Thursday, January 02, 2014


On my long holiday vacation that has now been extended due to snow, I've been cleaning out a lot of files to make room for more research material. In the process, I handle a lot of paper. On pulling out one stack, I gave myself a paper cut, and my first instinct was to put my bloodied finger in my mouth. I realized that in our germophobic society, I would have been advised against doing such a thing; after all, the mouth is so disgusting with germs, even a dog's mouth is cleaner.

I then started thinking about all the "gross" things that kids do (or did)--eating mud pies, picking their noses and eating it, handing all manners of creepy things out in nature, and sometimes putting those in their mouth as well. Little babies, while going through their "oral" phase, will put anything in their mouth, including things that have just been in the toilet or have come out of the dog or cat's dish. I can almost see you shuddering as you read this.

However, it also occurred to me that kids who did all these "gross" things are probably healthier than the kid who didn't. When you encounter germs and bacteria, you are better able to naturally adjust your immune system to their presence. Kids get all kinds of weird diseases because they are building up their immune systems, and their exposure to other children and to Nature allows them to do this. All those disgusting things are probably going to guarantee that you live longer.

This is not to say that people shouldn't be hygienic. Of course you should wash your hands after using the bathroom, you should bathe and change your clothes every day. If you get a cut, you should probably treat it with iodine. If you are in a hospital environment, you should take even more precautions. It is interesting how in hospitals the greatest risk is of secondary infection, not the thing a person came in to the hospital for originally. Secondary infections are nasty--MRSA and other staph-like infections abound in such sterile environments. Basic hygiene helps you avoid these things.

But we live in society that is beyond basic hygiene. We have "antibacterial" everything, we take ourselves (and our kids if we have them) to the doctor at the slightest sign of a cold and demand antibiotics. Colds don't respond to antibiotics--they're viral, not bacterial. But I often hear that people take antibiotics anyway, "just in case". And they wonder why they are always sick, and so are their kids. Antibiotics are sometimes necessary, but often doctors will prescribe very high-powered antibiotics for illnesses that would do just fine with good old amoxicillin. If I get an upper respiratory infection that is actually bacterial, I always request amoxicillin. I don't need Bactrim or Cipro.

Our uber antibacterial culture is a reflection of our psychological culture. I see a lot in schools these days about anti-bullying policies. When I read accounts of bullying, I'm not sure if some of them are exaggerated, but I'm surprised 1. at how much more aggressive bullying has become when it happens, and 2. how fragile children are when dealing with it. I hear a lot more about suicides from bullying. Maybe it's just the Internet and an increase in information; maybe things like this have always happened. But I've started to see a trend in both physical and psychological health that might be summed up this way: When you fight against life and nature, it will fight back aggressively.

Many of you probably experienced some form of bullying growing up. I know I did. I put up with two years of intense bullying before I switched schools. No one enjoys being bullied, no one likes to hear about it happening to kids, and no parent wants to see their kid go through it. But a certain amount of bullying, especially in adolescence, is normal. Children are naturally defiant, and testing their boundaries. They are in the painful process of becoming adults. Lacking any kind of real transformational rituals, they are only transformed by traipsing off in the woods by themselves, or making a wrong turn in a dark alley and meeting a gang of hostile teenagers. If we don't come into conflict or face danger, we never learn to deal with it. You don't grow as a person or as a citizen of your society if you are sheltered from everything. This is why the very rich can't understand the poor. If you've never struggled to make ends meet, it is very easy for you to say that those requiring assistance are just "freeloaders". Of course, I have known people who have struggled in this life, and say, "why should they get assistance if I worked hard?" Both points of view suffer from the delusion that everyone else is "just like us", has the same opportunities and the same challenges. It didn't happen to me, why should it happen to you?

In ancient tribal societies, a young boy was often forcefully taken from his mother at a young age, and put through vicious initiations and scarification rituals, to make him one of the "men" of the tribe. We don't do things like that in "conscious" civilizations. (I tend to think of tribal cultures as "pre-conscious", because they are so immersed in nature, there is no split in their psychology. That said, there isn't rational consciousness like ours, either.) But that external adolescence ritual now takes place in the atmosphere of junior high school cliques and bullies. And it is vicious, because the process of growing up is vicious, both psychologically and physiologically.

