11/11/10 I am adding to this post a quote I came upon:
Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of them.
The books I choose to read often, serendipitously, give me fresh insights—a lot of “AHA moments”. I just finished The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. The Help is a fairly recent fiction-based-on-fact novel about the African American women who served white families as maids, nannies, and caregivers in Jackson, Mississippi at the very beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. The book is told from the perspectives of two maids and one young white woman, who finds herself at odds with her cultural environment, but fears making known her growing distance from the ideals and beliefs of those around her. Her journey from Southern Belle elitist to firm believer and participant in the cause of equal rights makes this book one I could barely put down —she loses her friends, her status, the man she thinks she loves. Everything she has known. Everything she thought she needed to survive within her environment. In return, she finds herself. Her journey reminds me of my own. It might remind you of yours.
While God is supposed to be the same yesterday, today, and forever, I am not. I really do not know anyone who is, although I do know that many of us feel—and are treated as if—we pretty much must stay the same throughout our adult lives, if not our child lives; that the values and beliefs we held are the values and beliefs we hold—perhaps not in the details, but certainly in terms of the general pattern. It is not unusual. It is inevitably frustrating to the recipient of these assumptions. The experience is fairly common among those of us who have, on our individual journeys, made a ninety degree turn-around in matters of faith, moral values, political leanings, or other points that comprise the whole of who we are to those outside of ourselves; sometimes, a turn-around which is quite radical, in terms of how we are known and accepted by others. I, myself, have been guilty of assuming sameness, as well. It is common enough behavior on both ends—from the end of the assumer and from the end of the recipient of those assumptions.
Not just friends, but family, those to whom I am closest, oftentimes assume that what defined the Janice of twenty or thirty or even forty years ago still defines the Janice of today. I’ve watched expressions– written, verbal, and facial– go from disbelief, to shock, to disgust, to anger all in a matter of seconds. Those who tend to be more accepting are those who, like me, have done a complete 90 degree turn. But, those who see themselves as holding the same belief system and values most of their adult and even childhood lives, and/or are of the belief that they are correct and their way is the only “true” way, the “biblical” way, or the “we’re called right wing because we are right” way, are shocked that I know longer believe as infallible or true the writings in an ancient book written for a particular group of people, that I am a socially progressive liberal, that I am pro-choice, that I believe homosexuals and lesbians should be allowed to legally marry with all the benefits of marriage, that I no longer believe in the Michelangelo version of a terrifying God or a wimped-out version of Jesus. Maybe they think it is just a phase I’m going through, that I will eventually come back and be the “me” they’ve always known. Or have thought they knew. Or the “me” I was “brought up “to be. I’ve lost several friends being—and becoming—true to myself. I’ve experienced damaged relationships with both friends and members of my own family.
Being true to the self. Now, there is a challenge. For decades, I struggled to fit into a particular mold. As a small child, it was difficult being considered “different”. But, my parents were my world; their environment, their choices, were what I followed. As I grew, however, I found myself increasingly at odds with, not only their religion, but their political beliefs, their worldview. I hated being “different”, not because of the differences, but because they were not differences of my choosing. I was not allowed to voice dissention. I was expected to believe and follow what I was told to believe and follow. Forever. This affected everything in my life; from my choice of a mate to how I brought up my children.
Although I felt quite alone in my misery at the time, education and experience have taught me I was not in an unusual circumstance. In rehashing these events with my therapist, we talked about imprinting. Imprinting is defined as follows in the New World Encyclopedia:
“… any kind of learning that occurs at a particular age or stage of development. A phase-sensitive type of learning, it involves an organism recognizing the characteristics of certain stimuli that are subsequently “imprinted” onto the subject. Most occurrences involve learning to recognize one’s parents or potential sexual partners, both of which have value for the survival of the species.”
