Benefits of the Double-Helix Model
“The map is not the territory.” — Motto of cybernetics, according to the school of Gregory Bateson.
In the same way, the model is not the reality. None-the-less, here are the primary ways in which the double-helix model is more fitting to describe and predict bio-pscho-social-spiritual development than the current dominant spiral models:
The Double-Helix and Development
In contrast to a spiral model of development, the double-helix has two strands allowing it to carry more information. In particular, it identifies the key turning-points of development and their nature in relation to each other.
Savoring and Coping Skills (green for go, red for stop)
The double-helix model depicts the relationships between savoring skills and coping skills. With savoring skills we find and explore opportunities; with coping skills we define and apply limitations. This occurs at each of the major stages of development: imaginal, symbolical, cultural and spiritual.
Intuition and Mutual Attention
By tracking the sub-conscious strand of the development of consciousness, the double-helix model appreciates the role of intuition throughout development. In particular, it helps us to understand how intuition is enriched and refined for learner and teacher with their mutual attention in the “zone of proximal development.” (Vygotsky)
Gratitude and Post-Formal Operations
The double-helix model clearly illustrates the position of gratitude in relation to the closed systems of formal operations. It reinforces the need for analogical thinking in flexible adult problem-solving, maturity and happiness. (Steindl-Rast)
This section includes cross references between the double helix model and the findings of developmental psychology and spiritual development, including Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, Elizabeth Bates, Robert Selman, Brian Sutton-Smith, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, Robert Kegan, Jane Loevinger, William Perry, Michael Basseches, Klaus Riegel, James Fowler and Robert Cole. I will also include a series of participant-observer studies I did with children to highlight certain key developments.
I was privileged to be in the middle of a research explosion in developmental psychology from 1975 to 1985 while an undergraduate and in graduate school. More recent findings have generally reinforced the discoveries of that 10 year span. The training and supervision I have done over the decades with social work students and interns has supported this view, as well as the general resource books I have used to get up to date in the field:
The Developing Person Through the Life Span (8th ed.) by Kathleen Stassen Berger (2011: City College of New York).
Identity in Adolescence: The balance between self and other (3rd ed.) by Jane Kroger (2009: Rutledge).
Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy by Ken Wilber (2000: Shambhala).
This grid can be zoomed in on by clicking on the image and then using the magnifying glass icon (for easier to read sections of this grid, go here):
These are arranged generally in the developmental order, from infancy to adulthood, that I use the research finding — e.g. Piaget for sensor-motor development during infancy, Fowler for spiritual development during adulthood. .
Piaget, Jean: The Origins of Intelligence in Children (International Universities Press, 1952)
Piaget, Jean: The Insights and Illusions of Philosophy (Meridian Books, 1971)
Vygotsky, Lev: Thought and Language (MIT, 1986)
Applebee, Arthur: The Child’s Concept of Story (University of Chicago, 1978)
Bruner, Jerome: Child’s Talk: Learning to Use Language (Norton, 1983)
Bruner, Jerome: Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (Harvard, 1986)
Bates, Elizabeth: Language and Context (Academic Press, 1976)
Sutton-Smith, Brian: The Importance of the Story-Taker, in Urban Review (1975), 8, 82-95; The Folkgames of Children, American Folklore Society, 1972.
Selman, Robert: Social Cognitive Understanding: A Guide to Educational and Clinical Practice, in Moral Development and Behavior: Theories, Research and Social Issues (Lickona, ed.; Hold, 1976, pp. 299-316); The Child as a Friendship Philosopher, in The Development of Children’s Friendships (Asher and Gottman, eds.; Cambridge, 1981), pages 242-272.
Kohlberg, Lawrence: Essays on Moral Development, volumes 1 (1981) and 2 (1984) Harper and Row; Private Speech: Four Studies and a Review of Theories, Child Development, Sept. 1968, vol. 39, vol. 3, 691-736; Early Education: A Cognitive-Developmental View, Child Development, Dec. 1968, vol. 4, 1013-1062; The Cognitive-Developmental Approach to Moral Education, Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 56, no. 10, June 1975 pp. 670-677.
