Childhood – in principle, at least – is a time of wonder, of magic, of innocence. Over time, though, we become ‘adulterated’, tainted with the bleak realities and complex compromises of the everyday world: and slowly – unless we’re careful, or lucky, or both – the magic and the laughter begin to fade, and we wake up to find ourselves stranded in an ever-more-chaotic but supposedly adult world, wondering where on earth the magic went.
So we look around, and there are people out there having fun, just like we used to. But we look a little more closely, and notice that while, yes, there are a few people who’ve retained that sense of childlike wonder, and can share it with others, much of what passes for ‘fun’ amongst adults is something subtly different. Not so much childlike as childish, and often with a solid streak of self-centred nastiness: not the same thing at all. Danger – children at play…
The centre of the universe
Remember, remember… go right back before childhood, before you were born. You rested in your mother’s womb, and grew there; everything was provided for you, and you didn’t have to do a thing to gain any of it. All you had to do was be. Nothing else. Nothing else to do; no challenges, no threats; no problem. Although you might perhaps have sensed vague happenings at its fringes, the space you were in was the sum of your universe – and you were its centre.
Then you were born: for many, a rough awakening to the so-called ‘real world’. But even here, at first, there’s only you, at the centre of the universe. If you’re fortunate, everything is provided, just when you need it. There are more sensations – many more – than before, and you can now do more; but there’s only you, and a blur that provides. If there’s any discomfort, all you have to do is howl, and something happens: it may take longer than you want, and you may not always get exactly what you want, but something does happen. You’re in control: you’re still the centre of the universe, and you’re also comfortably certain that you’re at the centre of everyone else’s universe too. They exist to serve you: and as far as you’re concerned, that’s the only reason they exist.
And then, quite suddenly, it stops.
I’m not the centre of the universe; I’m not the reason the world exists; there are many, many others out there, and they’re just the same as me. When that realisation finally dawns, it’s literally life-shattering. So shattering that many people spend their lives running away from it… and that’s what we mean by ‘childish’.
|Do you have any memory of when you first became aware that you weren’t the centre of everyone’s universe? Who do you know who tries to cling to the idea that they should be the centre of everyone’s universe – and will do anything to try to force others to conform to their will? In what ways would it be fair to describe that behaviour as ‘childish’?
What behaviours of your own would you admit to as being childish? Notice the feeling of embarrassment, but continue looking a little closer… Then notice that, even if you are sometimes ‘childish’, so is everyone else. What difference does that knowledge make to you? What difference does that make to your relationships with others?
Exactly how that realisation dawns doesn’t matter that much. For some, it’s the arrival of a younger sibling, or that first day at day-care or kindergarten; for others, it’s the intransigence of adults during that devastating period known as the ‘terrible twos’. Whatever the nominal cause, we discover that we don’t always get what we want, especially when others are involved; and even worse, we have to accept the idea that we need to share – sharing affection, sharing resources, accepting differences – and surrender what has been, until now, our rightful place as the sole centre of the universe. That’s hard: to a child, it can be very hard…
Yet there’s another aspect of childhood that can vanish at the same time – and even if it doesn’t, it can be steadily crushed in the pressures of socialisation and the enforced indoctrination that’s mistakenly described as ‘education’. It’s a sense of wonder, of magic, of connection, of possibility: an open, innocent awareness that we call ‘childlike‘. It’s the state in which can most easily become aware of the interweavings of the wyrd – not just in children’s fantasies, but also in the complex connections of adult life. (All science, for example, arises from people continuing to ask the childlike question ‘Why?’) Once we lose this sense of ‘childlikeness’, it can sometimes be hard to reclaim it: but every now and then the wyrd will show itself to us in its own weird way – and return us, for an unknowable instant, back to that state of wonder.
|On a warm summer afternoon, I’m sitting in the back yard, watching a column of ants marching purposefully up and down a tree, whilst a blackbird whistles and warbles overhead. Everything, everywhere, everywhen quietly coincide: and in this place, at this moment, in this context, I am the eyes and ears and senses of the wyrd. I am the centre of the universe, and not – at the same time. A strangely childlike state…
Remind yourself of some times when you’ve had the feeling of knowing, for a brief moment, that sense of being ‘the centre of the universe’, the point around which – or through which – the world turns. What did you see in that state? What did you learn? Does this kind of experience happen mostly on your own, or with others – and if with others, who?