I am not a psychologist, so I am interpreting this meaning based upon what I know from old coursework. Basically, a child bonds to the person or persons it meets at birth, and begins to pattern its behavior after them. These are usually the parents or a parental figure. Copying the behavior of those persons is observational learning—what is done, how it is done, the emotional responses elicited, and so forth. The child adapts the values and ideals of their primary caregivers. As a child matures, he/she begins to question these beliefs and develop a personal set of core beliefs. This is normal; it needs to occur for healthy psychological development. But, when young, adaption to the environment is essential to survival.
Imprinting can occur at various stages of development, and is more intense in some than in others. Guilt is the result of believing that one has done wrong within that environment, and not having the knowledge of what to do with that alleged “wrongdoing”. Shame is how one believes others interpret one’s actions within that environment. Both guilt and shame are the internalization of what we believe to be right or wrong within the context of our environment. Both of these limit our being able to make proper choices.
Anything with which we identify can cause us to imprint. Not just parents or caregivers, but also religious institutions, images, culture, politics, even food choices. It can also cause a person to believe that others believe (or should believe) as they, themselves, do. It is probably safe to say that the roots of a person’s belief system are imprinted early on and, while the beliefs can change, some of the roots can remain to color the new beliefs. While most children are allowed to shed childhood imprinting as an integral part of growing up, others are not. Or, the child is only allowed to develop a personal sense of belief and values that does not contradict those of the caregivers, institution, or group. The emotional conflict can result in a massive amount of guilt and resentment on the part of the child-becoming-an-adult. And of the child AS an adult. As well, since what is imprinted does not necessarily have to be rational, and new thought may be perceived as more rational, further conflict and guilt results.. Eliminating old ideas that have been imprinted from early on is difficult, if not impossible for some. Not only because of the imprinting, but because the fear of non-survival outside of the group—whether it be family, social, organizational, or religious—is ever present. “Be as I am, or suffer the consequences” can be a huge deterrent for many in the search to develop their own ideas, their own values. The “danger” perceived by the infant if they fail to tune into their environment becomes the silenced voice of a frightened, frustrated adult.
As for myself, personally, I was literally being suffocated, strangled, because what I imprinted was so at odds with new information that I could not share without harsh repercussions. This caused massive amounts of guilt and shame. To further complicate matters, the way others imprinted made them feel that I should feel as they did. I wasn’t allowed to develop my own set of personal ideals and values. Those ideals and values had to match that of the environment of which I was a part. I was well into my 30’s when I began to pull away, in my 40’s before I made the break. By that time, however, I had internalized the conflict to the point that illness resulted. Even today, a full decade after I finally felt free to be myself, to follow my own set of values and beliefs, to give voice to those values and beliefs, I still get those nagging feelings of guilt. And fear. Totally irrational, and yet, totally predictable.
My experience is not new, not unusual. “Teenage Rebellion”, or, better put, the process of the adolescent developing his/her own set of values and beliefs, has been around since the beginning of social and family groups. Without it, few children would grow away from the nest and seek to establish their own family/social units, ensuring the survival of the human race. In a sense, society at large mirrors individual experiences. I watch and listen as groups and organizations, religious, political, or anything in between, attempt to effectively silence other groups who are in the process of developing different opinions, different lifestyles, different beliefs, different ideas about real CHANGE in a new type of environment–value systems seemingly at odd with the established culture. They insist we, as a society, need to “get back to our roots”. It seems as if established religions, cultures, organizations–not just in America, but in the world–so fear a changing society, a growing global society, a different world, that silencing steps in its development is the only thing they know to do. But, just as with children who have to eventually pull away from their parents’ or caregivers’ ideas and beliefs and develop their own, so are many starting to pull away from ideas that will no longer work as society grows and changes. Society, not just individuals, changes. To try to ignore those changes, to act as if beliefs and values stay the same forever, is fruitless. Old ideas, old beliefs, eventually will no longer work. To not allow the new ideas and beliefs to enter into society and define themselves within a safe environment–which welcomes change–might keep society stationary for a time. But, not forever.