Both parents and schools have become protective of kids to the point that most kids today don't have normal growing-up experiences. Everything is pre-scheduled and arranged. They have their own stresses, but they are different. They are not really free to be themselves. Which is why I often get students in college who really can't be bothered with things like class attendance, proper formatting, deadlines, and such. For some of them, the rebellion process is beginning at 18 rather than at 11 or 12.

Occasionally we see backlashes against movies that depict violence or death to children, and there has even been a questioning of reading fairy tales to children. Sometimes the objection to fairy tales is that they are frightening; other times, it is because they encourage "irrationality" in children, and belief in monsters. This is because we are so cut off from our inner life, we really believe that it doesn't exist. We are told that we are only rational machines. But that doesn't change the fact that the inner life is there. In Bruno Bettelheim's classic work on fairy tales and psychology, he says the following:

In order to master the psychological problems of growing up--overcoming narcissistic disappointments, oedipal dilemmas, sibling rivalries; becoming able to relinquish childhood dependencies; gaining a feeling of selfhood and of self-worth, and a sense of moral obligation--a child needs to understand what is going on within his conscious self so that he can also cope with that which goes on in his unconscious. He can achieve this understanding, and with it the ability to cope, not through rational comprehension of the nature and content of his unconscious, but by becoming familiar with it by spinning out daydreams--ruminating, rearranging, and fantasizing about suitable story elements in response to unconscious pressures. ... It is here that fairy tales have unequaled value, because they offer new dimensions to the child's imagination which would be impossible for him to discover as truly on his own. (Bruno Bettelheim. The Uses of Enchantment. Vintage Books, 1989: 6-7).

Social media doesn't really help. I am an avid Facebook user, I admit. But often, online relationships take the place of real ones. We text rather than have phone conversations. This is not all bad; if I just need to ask you what time you're coming to visit, I don't need to get into a conversation, I just need a text confirmation. When friends and family are far away and busy with their lives, this may be the only viable way to keep in touch. However, there is the other extreme as well. I hear about families where the kid is sitting in his room, and texts his mother in the kitchen two doors down about what's for dinner. Having taught both online and in-person, I was rather surprised to find that my online students were more interactive than my in-person ones. If I ask a question in a regular classroom, I often get an uncomfortable silence. Online, some brave soul will speak up. He or she is not facing their peers, so it is easier to interact. But if all of our conversations are electronic ones, we don't become fully human. You can't be fully human until you interact with humans, and have some empathy for them. You haven't lived life if you haven't been hurt and traumatized. You don't learn if you don't make mistakes. It's part of the package deal, and is not something to be eliminated. When learning to walk, we frequently fall down. Should we give up after the first time we fall?

I am a fan of Jungian psychology because Carl Jung is the one who pointed out this polarity in our consciousness. If you are good, you are also evil. If you are happy, you are also capable of being depressed. If you can love, you can also hate. And if you encounter God, you will also encounter the Devil. This is his concept of the "Shadow"--the part of ourselves that is weaker, and that we'd rather pretend we didn't have. In our "good vs. evil" society, we seem to feel we must eliminate one, and the other must triumph. But we don't "choose" one over the other. We need to integrate all of these factors and experiences into our lives, because that's what life IS. This is what the Genesis creation story is actually about. Eve HAD to eat the forbidden fruit in order for life to happen. Adam and Eve should not have remained in the garden for all eternity. Being one with God may be wonderful, but it's not conscious living. Once the fruit was eaten, they came into the field of time, which is the field of opposites--dark and light, good and bad, male and female, etc., etc. They noticed difference. And they now experience suffering, because being in the temporal world IS suffering. Life is like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are ripped apart, and regain their meaning as they are put back together. Our lives are about putting the pieces together--our opposites. But it's the process of figuring out and putting together that is important; the journey and not the destination. For better or for worse, we need to suffer, we need to encounter others, take risks, and occasionally fail. Otherwise, we are nothing but the walking dead; or, as Joseph Campbell said, we may be living someone else's life, not our own. "Perfect" means "finished"--we are not finished. The only way to move towards being finished is to experience ALL facets of life, not just the ones we prefer. You can't sanitize yourself against life.

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