Kegan, Robert: The Evolving Self (Harvard, 1982); The Loss of Pete’s Dragon: Developments of the Self in the Years Five to Seven, in The Development of the Self, Leahy (ed.), Academic Press, 1985, pp. 179-203.
Loevinger, Jane: Ego Development (Jossey-Bass, 1976); On Ego Development and the Structure of Personality, in Developmental Review 3, 339-50 (1983); Confessions of an Iconoclast: At Home on the Fringe, Journal of Personality Assessment, 2002, 78 (2), 195-208.
Perry, William: Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years: A Scheme, Jossey-Bass, 1999; Cognitive and Ethical Growth: The Making of Meaning in The Modern American College, A. Chickering (ed), Jossey-Bass, 1981.
Erikson, Erik: various sources
Fowler, James: Stages of Faith (HarperOne, 1981), and others.
The reason that Jerome Bruner is not represented on the grid is that he did not label the developments he described — he simply described them in narrative fashion. But Vygotsky and Applebee’s “vygotskyian” research on children’s concepts of stories can be identified with Bruner’s thinking. A lot of the style and content of this section are influenced by Bruner who identifies more common experiences with more common language to “tell the story” of development (rather than jargon-laden explanations of laboratory results). Bruner pioneered the “videotape in-home naturalistic interactions” method, a variation on Robert Coles’ “participant-observer” methodology, which explicitly takes into account the effect that observations have on phenomena.
Before detailing the research findings that I have lined up with my 4 levels, 8 stages and 24 steps, let me make some general comments on the patterns and findings. Of course, this is my take on the research, and I expect there to be some controversy about my claims. But after scouring the research for decades, as well as my 35 years practice in community mental health with children, families and schools, I have discovered some things that are not yet in the literature.
At first glance it is apparent that the double-helix model aligns most directly with Jane Loevinger’s model. No other model aligns with all 8 stages of the double-helix. My theory is that this is for two reasons: 1) Loevinger’s model is the most empirically based of all the models on life-span development (see Kroger, 2009); 2) Loevinger understands the abductive method better than other theorists, making her model more open to detecting important aspects missed by other models (see Loevinger 1983, pg. 344).
One of the deficiencies in the developmental literature I have noticed for 35 years is the general neglect of Vygotsky’s findings on language development and the internalization of language. Jerome Bruner tried to rectify this in the 1970’s and Kathleen Stassen Berger has admirably given Vygotsky his due in her textbooks, but there is no reference to Vygotsky in Kohlberg after 1968, and none that I have found in Loevinger, Kegan, Fowler, Wilber, or even Elizabeth Bates. As a result, both Kegan and Fowler totally miss the important developments associated with the internalization of language. Bates captures similar developments with her polite forms, and Loevinger captures these developments with her “Self-Protective” stage. This deficiency is particularly significant because the self-control skills developed with the internalization of language are a major contributor to life-long well-being and happiness. In evidence-based interventions such as Aggression Replacement Training (ART), Vygotsky’s theories are central to the use of self-talk and role-playing exercises for effective outcomes (more on this later).
So this is not just an academic matter. There is a bias about this period of development that comes from Piaget who, in studying the “Pre-Operational” child, focussed more on what the child didn’t understand (e.g. “conservation”) than what the child was learning (self guided behavior). This led to a view of the “Pre-Operational” child as “ego-centric.” This bias even led Ken Wilber to downplay ideas of children’s spirituality because their thinking is too “egocentric” (pg. 140). I understand and concur with Wilber’s caution against romanticizing or sentimentalizing children’s spirituality, but using a stereotypical sledge-hammer is not the way to go about it.
Indeed, it seems to me that this debate goes to the heart of the whole “constructivist” enterprise based on Kantian principles of deduction. Based on the principle of “ought implies can” (e.g. you should not expect something of someone unless they are capable of doing it), the constructivists assume that in order for a skill to be “expressed,” it must first be acquired as a cognitive capacity. The specific skill is deduced from the general capacity.
The result of this is that the cognitive domain is treated as the primary “underlying” structure that then gets expressed in other domains such as social, moral, emotional, instrumental, theoretical, etc. And how is this “underlying structure” acquired? We are told this happens through “assimilation” and “accommodation.” Now I understand that this means that we approach reality with assumptions that need to be altered based on the feedback from reality. But if cognition is a content-free general capacity, what is the reality to which it accommodates? Some vague, abstract idea of reality? In contrast to this vague and abstract theory, Vygotsky’s description of the “zone of proximal development” describes the experience of acquiring new skills. This experience occurs in response to the particular realities of a domain.
