Thursday, January 24, 2008

Soul-making and Parental Blaming


I recently heard a young man talking about the 'way' his parents ruined his life. He told me how his parents were abusive, neglectful and absent emotionally. He expounded horror stories from his childhood, teenage years and right up to the present. I could identify in many ways. I think many of us can to varying degrees.

The modern western courting ritual, we call it dating, is to meet as couples and discuss how our parents screwed us up. This is a safe way of being honest and intimate while blaming others for the faults the potential partner is about to see in detail. We sip coffee or wine and exchange stories about fights with fathers and mothers, explain our faults and failures through the lens of our parental failures and insanities, etc. That way, if the relationship bombs, one or both can say, "I told you my parents screwed me up; what did you expect?"

But this is at best a partial solution and ultimately explains very little as far as I can see. I walked away from this young man's very convincing litany of parental failures, and could see how his parents clearly helped create the mess that was his life. But I was troubled.


I found myself thinking, "Alright then, let's assume that his parents screwed him up. That must mean that his grandparents screwed up his parents. And that the great grandparents screwed up the grandparents, and that the great, great grandparents screwed up the great grandparents."

My mind kept tracing this dysfunctional family lineage as far back as I could imagine. Suddenly, in the breathless tumble of my mental regress, I arrived at pre-historic Lucy on the cover of Time Magazine several years ago. The Time article said that genetic researchers have concluded that approximately 1.6 to 5.3 million years before humans evolved, Australopithecus walked upright in Africa. "Lucy" was the name given to this famous bipedal, proto-human. DNA evidence demonstrates that from Lucy's family tree, around 200,000 years ago in East Africa, "Mitochondrial Eve" was born. This newer and improved humanoid is now being called the genetic ancestral mother of the entire human race! Similarly, another pre-historic survivor named yDNA Adam is the paternal ancestor of all men. Mitochondrial Eve and yDNA Adam eventually wandered out of Africa. From these two came this young man's parents, and yours, and mine.

I was so pleased to have solved the problem. Maybe the Bible was right after all; it was the fault of Adam and Eve! Perhaps Augustine was right all along when he said that the entire human race fell into sin and dysfunction through Adam and Eve. At this rate, science has proved Christian theology correct. Maybe Adam and Eve were the original sinners.

But then I found myself asking, "Who screwed up Mitochondrial Eve and yDNA Adam?" I guess the answer would have to be Mitochondrial Eve and yDNA Adam screwed their selves up. Or maybe it was the fault of their not-quite-yet-human relatives? Yes, that was it. It was Lucy's fault. But wait. Are you anticipating my question? Who screwed up Lucy? And if the answer is no one, because Lucy and all subsequent humanoids were simply trying to survive, then no one is really to blame. We are amoral creatures in an evolving process of survival, and there is really no one at fault. Then why are we trying to blame someone? Clearly, if you are a theist, or hold to any kind of absolute morality, the last stop in this train of blame must end with God or humans.


I am what Harvard psychologist William James called himself, a "supernaturalist of the crasser type". I assume the existence of a Higher Power that is somehow involved with the natural dimension of existence as opposed to those academics who would like to keep their philosophical metaphysics separated from nature. In other words, I assume there is a Godhead from which all we know arises. I do not equate God with the Godhead, but that is another subject for another time. The bottom line is that I see the cosmic situation being exactly as it ought to be.

I do not think my parents are ultimately to blame for my life condition. Are they responsible for their immoral, self centered choices and behaviors which harmed me, themselves and others? Absolutely. Did their choices and actions affect my life? Unquestionably. Can they change their souls and make amends for their harms. Emphatically yes!


But the universe into which we are born is intentionally unfinished and 'dysfunctional'. That means that dysfunction has a function. Self centered survival instincts are part and parcel of the normal human condition. It is from that base which we get to develop souls. Just as a kindergartener begins with innate categories for math and reading, he still has to learn the times tables and alphabet. As he learns, his awareness, choices and responsibilities increase with regard to geometry and literacy. He is enabled to take his newly acquired knowledge and do more harm or good.

Humans are born with innate soul potential; internal categories or archetypal seed pods which are capable of being cultivated by the water of time, the sunshine of Spirit and the fertilizer of life struggles. Life is a kind of kindergarten. Teachers come along every second of the day in the form of internal thoughts and feelings, and external people and situations. We are always developing, whether we are conscious of it or not. It is the purpose of existence. Being conscious makes it much less painful and easier to care for the soul. My parents did what their spiritual development allowed them to do at the time.

Currently, my only recourse is to believe that the Universe is a school of soul-making which includes dysfunction and what we have labeled abnormal behaviors. This means that the insanities of my parents, their parents, the parents of their parents and as far back as theologians or geneticists can conjecture or trace DNA, are part of the 'way it is'. Why can we accept the insane chaos and collisions throughout the physical universe as being cosmically beautiful and normal, and then turn around and call our own psychic collisions and life chaos abnormal and wrong? Is it because we want someone to blame in this school of soul-making? Is this the psychological equivalent of 'the dog ate my homework'?


It is possible to live in the tension or paradox of seeing the world perfectly imperfect, and to hold conscious human beings accountable for their actions, words and attitudes. The Chinese Tao Te Ching says that 'before one can become perfect, he must be imperfect.' Jesus said the same thing, "The first shall be last and the last shall be first."

Returning to the school analogy - a good teacher walks the tight rope between compassionate understanding and strict accountability. One day the teacher might lean over the shoulder of the confused little girl and show her how to do her math problem; the next day the teacher may refuse to help her, saying, "Sweetheart, I know you will think I hate you for not doing what I did yesterday, but now it is your responsibility to struggle with this problem all by yourself." That is soul-making. This is how normal life actually works from day to day.


My parents functioned at the level to which their souls had advanced when I was born and growing up with them. Since I have become an adult, I have watched them continue to grow up – to observe their souls becoming richer and deeper. A few years ago, I watched my mother die a slow, soulful death as she withered away from colon cancer. One day, with tumors filling her abdomen, she said to me, "Mike, I look back at the way we raised you kids and I am so sorry. We were obsessed with success, work and being successful. If I could go back I would…".

I don't remember all that she said at that point. I do recall seeing the kind of reflective regret that only adversity and imminent death can bring. I saw and felt her remorse and sadness coming from tearful eyes and trembling lips. I now know that I was not looking at a dysfunctional parent, but at a beautiful soul blossoming through the life she had lived, and was about to finish.

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