The essential benefit of families is to give children a chance to build a store of memories that will serve to get them started in life, and perhaps see them through to the end. Love, liking, sex, companionship, respect, and cooperation help parents bond with each other as essentially different people. That bond is a gift they give their children who, born wholly naïve to the ways of the world, need early engagements with others to build memories, habits, and skills that will help them to stand on their own legs as capable adults when the time comes.

Whether heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or other, adult pairs that complement each other can provide the stimulation and stability necessary to maintain a functioning family that benefits children directly or indirectly during the restless journey to adulthood.

Couples don’t need to justify their existence by having children. They provide the same services by engaging each other so that, having a shared home to return to that restores them, they can go forth and do the work of the world in turning solar energy into deeds.

This benefit also spreads throughout the neighboring community. It takes true, skilled, generous, and reliable engagements to run the world, not the union of one man with one woman, which is only one example of a wide variety of productive human relationships.

There are as many kinds of marriages as there are couples. The essence of family is stability through mutual engagement, not any one particular kind of relationship. If we over-specify the nature of families based on a particular personal preference, morality founders on the sharp rocks of that heedless specificity.

Children don’t need orthodox beliefs to grow into competent adults, nor do any partners who already function on that level of competency. Expressions of mutual love help, along with enough healthful food to fuel the currents flowing through minds both young and adult, endowing them with coherent thoughts and meanings.

The essential thing in a family is to build a core of common experiences that stimulates the growth of all members on their respective levels of attainment. This requires a certain flexibility of expectation, not the rigidity of preordained results.

When I was two or three, the bed of an old canal that passed at the rear of our back yard in Hamilton, New York, was selected as the route of a new sewer. Big sections of concrete pipe were lined up along the banks of the canal, ready to be rolled into place. Walking unattended as a very young child along that line of pipe, I came to its end, which I immediately crawled into.

I remember the feel of the rough concrete surface on my hands and knees. My way into that tube of darkness grew ever dimmer, without any sign of light ahead. The pipe was too tight around my crawling frame to let me turn, so I tried backing up, which didn’t work. I had no choice but to keep crawling into the depths. Crawling. Crawling, scrape after scrape. I got worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a way out.

The separate sections of pipe were pieced together so tightly that only faint hints of an outside world glowed dimly here and there. I was firm in my conviction that the only way out had to lie ahead. At a slight bend, I suddenly saw a faint shimmer from a wider gap in the distance. I kept crawling, and came to two sections of pipe that had not been closely fitted together, leaving a six-inch gap flooded with daylight. This was my chance! I scraped my way through that gap, drawing blood and white scratches along my arms and legs. I wormed my way upward toward the light, and stood free in the open air, taking the coolest, freshest breaths of my life.

Only then did I admit my stupidity in crawling into that line of pipe as if the dark opening had invited me in. I recognized taking that initial move as the bad idea it had been. I remember scolding myself never to do that again.

A certain lack of parental supervision in my case as middle child led to many subsequent episodes of my learning about the world on my own. I became an independent thinker. Whenever I could, I roamed the hills around town, getting scratched, wet, tired, and cold, but never cutting back on my roving explorations. I was on the path to adventure, realizing that if I was under anyone’s supervision, it was my own.

I see those qualities now as the gift of independence that my father took from his birth mother’s not showing up when he needed her. Turning bad situations into positive outcomes is an unsought but necessary result of living through tough times. Finding that positive way is up to those who suffer neglect, abuse, bullying, cruelty, or deprivation. If others torment us, we always have the ultimate option of going it alone under our own recognizance.

Here I am today, facing into the tunnel of introspection so surely shunned by respectable science. Well, so be it. Some may regard it as a sewer pipe; I see it as my way to revelation. My path of life lies precisely into this particular darkness. I’ve already seen many faint shimmers of light, and have no intention of turning back. This Web log is the record of my adventures so far. If I don’t take this particular path, who will? The way is not obvious, but I judge it to be essentially positive. It happens to be the route I’ve followed since earliest childhood.