The ramifications of these different views become apparent in the study of the acquisition of language. For Piaget, the symbolic capacity develops at the end of the sensori-motor period, after which the child “expresses” this capacity by attaching words to the symbols (in a sense, “dressing” the symbol for public expression). For Vygotsky, children acquire the symbolic capacity by learning the symbolic value of language (this is also true for sign language). Language and thought are fused until they diverge with the internalization of language. It is by interacting with the linguistic environment that children acquire the symbolic capacity, not the other way around.
In his Dec. 1968 article, Kohlberg tried to argue that symbolization and language are parallel developments and are never “fused” like Vygotsky claimed (pg. 1043). Aside from stating the claim, the only “hard” evidence he gives for this position is that language cannot be important for children to learn “conservation” (the “hallmark” of “concrete operations”) because deaf children are not significantly delayed in learning “conservation.” As an aside, this argument shouldn’t have had credibility in 1968 — but Kohlberg makes the argument twice in this paper (pp. 1033 and 1042), and today the argument is nothing short of silly (sign language is now known to reside in the same parts of the brain as verbal language — link). I find no evidence that Kohlberg ever revisited the issue, so with this one flimsy (more like broken) argument, Kohlberg dismissed a whole branch of developmental research.
It is interesting to note that in Kohlberg’s Dec. 1968 article, he cites approvingly of Sheldon White’s 1965 article Evidence of the Hierarchical Arrangement of Learning Concepts (in Advances in Child Development and Behavior, vol. 2, ed. Lipsitt & Spiker, Academic Press), showing how “concrete operations” involves a “watershed” of basic cognitive shifts (pg.1039). In White’s macro-analysis of 21 cognitive shift functions in the age range of 5 to 7 years old, he filters the results through various major developmental theories, and concludes: “Where Piaget has taken pains to describe the intellectual resources of the child at the terminus of the 5-7 period, the Russian material concentrates on processes leading into it” (pg. 211; coincidentally, White wrote this article with input from Bruner). Perhaps no starker expression of the Piagetian “deficit” view of the “pre-operational” child can be found than in Kohlberg’s quote in this context: “The approach sees the preschool period as one in which the child has a qualitatively different mode of thought and orientation to the world than the older child, one in which he is prelogical, preintellectual or not oriented to external truth values.” (pg. 1039)
To make things perfectly clear, the preschool child is not primarily learning about the world and external truth values, but rather about the self and means for controlling the self. This is how we understand the difference: for Piagetians, the child 3 to 7 has no cognitions worthy of note because they are “ego-centric”; for the Vygotskyians, the child 3 to 7 is learning how to control himself through self-guided and internalized speech. Thank goodness that Vygotsky was right, because we can expect self-control to develop in our children while we attempt to mold it with his idea of “scaffolding” and Bruner’s of “formats.”
The implications for parenting and education are enormous. If you value language and social interaction you will find ways to optimize these experiences. If not, the quality of these experiences will generally be neglected. Kohlberg shows this neglect when he addressed education approaches in 1975. He identified only three education theories, directive (indoctrination), non-directive (values clarification), and inter-active (Piagetian). In response to this Phi Delta Kappan article by Kohlberg, fellow Phi Delta Kappans (including Richard Peters, pg. 678) pointed out that there are at least eight identified moral reasoning approaches to education (pg. 677), that Kohlberg’s approach largely neglects the affective side of moral education, that these criticisms had been addressed to Kohlberg since 1969 and Kohlberg had failed to respond to these criticisms. Peters ends his Reply to Kohlberg by asking the question: “Why doesn’t Lawrence Kohlberg do his homework?” (Answer: because Kohlberg was too busy building his empire, so he found ways to try to dismiss Vygotsky, then Loevinger, without looking back — see page on the Loevinger/Kohlberg debate here).