In this state it is true that we’re the centre of the universe; but it’s true only because everywhere is that centre – at the same moment. The threads of wyrd pass through everywhere, everyone, everywhen: it has no centre as such – it simply is. But everywhere is its centre, because every choice made anywhere within it echoes throughout the interweavings of the wyrd. And by knowing that wherever we are, we are at the centre of the universe, we have access to every possibility – which means that we always have a choice when we need one.
Ultimately, awareness of this can become a way of life, as was shown by an ancient Celtic chieftain who was captured and dragged off to Rome. History records that the Emperor asked him two questions: the first was “What is your greatest fear?” His reply: “That the sky shall fall on my head.” “Where is the centre of the earth?” “Between my feet”, came the reply. The Romans laughed at his answers – they thought him strangely childish. But the Roman army lost many battles – even whole legions – before they realised that those answers were far more than they seemed: childlike, perhaps, but in no way childish. The Celts may have admitted fears about things which rarely, if ever, happened – such as a falling sky; but they had few fears about things which did – such as death and dying. And if each warrior knew, for certain, that wherever they stood, that was the centre of the earth, there was nowhere else to go but here – so here, now was the time to stand and fight. A different kind of game, played by different rules… a different choice, leading to a different twist.
The first lesson of sharing is ‘playing fair’: failure to do so can lead to war… if only at a childish level, as any number of playground squabbles would indicate! But what do we mean by ‘fair’ or ‘equal’? The answers depend entirely on the individual: and if someone’s still clinging to the childish idea that they are, or should be, the sole centre of the universe, there’s going to be trouble…
|When we were growing up, big sister Anne had a very clear concept of ‘fair’: it was only fair when she had what she wanted, otherwise it was definitely, deliberately unfair – and all hell would break loose. If we tried to play a board-game, for example, everything would be fine – other than her stream of patronising comments – as long as she seemed to be winning: but the moment it became clear that she was likely to lose, the tantrums would start – we would all be accused of cheating, the board would fly into the air, and she’d hurl game-pieces across the room whilst everyone else ducked for cover. We gave up playing board-games eventually… no fun for anyone…
When you were growing up, was there someone amongst your family or friends who tended to do this? At what age did they stop? Or did they simply continue the behaviour in a more sophisticated, ‘adult’ form?
You’ve probably done it too, to some extent – but to what extent? Look closely: to what extent, and in what ways, do you still do the same now?
Equality is an enormously complex concept. At first it seems easy enough – just share everything out, and that’ll be fine – but once we start to look closely, we discover just how weird it really is. ‘Identical’ is easy – or relatively easy – to set up, but is rarely equal in the sense of ‘fair’: a ‘child’s portion’ in a restaurant wouldn’t satisfy a hollow-legged teenager! And at public events, and in public places such as theatres, men and women are usually allocated the same amount of toilet space: but because of the simple facts of anatomy, women need about five times as much space as men, to get the same number through in the same time – hence all those agonising queues… Not fair at all…
In many circumstances like these, identical can be far from equal: everyone is different, and has different needs. In some ways, what is done is less important than the intent that whatever happens should be fair: it’s more about feelings than strictly tangible results. So a fuller understanding of fair would be something like “equally deserving of respect” – or perhaps, as the ‘philosophy statement’ of an organisation I know puts it, that “the needs, concerns, feelings and fears of men and of women are of exactly equal value and importance”. But it’s sad to notice how many people have difficulty even with that: they’ll talk long and loud about equality, and fairness from others, but are strangely unwilling to put it into practice themselves. As George Orwell warned in ‘Animal Farm’, the slogans of equality and fairness soon become weirdly twisted: “all are equal” shifts to “some are more equal than others”; the old communard slogan “from each according to ability, to each according to their need” changes subtly into “from each according to facility, to each according to their greed”. If unchallenged, childishness rules – and those who genuinely care about fairness and equality often get trampled in the rush.
|At college there was a supposedly international socialist group who typified this self-dishonesty almost to extremes. They shouted loudly about democracy, but were notorious for rigging elections and meetings; they pontificated about ‘the working class’, when none of them had done a day’s work in their lives; they demanded ‘non-violence’ from others, but were far from non-violent themselves. “All property must be liberated!” was their rallying cry – or, more accurately, “all property must be liberated – but don’t you dare touch my stuff!” And they did not react kindly when anyone pointed out the glaring inconsistencies between their theory and their practice…
Who do you know who is similarly inconsistent in their ideas of ‘fairness’? What problems do you have in relating with them?
