate out of them. The question then whether the pattern is also an expression of forces that necessitate that very pattern or whether the existence of the pattern is a consequence solely of our ability to create patterns sometimes or almost always we forget to ask unless our method requires that we remember but still we forget. And also the question could some other array of forces completely different from what I am thinking of also have produced this pattern because if so the whole puzzle is still open this question also falls away in the euphoria of having constructed a pattern that appears to fit neatly and everywhere we currently have data points for. That a given pattern is the best and most useful to come along so far does not rule out the possibility that a better one could come along in some other place and time but for the same set of data.
My experience tells me that the last question remains open when imagination is willing to grant that it cannot imagine everything imaginable or at least not all at once and certainly not yet. There may be other conditions keeping it open but this one seems necessary. And generally speaking I tend to imagine that almost anything else could be the case if it could be considered reasonably as that which currently appears reasonably to me to be the case. This would be why I almost never make claims without a few dozen qualifications.
And so my argument from incredulity may come to nothing but I am going to continue to act as though it is worth thinking through even over a long period of time because I am sort of on a mission although I have never been able to name that mission exactly I am pretty sure I took off on it almost 45 years ago or maybe even one or two years before that.
Here is a list of things that I have read mostly in other people’s writing about childhood abuse that make sense to me within the context of relatively general ideas about child development here in the culture that I grew up in whichever one or ones that is or those are and which–
well here is a list and some interjections:
It is said that:
Children are dependent on their primary caretakers or parents (and from here I am going to use “parents” as a synecdochical or abbreviate reference to whoever carries the most responsibility for feeding, protecting, sheltering, nurturing, training, and all else that is needed to keep a child healthy and safe. I know that there are many individuals who do this who yet might not be “parents” in a legal or biological sense in my culture but “primary caretaker” has too many syllables even for me and “caretaker” is not specific enough). The younger the child, the further the extent of dependence to the point of absolute dependence in infancy. Children will each view their parents as all-knowing and all-good in rough proportion to both the child’s age and their level of dependency.
I take this at face value when not purposefully engaging in deep psychoanalytic spelunking. In my own experience it seems true enough of what I can recall of conscious thoughts and feelings when I was small. I took everything my mother told me about the world as the literal, infallible truth, even when I was old enough maybe to start to intuit the potential problems in being that credulous and that trusting.
But that was me. And this sort of thing gets said by a wide variety of people who work with a wide variety of children and so whether it is strictly true in every case it is mythically so in general. Interestingly I think also this infallibility and goodness are usually attributed to conservative constructions of ‘God.’ And often for the same reasons.
None of that is news.
Children whose parents are abusive, who inflict pain, who punish their children for perceived imperfections–and I am thinking of such things as being unable to avoid spilling ever or unable to be always perfectly quiet or unable to always suppress anger or unable to always suppress sadness, doubt, upset, jealousy, desire, or other affects that strike the parents as negative, threatening, dangerous in some way whether to their own peace of mind or to the child’s future as an acceptable person and I am also thinking of outsized punishment for anything or for nothing at all using physical beating or refusal to meet basic needs or deliberate and deep shaming or turning away repeatedly in a kind of serial abandonment that leaves a child always at risk of losing those upon whom their survival rests–these children are faced with a dilemma that they can only solve one way.
That is, their all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful parents cannot possibly be doing any of these things out of any sort of error at all from the point of view of a child. That would be catastrophic: the parents would become untrustworthy during a time when a child has no means to protect itself from capriciousness and needs its parents to be consistently benevolent. Functionally a child with untrustworthy parents would be an orphan and quite without any remedy: when you are very young, to be orphaned is to be as good as dead.
And so self-preservation dictates that some solution be found very very quickly.
In an abusive family, children are also often punished for behavior over which they cannot be reasonably expected to have control: strong feelings for instance–especially feelings that parents do not know themselves how to handle without shame and punishment. Expressing unpleasant (to the parents) feelings can earn vociferous correction and this amplifies the dilemma to the point that a child comes to understand that its very existence as an emotional being is putting them at risk of abandonment and death.
The solution may already be clear: a child experiencing this kind of abuse from its parents must choose to reject whatever parts of themselves seem to be angering or alienating or upsetting its parents. Because if they can somehow keep those parts hidden the risk of orphanhood and death begins to diminish. Put another way to emphasize the enormity of this threat: the risk of sudden and catastrophic annihilation begins to diminish to the extent that the child can learn to hide its strongest feelings from its parents.
Parallels jumping out at me so quickly I can barely keep up with them so here is one of them: fundamentalist Christianity taught me that I was born evil and that I must repudiate myself in order to find favor with a god who otherwise wanted to see me suffer disproportionately to anything I could realistically have done to that point. I was often bewildered to be told that this god was very upset about something I had done which at the time I felt I had done out of necessity and sometimes under the duress of having to choose from possible actions that all seemed risky and so it was imperative to find that one that would be least painful or more importantly the one I thought least likely to annoy god or my parents because their annoyance was more urgent a problem than my own relative well-being.
But I also learned eventually–too soon really but not right away not the very moment I learned to speak–that a place of eternal catastrophic abandonment and annihilation awaited all people for their inherent evilness. If that sounds like what has been called hell, then I am describing it adequately for now.