Another area where the constructivist enterprise hits a snag is in the question of “post-formal” operations. To put it bluntly, you cannot understand “post-formal” procedures if you restrict yourself to the formal operational procedures of Kantian deduction. Kohlberg ran up against this when he went beyond moral universality to address the question “why be moral?” In order to address this question convincingly (with the help of F. Clark Power) he had to go beyond ideas of assimilation-accommodation and deductive procedures, using the abductive gestalt analysis of figure/ground shift to give a description of spiritual development (1981, pg. 345). Perhaps as an attempt to repent his straying from the rigorous constructivist line, he ended up calling “Stage 7” “soft” and “hypothetical” (1984, pg. 249) and continued trying to use formal procedures to convince Jurgen Habermas that Habermas’ “dialogical communication” could be incorporated into Kantian formalism (1984, pp. 384-5) using a “musical chairs” analogy. Before his suicide in 1987, Kohlberg dismissed the idea of a stage 7 (click link to the page on the history of the Kohlberg/Power/Fowler collaboration).
Something that the attentive reader might notice is that I have put a short leash on what I consider formal operations (what I call the sphere of character). It does not include the developments related to intimacy in other models, including Erikson’s “Intimacy vs. Isolation,” Kegan’s “Interindividual” Stage, Loevinger’s “Autonomous” Phase, and Fowler’s “Conjunctive Faith.” While formal operations establishes procedures for ruling out hypothesis and evaluating ethical options, it is by nature limited to its “either/or” conclusions. Intimacy requires more “both/and” options to thrive. [For good examples of spontaneous intimate commitment decisions, see this link to Jeff Bridges’ marriage decision, or this link to Bono of U2 telling his daughter how she saved his life when she saved hers as a newborn.]
Formal operations/character development involves evaluations of self, whether in relation to criteria of justice (Kohlberg) or caring (Gilligan). Either way it requires soul-searching. But intimacy cannot thrive on soul-searching alone. One must get outside oneself in order to become available to the other. Adding “moral musical chairs” (tacked on to soul-searching) isn’t enough. Inadequate metaphor.
Intimacy is not just a test of character, but also a spiritual practice involving intuition, empathy, imagination, communication, creativity and commitment. For intimacy to thrive requires wisdom, and wisdom is more than knowledge and discipline — it requires a spontaneous openness to reality and “the other.”
Lastly, in his later years Kohlberg tried to sideline Loevinger by saying that her stage descriptions were unsufficiently philosophical. I have read through the back and forth in the literature on this controversy. At the same time I wonder why Kohlberg almost completely ignored Bruner and Vygotsky. I don’t think there is anything in the literature and it might take interviewing the remaining associates of Kohlberg and Bruner to divine the reason. But my best guess is this: both Bruner and Loevinger, when they make overtly philosophical statements, reference Wittgenstein. A problem for Kohlberg with Wittgenstein is that Wittgenstein philosophized but did not have a philosophy. Kantian deduction forms a closed system which is an insulated philosophy that allows the rationalist to take the reasoning process out of the specific situation and “de-contextualize” or even “de-ontologize” the reasoning process (regardless of the real world consequences). For Wittgenstein, language does not exist outside of context — language does not stand on its own but is embedded in a situation. Context is open to language’s contribution, and language always in some ways references a context. It is an open system. Wittgenstein’s philosophizing allowed him to show that once you assume language exists outside of context, certain philosophical errors result. Kohlberg seems to have made some of these errors and was called out on them by Loevinger in her responses to his dismissive writings about her.
More on the relationships between induction, deduction and abduction (analogical thinking) will come later in this section, and more general consideration are to be covered in the philosophical perspectives section of this website. But before moving into the specific developments, let us look at this model in relation to Piaget’s theory and continuing influence.
The Double-Helix Model and Piaget’s Genetic Epistemology
Many researchers have followed Jean Piaget’s theory of genetic epistemology and its associated concepts of assimilation and accommodation, and the constructivist perspective on the development of logical reasoning, without sufficient critical review. The double-helix model opens it up to critical review, extrapolation, and development.