Thanks for checking it out.

449. My Parents

March 5, 2015

Surprising as it may seem, parents are people. They are who they are. They can’t be all things to all children, who tend to draw closer to one or the other. Sex hormones may be one draw, a sense of shared identity or “identification” another. I’m with him, mister active who plays catch; I’m with her, the listener and supporter who gives me a hug now and then.

I grew up under the teachings of John B. Watson’s recent (1928) book, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, which advised raising children at an emotional distance as if they were young adults, shaking hands with them, but not hugging or kissing them lest they be spoiled. Young academics were apt to accept Watson’s doctrine as the authentic voice of scientific reasoning, so got suckered in to Watson’s “method,” while more loving parents remained skeptical.

The only time I can remember my father holding me in his lap was once on the front porch when he helped tie my shoes. The incident stands out because it was a unique event. Late in her life, my mother admitted that most people in Hamilton didn’t approve of how she was raising her three boys.

However family attachments are formed, they stir our engagements much as loving hands turn a prayer wheel in Tibet, or, as in my case, dutiful hands dress a child for school to meet community standards of approval. I have always seen my childhood as Platonic in being based on ideas and not feelings. I can’t recommend such treatment to anyone.

After all, it takes only a gentle pressure now and then to keep family relationships active and alive. Like prayer wheels, family engagements are made to spin, two partners in mutual orbit. To endure, they have to spin one around the other. In most families, parents trade off in keeping things going. Both are active while doing different jobs that have to get done every day. Like working for a living, getting dinner on the table, cleaning house, or watching a movie together.

When my parents got married in 1926, my father laid down the law: this is to be a one-career family. My mother was working on her doctorate in geology, so had to switch tracks mid-course. Her father had been a granite worker in the quarries of Sullivan, Maine. It was only natural for her to follow his lead. I remember she kept a few mineral samples in a bowl on her dresser, each labeled with its scientific binomial. In 1923, she did geological research at Acadia National Park. That was the year her father died of silicosis.

In the mid-1920s, her future husband showed up on her doorstep in Sullivan, seeking a rest stop on a hike from Middlebury to Nova Scotia. That was the end of his solo journey. My mother grudgingly learned to specialize in childcare and homemaking, developing a sideline of easel painting on Sundays, her day off.

I remember her boiling the laundry in a huge copper laundry tub that fit over two burners of the coal stove in the kitchen. She was a highly visual person, with marine artists in her family background. A Maine native, she loved the outdoors. In Seattle in the 1940s, I remember her saying after a long spell in the house, “I want to go out and touch trees.” She sent many signals that childrearing was not her chosen thing. But she worked at it as best she could because that was her family role. When she got more free time as her three boys got older, she took up flower gardening as a suitable pastime for a faculty wife.

My father was a distinguished college teacher of English. As far as I could tell, his toolkit consisted of pencils, paperclips, a stapler, pads of paper, and a zinc writing board with a bent corner. His main tool was an upright Underwood typewriter that made clickety noises through the closed door of his study after dinner, starting promptly at seven o’clock.

Each of us three boys had to invent himself for lack of an explicit model to engage with. Career-wise, we each did a lot of flub-dubbing around. Both my older and younger brother had great trouble finding a way through the halls of higher education. Both of them got lost.

Suspended between science and the humanities, I, too, got lost, but as a middle child with lesser influence from both parents, in my late forties I eventually stumbled my way to a doctorate in humanistic and behavioral education from Boston University School of Education in 1982. On the secondary level, I taught English for a time, and poetry, along with creative photography, art, and the humanities. Then I moved to Maine to write my great book, became an environmentalist, made a life for myself, and discovered wayfaring as my true profession. So did I resolve the misguidance of John B. Watson’s early and longstanding influence on my life.

448. Family Engagements

March 4, 2015

How do families form? How do they work? How do they stay together? How do they fall apart?

Some would say the driving force is the binding power of religious belief. Others would say, cultural tradition, civil authority, paternal or maternal consent, and so on. Still others would maintain that families are formed in response to the abiding and mutual attraction of two people in love.