It’s hard to see our own inconsistencies, for obvious reasons! But if you have friends who you can trust to be honest with you without being hurtful, ask them what inconsistencies they see in your behaviour: what do you learn? How easy is it to face up to what they tell you? How easy is it to accept that this is what you do?
It’s bad enough when a whole family finds itself focussed on pandering to one member’s childishness – as was the case in ours, where for most of our childhood everything centred around keeping sister Anne ‘happy’, or at least quiet… But the childish amongst us are often completely unaware of it, because – as we saw with the Queen of Hearts, a while back – everyone’s running around covering it up for them, for fear of even more abuse. When a whole society or sub-culture gets into this state, some groups describe it as a ‘patriarchy’: but it’s more accurate, and more honest, to describe it as a ‘paediarchy’ – “rule by, for and on behalf of the childish”. A society which claims to be concerned only with ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’, but in which childish people are actively rewarded for ‘playing foul’: time to take a look around, because it’s everywhere around us…
Placating childishness doesn’t work: the childish ones – including all of us, at times – simply take, in the certainty that it’s their ‘right’ to do so. (One of the characteristics of a paediarchy is a strong emphasis on ‘rights’, and very little mention of responsibilities – except for others’ responsibilities, of course.) Responding to childishness with further childishness – “he gets away with it, so why can’t I?” – only increases the overall amount of childishness, and also of fighting, from which everyone loses. For the same reason, responding aggressively – fighting back – just drags everyone down, and solves nothing. Ignoring the childishness – “it’s only a phase, she’ll grow out of it” – sometimes works: but in many cases it doesn’t, because what the childish one is after is attention, and will simply crank up the childishness until they do get that attention. And punishing childishness rarely works, because they have no idea why they’re being punished: since whatever they did was, from their perspective, entirely fair, ‘punishment’ is, by definition, others being unfair to them – so they’ll often come back even angrier, demanding revenge… Facing others’ self-centred childishness can be a big problem: especially when they’re completely unaware of the true extent of their ‘playing foul’.
|Oh, the joys of shared student houses… There was one girl I particularly remember, who routinely ranted about her supposedly abusive parents (who happened to be paying her entire way through college, and plenty more besides), blaming them – and, later, us – for all the many problems in her life. When she wanted to watch our shared television, no-one else was allowed in the same room – it was an invasion of her privacy, she said. We had a rota for cooking: she never cooked for anyone else, but claimed her share of everyone else’s food as her right – several times I came home to find she’d eaten my supper, though she never offered to replace it. We had a rota for cleaning: others usually ended up doing hers for her, in sheer frustration, and on the rare occasions when she did wash up, there was always a new chip out of someone’s crockery – though never, strangely enough, her own. We had a rule that anyone who finished a shared item like breakfast cereal had to replace it: she always left a tiny amount at the bottom, so she could claim that someone else had finished it instead. Not once did she offer to shop for anyone else: the idea never occurred to her. Eventually we found the courage to ask her to leave: she demanded a meeting of the entire household, twice failed to turn up at the time she herself had specified, and then gave everyone a stern lecture on how unfair they’d been to her. And she moved on to do the same in the next student household, and the next, and the next…
What’s your experience of people like these, who carry their self-centredness almost to the extreme of an art-form? How do you relate with them? Given the frustrations, the temptation to respond in kind is always strong: how do you not fall into the same kind of childishness yourself?