Piaget identified assimilation with Freud’s pleasure principle and accommodation with Freud’s reality principle (see Vygotsky, 1986, pg. 262). Although this is similar to affirmation (savoring) and negation (coping), there are significant differences. Piaget thinks of accommodation as slowly replacing assimilation as the egocentric child becomes more objective (a gradualist model) — at the same time that the developing person is “de-centering” their perspective they are also “dis-embodying” their thought (making it more abstract — what Kohlberg called “de-ontologizing,” or removing the content, from the process analysis).
In contrast, the double-helix pattern has four phases of accommodation where what is being assimilated is the coping skills themselves (the person is self-consciously focussing on how she is going to cope rather than on the savoring goal that the coping is meant to successfully achieve). First, the infant, attracted to sensory images, learns she needs to move herself as an agent to obtain what she wants. Next, the young child, now using language, learns that he is a subject of experience different from others’ experiences, and needs to be thoughtful of what he says and where he does private things. Further on, the adolescent, having learned to master some of the important performances that comprise their culture, learns that she will be judged by the content of her character — how she balances self-discipline and self-indulgence (and all the other polarities that confuse the adolescent). Finally, the adult that has gained a spiritual perspective of gratitude will at some point find himself needing to apply the spiritual discernment that is necessary to have good judgment without being judgmental and maintain a life-affirming attitude in the face of adversity. In Piaget’s model, abstract formal operations are the end point — in the double-helix model, formal operations are one domain of character development which is later subsumed under spirituality (if that is achieved).
In the larger picture, Piaget’s epistemology is stuck in the Kantian assumption that all knowledge is gained by the mind’s “invention” (Piaget’s phrase “to know is to invent”). In his Insights and Illusions of Philosophy (Meridian Books, 1971), Piaget puts forward the materialist scientistic view that there is no true wisdom beyond objective scientifically and quantitatively measured knowledge and that objective knowledge will eventually supplant notions of wisdom, making wisdom obsolete (in this, he included both psychoanalytic “instinct” theories and idealistic “wisdom” theories as naive and outside scientific consideration).
An alternative view is that knowledge is not only invented — it is also discovered. In this sense, we not only impose our mind’s templates on reality, but reality itself is open to discovery in its various aspects. And it is the reason I think that all constructivist models of development (including Kohlberg and, I would argue, Robert Kegan) are on shaky foundations, because any model that excludes the “logic of discovery” (Karl Popper) is not in my mind “true to life.” This perspective appears to me to be consistent with Vygotsky’s critique of Piaget (Thought and Language, MIT, 1986) and Jerome Bruner’s overview of The Culture of Developmental Psychology (Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Harvard, 1986). In Bruner’s article, he lays out the range of views on developmental psychology, from the emphasis on instinct by Freud, to the emphasis on cognition by Piaget, and finally to the more balanced view of Vygotsky that brings body and mind together in intuition and the “zone of proximal development” (the social process of mentoring by parents, teachers, and peers).
MOVING UP THE DOUBLE HELIX ONE RUNG AT A TIME
Click on the topic you want to jump to that section:
This is the beginning of what is from the beginning distinctly human consciousness. The reason the model has the sun on the side of consciousness and the moon on the side of sub-consciousness is because human consciousness awakens and establishes itself with the circadian rhythm. To focus and concentrate requires a good night’s sleep (especially for an infant) and significant disruptions of the circadian rhythm are associated with health problems such as cancerous cell division (link).
Although the senses form within the womb, image formation occurs when the infant can experience things with the full array of senses to explore how a thing feels, smells, tastes, sounds and looks. In Spanish, the phrase for “giving birth” is “dar a luz”: “give to light,” thereby adding the most distal sense to the formation of images. Newborns are interested in things, but tend to be most interested in people. This is good because usually mothers provide what the infant needs: nourishment, cleaning, comfort and play. The infant’s focus on “savoring” is exemplified by the importance of mother’s milk (as Pope Francis has reminded us).
Perhaps the hallmark of image formation is signaled by the “bright-eyed smile” the infant reflects back to a smiling mother, showing that the infant recognizes the mother and that the infant’s mirror neurons are functioning. It is significant that human eyes have white sclera that highlight the direction of pupil focus, thus allowing an observer to follow another person’s gaze. In this sense, the “bright-eyed smile” shows the mirror neuron reflex of registering direct eye contact with the mother. Human infants spend twice the amount of time as other primates in direct eye contact with their mothers (Michael Tomasello et al., 2007; “Reliance on head versus eyes in the gaze following of great apes and human infants: The cooperative eye hypothesis. Journal of Human Evolution, 52, 314-20). As a result, infants develop the ability to attend to reality mutually with the mother; this developing mutual attention, along with the vocal/auditory system, results in the acquisition of language.
