catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 8 :: 2009.04.10 — 2009.04.24


Coming to consciousness

A child works on a project, an Easter card for her mother.  She has been learning to draw, to shade, to see the shapes in things, and so she wants this card to be better than anything she has done before.  Her mother is a very accomplished woman — a chef in the kitchen, with the fine sensitivity of an artist and the practical sense of a CEO.  The child wants to show this woman, her mother, what she is now able to do.  A new desire rises within her: she wants this amazing and caring woman to be proud of her.

But she is still young.  Her fingers don’t respond as she wishes them.  She forgets a P in HAPPY.  She erases, wrinkles the card, starts over.  Finally, in a heap of frustration, she retreats to her bed, under the covers, crying loudly, as upset at her own emotional reaction as she is with the card.

It is her father who comes in, pulls up a chair, sits by her bed.  He tries to be quiet for a while.  She keeps crying.  He tells her that he’s sorry she’s frustrated.  More crying — it’s hard for him to sit and listen.  He tells her she’s too hard on herself.  If only she could just enjoy the process of drawing, without trying to make it perfect.  The crying gets louder.

Feeling helpless, the father walks to the door — and then finally, the heart of the moment hits him.

Do you remember being a child — the actual experience of it and not the nostalgia for it?

The symbol of the child is so powerful, filling us with longing for the innocence and the potential within ourselves.  But as a wise friend said to me recently, children — real children — also experience a lot of confusion and shame.  This darker side of childhood lives within us as well, in our inner child.

As children develop, they are working hard to become conscious, to become aware of themselves as independent and self-sufficient. But as those neural synapses develop, there are long periods in which the child acts from instinct and innocence, in which their actions are not considered, in which they live unconsciously.  Shame is one way of coming to consciousness.

To hear the word “shame” described as a natural experience of childhood sparks a resistance within me, as I have worked hard to be a parent that does not use shame.  Instead we offer validation, assistance and options for problem-solving when confusion rears its tangled head in our children.  But even in our house where we accept what is, I have seen both my children experience a shame that rises from within.

Shame is one way of coming to consciousness.  In my own childhood, I was a drifting, dreamy girl.  I would “come to” at different points in the day with a start.  What had I been doing all day?  Did I know what I was supposed to do next?  Had I promised a friend I would play with her at recess and then forgotten?  It was a scary feeling, and lurking within was a floating anxiety that I may have done something wrong while I wasn’t paying attention. 

Recently, researchers from University of Colorado in Boulder published a study that suggests that “children neither plan for the future nor live completely in the present. Instead, they call up the past as they need it.”  In an article on the newswire service AScribe, doctoral student Christopher Chatham explains:

For example, let’s say it’s cold outside and you tell your 3-year-old to go get his jacket out of his bedroom and get ready to go outside. You might expect the child to plan for the future, think, “OK it’s cold outside so the jacket will keep me warm.” …But what we suggest is that this isn’t what goes on in a 3-year-old’s brain. Rather, they run outside, discover that it is cold, and then retrieve the memory of where their jacket is, and then they go get it.

This perfectly evokes my memory of childhood.  Around me were adults who naturally had the ability to plan ahead.  They kept expecting, unthinkingly, that I would, too.  I caught the feeling of their expectation without completely understanding it.  I wanted to participate in the adult world, but did not have this faculty of planning ahead in any consistent way.  At the moments I would “come to,” this discrepancy would catch me off-guard, consciousness coming like a painful jolt as I realized my forgetfulness — about jackets, play dates, that I had meant to clean my room instead of reading the comic book I’d found under the bed.  Shame is one way of coming to consciousness, and one that those in our culture have counted on.

So if shame will rise up from within even when a child is raised in a supportive, understanding and loving environment, could grace and forgiveness also be encouraged to rise up from that secret, inner space? 

Grace.  Not the religious doctrine, which takes the poetic language of the Bible and turns it into prose that speaks without heart and image.  But instead the experience of grace. 

How does a child experience grace?

One definition of grace is “the influence or spirit of God operating in humans to regenerate or strengthen them.”  More than a transactional forgiveness of sins, grace feels like a place where everything comes together.