Childish behaviour is to be expected from children – that’s why it’s called ‘childish’, after all. At first, children simply don’t know how to look after themselves, or how to relate with others in a complex society – and they can’t be expected to. So parents do – in most cases – take responsibility for their children. Walking down the street, a child finishes its ice-cream, and hands the wrapper to mother: it’s now her problem – as far as the child’s concerned, she magically makes the wrapper disappear. Unless the child is shown how to take responsibility for its own mess, it’ll never learn: the teenager turns round to hand its ice-cream wrapper to mother, finds she isn’t there – so dumps it on Mother Earth instead. Somebody else’s problem, not mine; hey, where the hell has all this disgusting litter come from? Somebody else, not me: it’s never my fault – how dare you suggest that it could be? Douglas Adams described this succinctly when he said that the best way to make something invisible was to surround it with a ‘”somebody else’s problem” field’ – it’s always somebody else’s problem, somebody else’s responsibility, so we don’t bother to look…
|Another common form of childishness is what we might call ‘faked incompetence’: “I’m too lazy to do it, so I hope someone else does – if I show them I can’t do it, they’ll have to do it for me…” The old gender-stereotypes play their part in this, of course: some men use it to duck out of their share of the housework – “you’re so much better at it than I am, dear” – and some women say exactly the same about checking the oil, the water or the tyres on the car. But it’s by no means gender-specific, as we saw in the last example, with the student ‘accidentally’ breaking crockery every time she washed up; and I remember one journalist shouting that he’d given up on computers – they were too complicated for him, he was going to go back to using a quill pen!
There’s another side to this, as we’ll see later; but who do you see who feigns inability or incompetence at some task, to trap others into doing it for them? What do you feel when you find yourself doing it for them, time and time again?
When do you indulge in this same belief that “power is the ability to avoid work”? What do you feel when others do what should have been your work for you? How do they respond to you when you feign incompetence or inability?
Childishness is a problem. But placating it doesn’t work; responding in kind doesn’t work; fighting back doesn’t work; ignoring it doesn’t work; punishing it doesn’t work. All of these lead straight into those loops of wyrd, where the same theme is repeated over and over again in endless variations – especially where people are covering up for others’ childishness, and hence covering up the only way out of the loop. There is a weird way out of this: there’s always a choice to change things, within the weavings of the wyrd. But we may not be too keen about the twist…
Each thread of the wyrd passes through everyone, everywhere: what’s going on ‘outside’ of us, in others’ behaviour, is also always present in us. We’re childish too; and childlike, if we can allow ourselves to be so. There’s little or nothing that we can do to change others’ behaviour directly: but we can change our own. And as we do so, their behaviour tends to change too – we don’t cause the change as such, but it happens in parallel, as our choices echo up and down the threads of the wyrd.
So the twist is that the best way to face childishness in others is to come to face our own: to admit to the ways in which we ‘play foul’ – or condone others’ doing so – and shift instead to learn genuinely to ‘play fair’. Uncomfortable and embarrassing at the best of times, but it does work… for everyone.
The quest for the Inner Adult
These days there seem to be any number of references to ‘reclaiming the inner child’: Inner Child courses and workshops, Inner Child therapy, articles in self-help magazines, whole racks-full of books on the subject in the bookstores’ self-development sections. Reviving the inner childlike state from the midst of adult gloom is certainly a good idea: but not so good if all we ‘reclaim’ is our inner childishness, as was the case with one woman I know well…
The concept of the ‘inner child’ is lifted – often inappropriately – from Transactional Analysis theory, which describes all interactions between people in terms of three complex stereotypes: the Parent – the over-responsible, ‘father/mother-knows-best’ critic – the Adult, and the Child.
|In your interactions with others, in what ways do you play the Parent: taking responsibility for others, criticising others, acting as if you’re the only one who knows what to do? How do others respond to you, or with you, when you do this?
In what ways do you play the Child: evading responsibility, meekly accepting criticism, doing what you’re told without thinking about it, rebelling against the Parent – or, alternatively, being inventive in a childlike way? How do others respond to you, or with you, when you play this type of röle?
In what ways do you play the Adult: mediating, rationalising, persuading? How do others respond to you, or with you, when you play this röle? What happens if, in this röle, you try to stand between an arguing Parent and Child?