The auditory system is significant from the beginning. Music is a human cultural universal, and the two most universal genres of music focus on the two ends of the life cycle: lullabies comfort the newborn while laments comfort those left with the loss of life. Lullabies not only comfort the newborn, but also the mother and fetus in the womb, supporting healthy fetal development. Lulling the baby into slumber helps establish the important circadian rhythm that leads to the alert “bright eyed smile” that helps cement the mother-infant bond. On the other hand, stress hormones transmitted from the mother to the fetus can inhibit the child’s long-term abilities to manage anxiety.
Music plays an essential role in healthy development and musical analogies permeate our lives. The mother’s “attunement” to the infant paves the way for the infant’s attachment to the mother. Throughout our lives we say that ideas and relationships that are near and dear to us “resonate” with us. Music helps us sustain our work effort (work songs) and the musical metrics of poetry made possible the oral history and transmission of core cultural narratives called epic poems (Homer’s and Moses’ stories were memorized before being written down). Romancing is done with a flute or harp and maybe singing, making it significant in mate selection. These things, along with the infant getting a good night sleep aided by lullabies, show that the theory that music plays no essential survival or evolutionary role (Steven Pinker) is tone deaf. The only way to maintain such a ridiculous theory is by separating music from all the other cultural functions it shares (dancing, poetry, story-telling, and the tradition of cooking and eating around the fire while the community celebrates the exploits of the day). Additionally, “research has confirmed the brain’s link for words and music” (link), and that “to your brain, music is as enjoyable as sex” (link). Charles Darwin himself bemoaned his loss of appreciation for music and poetry and how immersion in abstract formulae stunted his intellectual curiosity:
My mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years… Now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry… I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music… My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts…
If I had to live my life again I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week… The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, Norton 1993 (pp. 138-139)
Academics and scientists tend to like the Far Side cartoons due to the odd ways the panels depict concepts. Here we have a bear telling the young ones about an exploit involving hunters. Although they are not sitting around a fire as pre-historic humans did while they cooked food (bears eat humans raw), other elements of story-telling around the fire are present in this depiction.
Two other significant features of very young infants have to do with imitation and turn-taking. From very early on, infants will imitate sticking the tongue out (the tongue is a prominent feature even for very young eyes). This shows that imitation is hard-wired into human neurology. The second is that young infants tend to become subdued when mother provides face-to-face stimulation, but when mother becomes subdued, the infant tends to become more active. This establishes a template for later conversations using words (Bruner, Garvey). Communicatively, the infant cries when distressed, but doesn’t yet have any control over how she cries, leaving it to mother to interpret the cause of distress.
So the infant is now regulated by the circadian rhythm, her bright-eyed smile has cemented the bond with her mother, and her eyes are developing so that she can focus on distant objects.
The double helix model is a bi-lateral model, and we will see bi-lateral developments associated with different stages and steps. At first, the infant is using her two ears to locate sources of sounds and her two eyes to start to see figures three-dimensionally. There is not yet any eye-hand or hand-hand coordination.
Five month old baby Lucas has just been baptized. At the reception afterwards, family and friends stand around the dinner table as Lucas is held up by his grandmother facing out to the audience. First, the nearest person to his right gains his attention by waving and smiling in the goofy way that people naturally do. Lucas’s face flutters as he makes the effort to focus, aided by the attention getting antics of the audience member. Once he succeeds at focussing, his eyes coordinate and get bright with the resultant smile. With implicit understanding, the rest of the audience falls into the game with the next person waving and smiling, his face fluttering until, bingo! the bright-eyed smile. He did this about a dozen times, ending with the person on his immediate left. A perfectly orchestrated developmental tour-de-force! [6/22/14] (Family Study, 2015 link)
To achieve the distance focus in the story above, the infant’s eyes must develop where the photoreceptors flow toward the center of the eye to create a fovea (Newsweek, Your Baby’s Brain, pg. 21). In the story above, Lucas must see the waving hand and the exaggerated smile before being able to target the eyes, make eye-contact, which then produces the bright-eyed smile.
