The formative years. It sounds like such an innocent time in our lives when we’re absorbing all these great life experiences that will one day shape our characters as adults. We unwittingly adopt the behavioural tendencies of those around us, including those we later despise and those we hold dear. Sometimes specific moments become etched as defining moments that we never fully understand but can always recall with vivid detail even though it seemed like just a fleeting moment of no consequence at the time. However, most of the time the less pleasant experiences are not etched as memories, but instead as fuel for our defenses that are formed without specific choice on our part.
As a child, I think it’s perfectly normal to block things out in order to remain resilient. In the absence of any mature coping mechanisms at that early age, forgetfulness and forgiveness, although not conscious choices, serves us well. However, in the process, it shapes our perspectives of the world that either manifests itself as healthy or destructive later on. This, more than the memories that are etched in our minds that we recall with vivid detail, is the real threat to our sanity as adults. The themes that carry through those periods of ‘forgive and forget’ defines our sense of self-worth, but more importantly I believe it defines our belief in what our contribution towards society can be (not will be).
If we constantly forgave the spiteful, selfish, or abrasive acts of others towards us, we’re inclined to grow up believing that we should expect nothing less, and therefore slip into a victim state of mind. We become subservient and enslaved to the point where the absence of an opportunity to be subservient may result in us growing excessively despondent in the belief that we are not worthy enough for anyone to seek our subservience. In other words, if I don’t find a setting in which I can be of service to a higher authority that I recognise as such (not necessarily a religious or spiritual one), I will most likely feel incomplete, unfulfilled, or even worthless to those around me. Alternately, if those themes are ones of acceptance, praise, and condoning of my actions no matter what, I would be likely to grow up feeling entitled, arrogant, and generally more deserving of attention and affirmation than others. In fact, not just deserving, but needy of it. Of course, these are just two polar opposites of the spectrum. Sometimes, those that are compelled to believe they are victims fiercely resist the thought and grow aggressive or destructive (or both) in their efforts to demand significance while not having the presence of mind to understand why their approach serves as nothing more than a further erosion of their significance to those around them.
Such inclinations are easily excusable up to a point. That point arrives when we acquire the capacity and skills to reflect on our behaviour consciously, rather than continuing to live spontaneously without thought or consideration for the impact of our actions on others. I believe this to be true for both the subservient and the arrogant. Those that persist with the patterns of behaviour into their adult years under the pretense that that is simply their nature have in fact not progressed much beyond their formative years. They may have acquired new skills and defined more effective strategies in the years that followed, but the underlying motivation and purpose that drives their behaviour remains unconsciously informed. No different to a child throwing a tantrum for something that they want because they have no better judgement to understand why it may be bad for them or those around them.
There is a point in all this rambling even though it may not seem so yet. What I’m struggling to articulate is really the crux of why we feel dis-ease in our lives as we find ourselves struggling to achieve things that come naturally to others. We sometimes struggle in our roles in society, or family, often caught between knowing that what we’re doing is wrong, but also not knowing why we are not inclined to do it right. It’s this angst that is often masqueraded as anger or arrogance accompanied by a healthy dose of obstinacy, but sometimes is also manifested in behavioural patterns that go against our nature. It’s a struggle that every one of us lives with to varying degrees of intensity, and I’ve found that those that are most mindful of those early influences in their lives are the ones that are most at peace with these struggles. That doesn’t mean that the struggle ever abates, but simply that it occupies less space in their sub-conscious mind than most of us.
But there is another important side to this state of reflection and conscious choice. What we often fail to do is separate the role models from the destructive actions. We fail to see their demons and therefore feel trapped in knowing that we disapprove of their actions but feel that such disapproval may be a rejection of them. When they are parents or siblings, or other loved ones in our lives, that tension becomes extremely disruptive to our state of mind. So perhaps the most important part of forgiving and forgetting is not necessarily looking beyond the actions only, but also being able to recognise the role that someone played in our lives while discounting the behavioural associations with them?
In order to discount those associations I would need to have a frame of reference against which to validate my choice instead. Right there is the origin of such angst. Too many insist on an absolutist approach to all this. We either accept the role of our parents as being definitive, or as being irrelevant. Very few make a healthy choice of determining which were their parents’ demons versus their deliberate efforts. We inadvertently create a model around which to shape our lives without realising its significant parts that in fact operate independent of each other, and in doing so, we adopt the same flawed frame of reference that drove them to unsuccessfully struggle with their demons as they tried to lay the foundations for our lives.
These models of harm were not imposed on us. We created it from the assumptions we continued to make as we grew older. Chances are, when we lack the ability to look critically but compassionately at those around us, we probably lack the ability to reflect critically but compassionately about ourselves. When that happens, we are likely to subscribe to labels and norms that we don’t fully understand but nonetheless do so because it offers affirmation, validation, or at the least, an excuse as to why we may not be able to fulfill the ideals of the roles that we would want to fulfill instead. It gives us that excuse to say that we can’t control our choices because there is proof that there are others that are similarly afflicted, and therefore it can’t be an affliction, but instead it must simply be a norm that goes against the norm.
There is strength in numbers. And it’s the strength in the numbers of those we polarise towards that will determine which themes we adopt for our lives. If I surround myself with successful but unethical sales people in my quest to become a successful salesman, I will quickly find reason to justify the unethical behaviour that feeds my success. But in order to do this, I would need to completely discount the ethical points of reference that may have informed my ethics up to that point. If I cannot successfully demonise those points of reference, I will forever be conflicted and will experience dis-ease throughout my career’s successes, even though that may not be visible to those around me.
We’re all sales people. We’re all offering a product of ourselves to those around us, and depending on how desperately we want to make that sale, we’ll compromise our core values in order to receive the acceptance we desire. How readily we compromise, including what we choose as being our core values, is directly influenced by the models of harm that we formulated as we worked our way through life. Again, a moment of reflection therefore becomes more beneficial than 80 years of prayer.