In some ways the Parent stereotype is just a grown-up version of the Child: the original childishness transmutes into adult arrogance; childish thoughtlessness changes to reliance on externally-defined rules – the edicts of the Law, the Bible, the Koran, the Company Handbook or whatever – as a substitute for thought, and a tendency to be ‘judgemental’ without awareness of context. There’s more responsibility than in the Child: but even that is often given grudgingly, unwillingly, and with much complaint about unfairness… The classic ‘codependent’ relationships involve two or more people oscillating between the Parent and Child stereotypes, often constantly bickering, and constantly moving between the two stereotypes in search of power-over or power-under the other, to offload responsibility or fears onto the other. Some codependent relationships may seem relatively stable in a kind of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” way – the gender-stereotyped röes of the ‘traditional’ marriage easily fall into this pattern, for example – but the moment any party tries to move out of the ‘game’, all hell can break loose!
The Adult, by comparison, is more like a mature version of the Child’s childlike qualities: the willingness to explore, to risk, to create, in a much more complex social and conceptual world. And it’s much rarer than either the Parent or the Child, for the simple reason that both tend to attack the Adult: the bleak reality is that, caught up in their power-games, both Parent and Child often want to fight, and to hurt someone – and the openness and honesty required of the Adult röe makes it a very easy target… But there’s no way out of a codependent loop unless the wider awareness of the Adult is allowed to drift in – sometimes from outside, but preferably from within the people themselves – to point out the choices that are being hidden (or hidden from) in the twists of the wyrd. So as one friend put it, “it’s not my Inner Child that I need to find – it’s my Inner Adult!”
|I’m in the middle of yet another flaming row about work: Mary’s stuck in the Parent röle, nagging and demanding that I do things her way; and I’m stuck in the Child röle, torn between bowing to her authority and rebelling against it. Suddenly yet subtly I become aware of a kind of inner voice, telling me to slow down and listen to what Mary is saying. Initially I rebel against this ‘inner adult’ too – I want to do things my way, dammit, and no-one’s going to tell me otherwise! – but I find myself doing what it says: I shut up, and listen. Within moments, Mary stops in mid-sentence – mid-rant! – and the anger vanishes from between us: an argument that looked likely to go on all day, and probably all week, is resolved in minutes, both of us feeling comfortable about what we’d now agreed to do. Like the dancing, creative, magical Inner Child, that weird Inner Adult is always there, always willing to help in any way it can – when I remember to listen for it, and let it speak!
What’s your experience of the Inner Adult? In what kind of circumstances have you heard it speak? In the midst of an argument, perhaps, as in that example? Or elsewhere? How easy – or not – was it to accept what this inner voice was saying? More to the point, how easy – nor not – was it to act on that advice? What did the Child or Parent in you have to face by doing so?
Most of what we’ll see in the practical work here is concerned with ‘reclaiming’ – or becoming aware of, perhaps for the first time – our own Inner Adult. That work includes developing an understanding of the differences between selfishness, self-centredness and self-awareness, and slowly exchanging – wherever we can – our naturally childish and Parent-ish self-dishonesty for a rigorous honesty with ourselves and others. None of this is likely to be easy… but it can make a vast difference – a vast improvement – to our relationships, not just with others but also within ourselves.
As with the Inner Child, the characteristics of the Adult include a full acknowledgement of the self: things like self-love, self-trust, self-respect, self-awareness, self-responsibility. Finding these alone can be hard enough… But at the same time the Adult also needs a full acknowledgement of others, and both by and with others: a love (in many different senses) of others, trust shared with others, respect of others as well as of self, awareness of others’ needs and one’s own, and responsibility about, or to, or with (but never ‘for’) others. And that’s even harder, because it requires a full understanding of the interweaving of ‘I’ and ‘not-I’.
One of the reasons the Celts eventually lost their battles with the Romans was that they were too ‘childlike’ – too focussed on ‘I’, with too little awareness of ‘We’. Culturally and militarily they emphasised individual prowess, individual skill, with a poor grasp of tactics as a group; in the end the Roman army, using the classic power-under tactic of ‘divide and conquer’, broke through – because no individual, however skilled, can withstand indefinitely the might of the disciplined many. (A few centuries later, though, when Roman discipline had all but collapsed, the Germanic Celts had their revenge… and with the sack of Rome, the once-mighty Roman empire was no more.)
So ‘personal development’ alone is not enough: it needs to be complemented by interpersonal development, an awareness of what is possible – and only possible – by working together as ‘we’. By sharing, in every sense, we resolve the childish need to be at the centre of the universe, to be that centre – because through the weird experience of ‘we’, we also share that centre, as ‘I and We and I’.