Many would agree that it takes a public act or ceremony to instigate a family, attended by as large a sector of a community as can be gathered together, adding the weight of many hearers to any vows that might be exchanged. And incidentally forming a base of well-wishers right from the start.

But in fact, families form whenever and wherever conditions are present in the right proportion to support individuals in committing themselves one to another, as construed by the minds of those concerned.

Sexual engagement may be involved before, during, or after any such pledge of commitment. Women like to be wedded and bedded; men like to bed and be fed. Most agree that families require consummation at some point to become sufficiently binding to enter into the books that make families official or legal in the public mind.

But there are a great many extra-legal ways to start a family, one being a shotgun wedding enforced by the male parent of a fallen maiden, or simply by mutual consent of the people (not necessarily of different sexes) involved with no additional requirements.

From the standpoint of children within a family, we know our families from the unique perspective of our unfolding minds, never twice the same two days in a row. By definition, we are developing all the while, every hour of every day. We are not yet fully human, and have far to go before we achieve an identity worthy of that honorific title. But day by day, wayfarers that we are, we head in that direction.

If the question could be put to us early on, “Eat and poop, poop and eat, when are you going to stop being such an animal?,” our behavior would answer for us: “Bear with me, I’m working on it.” By the time we are thirty, forty, fifty, or eighty, all will be revealed.

As children, our repertory of developing gifts is influenced by a number of factors: genetic heritage, diet, skills we work on, engagements we strike up, character traits of those around us—parents, siblings, relatives, friends, pets, and neighbors. We’re all working on it by providing a stimulating and supportive (and somewhat stressful) family setting matched to (and a little ahead of) our respective levels of competence.

Think of the young Mozart, Tiger Woods, Serena and Venus Williams, following the examples provided by attentive, encouraging, and often demanding parents. Prodigies are made, not born, by seizing the occasions they are given for grappling to achieve what they see others doing with polish and ease.

Infants thrive on repeated awareness of warmth, tenderness, milk, and sonorous engagements suited to their needs and abilities. Reassured by their initial contacts, they seek a greater range of challenges through more demanding engagements. Cooing sounds become hummed tunes become lullabies become rousing songs. Babbled syllables become recognizable words; words in a row become sentences. Eyes open, heads lift, arms reach, legs push, ta da—we’re crawling, and about to rear up on our hind legs and really get moving so we won’t be late for our first speech.

Five factors are crucial to our childhood development: our unique genome, the ages of our parents, spacing and birth-order of all siblings, and the sexual identity or preference of all concerned. Volumes have been written about the details of each. Relative not only to our brothers and sisters, but to our parents, whether they be nurturing, encouraging, challenging, preoccupied, overprotective—whatever.

Father is often the active one who physically challenges us; mother the caregiver who supports (while shaping) our every endeavor. It could be the other way around, or neither, or both. We respond to the adults we are born to, or acquire thereafter, whatever their gifts and limitations at the time, however we are able to engage them.

We respond differentially to their example according to our needs, interests, desires, and abilities. These first mutual interactions set the tone for all that follow. We bask in the attention, and strive to keep up by doing our best. The bar rises higher and higher each time, the effort goes up, the satisfaction climbs. We grow into ourselves through personal exertion, putting ourselves out to become who we strive to be. No one can do it for us.

Every step is earned through hard work and determination. Given time enough and stamina, there’s no limit to how far the life force might take us once we achieve lift-off within our families and our flightpath is subject to personal control.

But our families can engage us so that we keep striving on our own with their help. Together, we can make it happen. Apart, we can only get so far on our own because engagements take two or more players, and it is the flow of ongoing interaction that counts, not merely token glances, smiles, or frowns. They are for later once we’ve learned to meet our own standards through disciplined practice again and again.

We get good at what we actually do, not what we promise but only half-heartedly try.

In coming posts I will speak largely from the perspective I have on my own family, since that is the only one I can address with the authority of personal experience.