The only choice offered to all people all of whom are defined as evil at the moment of birth–and this varies across denominations but the basic idea of original sin holds that we are born into a fallen state whether or not we have a few years of grace in which we are taught that we ourselves are responsible for that fallenness in the eyes of the god who cannot apparently be anywhere near anyone who is in this state for reasons that can be logically circular at times–the only way to escape orphanhood or death or catastrophic abandonment or hell is to reject one’s fallen self: to repent, or acknowledge that one has been evil all along and that as an evil being one can do nothing acceptable in the eyes of this god who does by now begin to resemble an abusive parent: arbitrary, unpredictable, and uniformly rejecting in that no part of the self will remain uncondemned: eventually even the best of intentions catch dad/mom/god on a bad day and will bounce back to the self as unanticipated shame, abandonment, and/or violent rebuke.
Reality for a child in an abusive family can become chaotic as violence or shame or rejection are unpredictable outgrowths of the parents’ own shifting emotional or physiological rhythms–rhythms that a child cannot comprehend well enough to be able anticipate their effects. The only controllable entity in a child’s universe is its own self or rather the child’s own self is the only entity on which it is allowed to exert any control be it effective or not. Much as the fundamentalist Christian self remains under constant scrutiny for shortcomings that cause its god to turn away–to stop speaking, in effect, or to send a believer to her/his room to search themself for signs and motives of and remedies for disobedience–this child’s self will be under whatever degree of self-surveillance is necessary to keep its parents from turning away.
There are finer splittings of the self within the tradition called Western but this one resonates here: a child living in an abusive family will come to militate against its own self or that is it will divide itself against itself or against the bad self or against the self who appears responsible for unpredictable abandonment and or injury. Or at least so far as the child can make out those qualities in themselves that enrage or upset or drive away their parents must be repudiated–one might say the child must repent–and carefully controlled lest they emerge in any recognizable form. Because those parts of the self for the child at that time are in fact dangerous and they represent a certain evil insofar as they appear to the child to directly jeopardize their only source of sustenance and protection.
And so the child’s self repudiates or repents of its other self in order to reduce the immediate danger of sudden catastrophic abandonment and annihilation–or something like hell, say.
I recall hearing more than once that the family was the microcosm for god’s kingdom but I doubt that anyone saying that had looked closely at the what similarities might be seen between that kingdom and abusive families. Of course abusive families have only been relatively lately recognized as abusive and I do not know how many others might have noticed by now that the abused child’s necessary war with itself might be mirrored or otherwise reproduced in the fundamentalist Christian’s war on themselves–and even could easily pass for abusive parenting when fundamentalist Christian teachings are handed down and enforced through familial power structures.
So I am just going to say that I think I see something here and it looks entangled to me with the culture I grew up in to such an extent that it is not always clear where abuse and fundamentalist Christianity can be completely distinguished from one another. If a culture produced abusive parents who produced abused children who grew up needing substitute parents while only recognizing abusive authority figures as acceptably parent-like then those grown children might predictably choose or stick with a religious tradition that supplies them not only with such a parent but with an entire social structure that feels like home because it supports ongoing abusive relations between its upper and lower hierarchies. And so their campaign against themselves can continue but not only that: it is reinforced and modeled as normal and necessary.
It seems clear that USian mainstream culture has absorbed this hostility to the self albeit in complex and ambivalent ways: selfishness is almost universally regarded as a defect even while a self with a drive to dominate others and to profit from this domination is hailed as ambitious or possessed of a strong work ethic–whether or not the dominating requires any sort of productive work. One could investigate the Protestant/Puritan/Calvinist roots of such ambivalence or rather it has been done but I am not aware of connections yet drawn between micro-cultures of abuse–abusive families–and larger structures of abuse or not in such a way that they might be detectable in fundamentalist Christianity nor much written on any historical or genealogical analysis of that connection. If there is one.
The last thing I want to say though is something of a resistant push back against the notion of selfishness as a defect of character but not at all in some Ayn Randish exultation in cruelty inflicted on others out of the crude narrow selfishness arising in a culture where abuse is practiced as a matter of course. And especially not so long as a self who inflicts cruelty on others is able thereby to achieve some great accomplishment or idea–one that will eventually avenge all the insults sustained by this reactive, resentful self who still lives and acts under the rule of self-abnegation as its reverse side and so does not in any way undermine or question the tradition of abuse.
Instead of this polarized tendency either to torment the self for the sake others or to torment others for the sake of the self, one thing–and it is not just one thing but here I will condense a few things–that appeals to me in Buddhist thought is that the self is a transient effect among all the other transient effects in the world and as points of unnecessary suffering these would benefit the most from a compassionate intervention: one that shifts attention away from continually judging the self as to its acceptability and especially away from the cultural axiom that there can be no connection between a yes and a no judgment on this question, no possible position between the extremes of elect or damned.
Suspending reactivity against oneself can create space in which to do not much more than note that oneself appears here at this time and place, but that notice can set off a curious cascade of perceptual and conceptual change. This has been my experience, once I manage to interrupt my own self-obsession by studiously and calmly observing whatever–whatever as in whatever happens–and I am able to pause the reactive impulses from my own sense of besieged self: the siege comes to an end. Or is suspended at least, and all of us here the non-royal we can breathe a bit and begin to pay greater attention to what comes to pass, be it self or other or other other, without always meeting it with suspicion and hostility.
* * *
Most of what I have relied upon here for descriptions of abusive families has come from elsewhere but the only discrete elsewheres I can recall at the moment are Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child and For Your Own Good and also Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. I think the specific question of familial abuse is distinct from the more general ideas I have read in what is sometimes called trauma theory. At least so far, the mentions I have run across of “abuse culture” as an attribute of westernish cultures have arisen mainly in activist circles, which are not necessarily coextensive or even concentric with academic ones. And so this is all the bibliography I currently have, but it leaves out all those titles and writers whose names I never took down.