Helen Luke was a Jungian analyst and a woman of faith.  In her autobiographical documentary, A Sense of the Sacred, she shares that during a difficult time in her life, she had a dream in which she made a painting of overwhelming chaos.  In the dream she was unable to make any sense of the painting, until the Virgin Mary stood by her side, and said, “Give it a quarter turn.”  When she did so, suddenly the picture resolved into a mountain, with the Virgin Mary on top, her blue cloak flowing over the land.  This dream seems an experience of grace, of allowing us to see, with just a slight shift in perspective, what is being created within us and through us.  Doesn’t it seem that children, vulnerable and feeling their way into their own lives, could especially benefit from parents using an approach that inspires this type of seeing, this experience of grace?

What is it that we see when we “give it a quarter turn”?  Wholeness.  A reconciling.  It is not a simple solution, but a peace beyond understanding.  Grace is the moment we can take a full, deep breath of acceptance.  Grace is a marriage of logic and imagination, which, like any true marriage, gives birth to a new vision, a new way of being.

We cannot command this experience of grace.  It is given when the psyche is ready.  Its very nature is that of a fleeting deer, a gift barely noticed from the corner of our eye as the mind works its machinations.  But still, is there a way to offer grace to our children as a peaceful and loving journey to consciousness? 

We know that too many parents use shame as a tool of control, doing with it much harm.  Yet, grace is not a circumvention of the pain of coming to consciousness.  The opposition of consciousness and unconsciousness is a reality of the psyche.  Children will at times feel it, experience it, be thrown into it by their own growth and selfhood.  Life — inner and outer life — will always offer its own pain, no matter how gentle our parenting. 

It may be that the most soul-affirming thing we can do as adults is to acknowledge shame and pain simply as part of the experience, without giving them undue weight or resistance.  And we can hold firmly to our inner experience, knowing that once our children have felt this pain, grace can come darting in, weaving the strands together with its ineffable wholeness.

The conversation doesn’t end there.  There is a factor even more essential than what adults can offer our children.  Our children, with their particular blend of striving and innocence, can fill our adult lives with opportunities for grace.  As John A. Taylor writes in his Notes on an Unhurried Journey:

When we adults think of children there is a simple truth that we ignore: childhood is not preparation for life; childhood is life. A child isn’t getting ready to live; a child is living. No child will miss the zest and joy of living unless these are denied by adults who have convinced themselves that childhood is a period of preparation. How much heartache we would save ourselves if we would recognize children as partners with adults in the process of living, rather than always viewing them as apprentices. How much we could teach each other; we have the experience and they have the freshness. How full both our lives could be.

In this, we see that grace is relational.  It grows among individuals.  It grows between an individual and her inner figures, such as the inner child. 

The child’s freshness is a facet of grace!  It is a wonderful gift if only we adults will open our eyes and see.  When we do see, we accept this gift not only for ourselves.  We are able to give something more to our children by seeing them.  In this, the true exchange of grace can flourish, a graceful way of coming to consciousness.

Finally, the father apprehends the heart of the moment.  He turns back to his crying child, throws himself on the bed next to her, and speaks with passion. “Oh, I know!  I used to do the same thing when I was a boy.  For me it was playing the trombone — I’d try so hard to get it perfect.”  He inhales sharply as memory transports him.  “I’d get so mad and frustrated that I couldn’t do it, I’d throw down my trombone.  And then I’d get mad at myself for getting so mad!  Until finally I was a mess — I’d run to the tree at the back of our house and hide behind it so nobody would see me cry and cry.”  He stops a moment, feels himself in two places — that of a boy, and that of a father.  It is both, it is his wholeness, who speaks to his daughter.  “It’s so hard, isn’t it?”

The girl cries once more, this time with the relief of something she cannot name.  Soon her tears will dry and she and her father will laugh together over something silly.  Soon she will wonder what made her so upset, and she will put together an imperfect card that her mother will love.  At a later time, she will hit this wall of perfectionism and shame again, and she and those who love her will face it again.  But for now, she cries, feels the replenishment that only this true water of the soul can give, and lets her father hug her.

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