Our minds are proposed in the womb, then disposed during subsequent engagements after birth for the period of one lifetime.

It is in the care of families that our minds develop perceptually from arousal, expectancy, and attention on to the formation of sensory impressions, their recognition, naming, categorization, and understanding.

Then in that same care that we apply those minds situationally in supporting our personal judgment, resulting in our setting goals and planning actions through projects and relationships as aided by tools and skills to actual enactment of specific courses of behavior.

Families are the medium in which we thrive (or not) as we learn through trial and error to piece these dimensions of mind together in coherent order to serve in our varied engagements with a world we can only construct and interpret for ourselves because, snug in our black boxes, we can never know it directly as it might be in itself.

Our parents, brothers, sisters, and extended families offer examples to illustrate the mix of skills, priorities, and attitudes by which we learn to live. Keeping clean is one ingredient in that mix, along with such qualities as being careful, paying attention, learning to talk and listen, recognizing when we’ve had enough, cleaning up after ourselves, playing fair, having fun, sharing, controlling our tempers, and caring for one another.

Through family living, we forge the commitments and responsibilities that bind us together as a unit, along with the many social skills that invite or promote successful engagements with others. Within the shelter of our families, we develop along the dimensions of mind that we exercise the most in our engagements one with another. We apply many of those same dimensions to engagements with events outside the family, or supplement that set of dimensions with others we find lacking at home and strive to develop on our own.

Our intimate families are the nests or niches that provide the protective spaces in which we grow into ourselves through the interplay of our mutual engagements. Family engagements are seldom one-way-streets, but depend equally on the mental qualities and actions of all members taken together.

Families may create the conditions of our personal growth, but that same growth challenges our families to develop along with us. Each family can be seen as a school of fish all swimming—or flock of birds flying—together. Or as a cohort of confederates joined in common cause. And yes, a can of worms wriggling en masse, each affecting all the rest.

Families are group projects dedicated to personal fulfillment and development of all members simultaneously. Individual commitment and responsibility are spurred by such dedication on a variety of levels as each member respectively attains them.

At the same time, families contain many specific personal experiences not shared with other members. In fact, I often found myself yearning to get away from other members so I could be myself and not somebody’s child, rival, or underling. I will expand on that aspect of family life in my next post.

 

410. Outer Reaches of Mind

January 20, 2015

Engagement is a crucial concept in my approach to consciousness. I use it in almost every post. But what does it mean to me when I use it?

We each have an inner life of the mind and an outer life in the world around us. The inner life begins with perception and consists largely of what we make of incoming sensory impressions, as well as judgment upon what we take those impressions to mean against the background of our experience.

That inner life leads from judgment to outgoing action in the world as our response to previous incoming impressions.

The inner life of the mind from perception to judgment and on to appropriate action makes up half the story of consciousness. The outer half is what happens in the world as a result of our taking the actions we do throughout the day.

That outer half of consciousness narrates how the world responds to what we did and, equally important, relays that response to us so that we can grasp the effects of our actions. Which we do by comparing that incoming response against our outgoing intentions in order to gauge the effectiveness of what we did.

That comparison generates what I call a delta signal in our brains that tells us whether or not we accomplished our earlier mission. If the delta signal bears a positive tone, it tells us we are on the right track. If that feedback is negative, we interpret it as telling us to try harder, or take a different approach.

What we are conscious of in such a loop of engagement is precisely the delta signal that bridges the gap between what we tried to do and what actually happened. That is, consciousness depicts and assesses the high and low points of the relationship between our inner self and the world around us. It tells us by way of the feeling within us whether we are happy or sad, glad or mad. In light of our intentions, happy is good news, sad is bad news.

That psychic relationship is what I mean by engagement. It prompts awareness of what we did in comparison with what actually happened, and stimulates an affective response to guide us in making our next move.

Consciousness is the inner venue where that awareness takes place, including the crucial feeling tone accompanying that awareness.

