by Leatrice Asher
However reasonable and rational we may be in most areas of our lives, we often have unreasonable expectations of our parents. We can accept imperfections in ourselves and in our friends that we cannot seem to accept in our own parents. How many of us find ourselves doing things we wouldn’t think of doing if we could fully premeditate each of our acts and evaluate them beforehand? Yet we often act as if our parents should be held to a stricter standard. We act at times as if we are entitled to be raised in an environment free of the pain, sufferings, and imperfections of the outside world.
And yet parenthood is the result of a procreative act, not a moral one. It is not a form of sainthood, and it does not require any special qualifications (except biological ones). That is not to say that being a good parent is a breeze, or that everyone should do it—far from it! It’s just that there is no more reason to believe that parents invariably bring great wisdom to their task than anyone else does, in any walk of life. We forget that our parents, like us, are people with their own lessons to confront and resolve in a lifetime, their own pain and, yes, unfortunately, their own growing up to do.
Why do our parents seem to “push our buttons” in ways that others in our lives don’t? Our parents are the original “others” that gave us our self-definition. It is through this environment of our earliest childhood that our life-lessons began to emerge. And, however well-intentioned (or even profoundly loving) our parents may have been, there was a natural imbalance of power: we were, in fact, utterly dependent on them. Is it any wonder that all the difficulties we can encounter in relationships are magnified in relationship to our parents? But if the difficulties are magnified, so are the growth possibilities. Working through the dynamics of these primary relationships can produce dramatic insights and positive changes on many levels, for these relationships are among our most important life-lessons.
We are inextricably linked with our parents for the reasons mentioned. And this linkage is wholly appropriate and necessary. The more we examine the dynamics of these relationships, the more we will conclude that our parents have provided us with exactly the opportunities we need to grow and to understand ourselves. This is not to say that they did this intentionally—nor is it to say that we will necessarily make use of this opportunity. But the possibility for growth is there before us, and if we fully recognize that fact we will realize that nothing is “missing” from our lives.
There is general unanimity among religious and spiritual traditions (or throughout what Aldous Huxley called “the perennial philosophy”) that we are always right where we are supposed to be, given the nature of our thinking and desiring. And this is epitomized by the parents we have and the patterns that develop out of our relationship to them. Many traditions, especially in the East but also in Western esoteric thought, place this idea in a larger context—that of an “eternal self” that progresses through various forms—usually involving progressive bodily incarnations—each appropriate to the stage of growth that the “soul” or “entity” has achieved, and each containing the necessary lessons that need to be confronted at this stage. Following this line, our earthly incarnations are analogous to a school. When you graduate from one grade level to another in school, you are given new sets of lessons to learn, which are usually more complex and advanced than those at the previous level. The same applies to incarnations or growth stages in the individual.
Although such ideas still seem strange to many Americans, they represent a far more common point of view throughout history than the Western idea that we start life as a “blank slate” (tabula rasa), or with the even more recent idea that children are inherently good and innocent. Once children are seen as each having their own inner developmental path that extends back and forward beyond this lifetime (rather than as representing an entirely fresh beginning), the idea that children are completely “innocent” no longer makes sense. We often feel outrage and indignation that a baby or child who is ill, handicapped, or abused should have to suffer; yet when a similar plight befalls an adult, we usually do not feel the same way. What’s more, our attitudes toward children tend to be contradictory. We have no difficulty accepting the possibility that special accomplishments might have an inherent origin—such as the early development of musical virtuosos or mathematical geniuses. But we are more likely to view behavioral problems, diseases, or disabilities (especially when manifest in childhood) as either the product of chance, unfortunate genetic makeup, or an unfavorable outer environment. The point of view of the “perennial philosophy” is that all of these characteristics are integral to who we are at this moment and the lessons that we must learn.
As long as we continue to treat children as if they don’t have the capacity to comprehend their lives, we won’t teach them how to better understand themselves and the ways that they create their own lessons. By protecting children from their own potential for insights into themselves, we are taking away their own birthright. A child’s intellect may not be fully developed, but I have seen many times that they have an inner knowing that is active and wise. Children are not simple-minded beings who can only comprehend meaningless and inconsequential prattle, even though adults often relate to them as such. If children are to reach their full developmental potential—first as children, then later as adults—we must encourage them to trust that inner knowing.
Growing Beyond Our Childhood
As with adults, children are capable of self-understanding and the work that it entails. However, there are major differences. Children begin life in a highly dependent state, not only for their physical needs but in the ways their inner qualities are permitted and encouraged to manifest in the world. As adults we certainly have more power and control over our lives. So it should be no surprise that very few of us get around to seriously examining our lives before we reach adulthood; and only comparatively small numbers of us ever do the serious transformative work that can only grow out of sensitivity to our own patterns.
The vast majority of individuals never even arrive at the initial stage of self-examination. Unfortunately, they will not be able to benefit from the lessons that relationships can teach us. They will continually draw to themselves the same types of persons in their relationships, repeat the same unconscious rituals, and elicit the same types of response, over and over again. Even those of us who have done considerable growing are quite familiar with that pattern!
Our task, if we are to grow beyond that stage, is to determine what specific elements from our childhood had such a strong influence on us that they became the motivating factors in our developing life. This is necessary, not for the purpose of blaming someone else for our problems, but to understand the context that has brought the present-day factors and people into our lives, and why we respond to these people and situations in the particular way we do. By observing and making connections between our own actions and the apparent “givens” in our life, we have the ability to understand how, through our own patterns of thinking, we created and continue to create the need for these people and situations. With this understanding comes the freedom to change our old habits and patterns—a freedom that leads to a deep and abiding feeling of peace. And a shift of power occurs as we come to possess the tools necessary to learn from any situation we encounter: we find ourselves no longer at the mercy of others’ actions, but ever more in command of our own responses.
Trapped in the Past
The residue from our childhood is almost always the result of a prevailing environment rather than one outstanding event, which wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make an impression and leave a pattern through the process of repeated experience. When we allow ourselves to feel the lingering sensations of these past events we gain insight into how they’ve found a foothold in our present life. As we put that unfinished past event up against a present circumstance in which we are experiencing difficulties, we can then ask ourselves what, if anything, our response has to do with the person or event before us. Often we’re not even seeing or relating to the person who is before us because we’re so trapped in these past entanglements. Keep in mind that the past can find a foothold in the present only as long as it’s unfinished. And it is unfinished because we have not looked to the past to find the roots of the current event. Therefore, a reactive and impulsive response steeped in projection becomes all we are capable of. These leftovers of the past may be with us throughout this lifetime, but no longer controlling us. And not being controlled by our past events is a profound kind of freedom.
All experiences, including those from childhood, are there to teach us. It’s all right to feel sad, grieve, or be angry, if these are the emotions that arise as we permit ourselves an opening for these teachings to reach us. Sadness has a texture, a strange comfort that acquaints us with ourselves in a different way. It’s like having a bruise or sore muscle that we continually touch or rub because in some odd way we like the feel of that soreness. It familiarizes us with the rich complexity of pain, which in turn routes us to deeper levels of our being. Although it is good and useful to heal rifts in relationships, the resolution is ours, because the lessons of life are uniquely for us. In this sense, we are given exactly what we need. This is not something to bemoan; instead, we can rejoice in the many opportunities we have to restore ourselves to balance and soundness.