Given what I have just written, with this post to my blog I change my focus from the inner world of perception-judgment-action that has occupied my preceding posts to consider what it is in the outer world that we engage with. From now on I will be taking on the other half of consciousness, the half that does not reside in our brains, and cannot be found there no matter how hard or long we may search for it. We may discover our view of the world, but not the world as it is in itself, which is our partner in engagement.

To help you picture the many partners we might engage with in completing the outer half of our personal consciousness, I ask you to visualize the following maps all superimposed on one another.

  1. A map of the GPS locations of every cellphone in the world.
  2. A map of all the roads, highways, and byways in the world.
  3. A map of all the sea lanes across the oceans of the world.
  4. A map of all the flight paths between all the airports in the world.
  5. A map of all the server farms supporting the internet throughout the world.
  6. A map of all the capital cities of the many countries in the world.
  7. A map of all the grains of sand on the surface of the beaches of the world.
  8. A map of all the catalogued stars that can be seen from the world.
  9. A map of all the uncatalogued stars that can be seen from the world.
  10. A map of all the trees in the world.
  11. A map of all the postal codes in the world.
  12. A map of all the street addresses in the world.
  13. A map of all the country and area codes in the world.
  14. A map of all the TV and radio stations in the world.
  15. A map of all the places where photographs have been taken in the world.

That massive skein of the sorts of places we might engage with in one lifetime of consciousness is surely a complementary match for the most complex system we know of in the universe—namely, the human brain.

My focus in this blog now shifts from the makeup of individual minds to the engagements we actually or potentially might make with the world in one lifetime. My aim is to suggest the other half of consciousness that does not reside in our heads, but is ours to selectively engage with at any time.

Many of my projects are based on a close relationship to the natural history of the region in Maine where I live. Projects, in fact, establish a kind of intimate relationship, very much like building a friendship over time. I strive to respect my subjects by focusing on their integrity, the set of qualities that make them what they are in achieving a particular identity.

I think of women building human relationships day-by-day, of men making tables and bookshelves and model boats by shaping and putting their pieces together. It takes the same qualities of mind to accomplish each such project, women concentrating on human qualities, men on the qualities of the materials they put together toward a given end over time.

Please forgive my resorting to stereotypes. Of course women can be artists, CEOs, and presidents; men can be caregivers, spouses, and friends. I am speaking from a general impression built-up over a lifetime of some eighty years. My point is that human relationships are a kind of project that requires maintenance and attention if they are to work out as we hope.

Projects and relationships are examples of our wayfaring, of taking one step at a time until we get where we want to go. That is how we build bridges, skyscrapers, families, organizations, and civilizations, each contributing as she is able during whatever time he has to put in.

Most significant actions take time to consider, prepare, plan, assemble, and execute. Sometimes we operate as a team of one, at other times we join together to make up teams of five or nine or hundreds or thousands, all aiming at a common goal.

That synchrony and coordination within and between ourselves is what we get good at by paying proper attention to the details involved in such engagements. Engagements within ourselves at different times, and with others distributed through a field of activity. One of our chief characteristics as workers in the world is whether we are team players or do better by ourselves working alone.

But always our jobs require suitable attitudes, workplaces, preparations, materials, tools, skills, and sufficient time to get the work done. From making a PowerPoint presentation to constructing One World Trade Center to building friendships that last a lifetime, our actions require attention to detail at every step of the way.

And that is precisely what we wayfarers are good at, paying attention to what we are doing as we go. In every instance, our going is a stage in the journey of a particular person who is mindful of what he is trying to accomplish, and pays attention to what’s happening around her at every step of the way.

Every stride of that personal journey changes the point of view from which we look out at the world. The reason we are wayfarers is to deliberately change our points of view so that we discover what has been hidden from us before. Our aim is to make a difference in the world by making use of the new perspective we have gained from our travels. Our every action is aimed at adding to that difference, of accomplishing what we want to do in our lives.

By acting to bring about change, we try to build the sort of future we want for ourselves, our loved ones, friends, associates, and neighbors.