So Lucas is able to connect one moment to the next moment, and so on, guided by the orchestrating adults. The other thing infants can do at this stage is to look at one thing, then look at another thing, and then look back at the first thing (Piaget). Infants are starting to map out their surrounding; location, location, location. Infants are also not completely immersed in the moment and have made their first time distinction: “now” and “not-now,” or “now” and “then.”
Looking at one thing, then another, and then back to the first thing also provides the developing infant her first method of self-regulation: when a stimulus becomes overwhelming, the infant can look away to avoid getting over-stimulated, and then when composed, can look back at the stimulating object (person, pet).
I was at Beers Books on Father’s Day with a friend. A father was pushing a pram through the aisles with Junior inside who was looking directly back at dad. Dad was obviously wanting some adult conversation and it soon became apparent why. Junior was looking out from under the open sun canopy, staring at dad without smiling. Dad reported that Junior is 8 months old and when asked he explained that Junior was not crawling or toddling yet because he was too large to get up enough effort, so he wanted to be pushed around to see the sights. Dad would put the canopy down hoping Junior would calm down and sleep, but as soon as Dad did so, Junior batted it or kicked it up so he could see. The canopy was in the way so Junior would dispose of it with a quick punch or kick motion. Dad referred to this as Junior’s “big trick.”
Here we see the kind of goal directed behavior that Piaget refers to as the stage of “secondary circular reactions.” Infants can now relate one object’s effect on another, such as when the infant uses a stick to move a toy. Socially, infants can get their mothers to do more specific things because the infant can vary the sound and the timing his cries while watching how mom responds. Volume can be adjusted to make sure mother can hear. Crying gets mixed in with fussing and other baby vocalizations.
These abilities show that the infant has gained a sense of three dimensional time, where something she has grabbed then gets used to move something else. “Grabbed” becomes past while “using” is the present in the anticipation of the movement of the other object. This involves eye-hand coordination (the infant will no longer grab one hand with the other as if the hand grabbed were not part of his body — just like baby cats will chase their own tails).
The infant’s abilities to locate familiar objects in familiar places also develops so that the infant can tell when a familiar object has been moved to an unusual place. She can also track the movement of objects and people, even when they are temporarily hidden.
But the infant still needs to have things at hand or for them to be brought to him — he is not yet crawling or toddling. In pursuit of distant or absent objects or people, the infant will come to realize his own agency. Frustrated that the world cannot always spoon feed him, he will start getting along and getting up to go get it himself. Eye-hand coordination prepares the baby to start locomotion, the bi-lateral skills of moving arms and legs in coordinated ways to get from one place to the other. Thus we come to agent formation, toddling, and vocalizations called “performatives” that go with request and demand gestures to enrich the infant’s communication with the caregiver.
Sphere of Agency
We now enter the “motor” phase of Piaget’s “sensori-motor operations.” In the double-helix model, this is when the infant becomes conscious and learns about the self as an agent, an entity able to act.
Agent formation is motivated by the infant’s boredom with what is at hand and interest in things distant or hidden. To get at these interesting but ungraspable things, people and experiences, the infant must either get to them herself or find communication means to enlist others to provide the desired proximity.
Infants not only explore what their bodies and their vocalizations can do, the two are often combined in communicative gestures called “performatives.” Technically speaking, a “performative” is a vocal ritual that accompanies gestures. Performatives develop in the context of caregiver “game formats” such as “peek-a-boo” and “what’s this?”, games that are often used by mothers well before the infant can actively engage in them (much less understand the referential meaning of lexical items). In this way, infants are primed by familiarity of game aspects such as turn-taking, ritual and imitation which lead up to the toddler’s eventual use of language (Bruner, 1983, chapter 3).
A well-documented development of this phase involves “stranger wariness” and “separation anxiety.” Both involve a realization that the mother is a separate agent who is necessary to help the infant manage distress. The infant becomes wary of strangers who act too familiar without the reassuring mediation of the mother, while at the same time the infant uses the mother as a safe base from which to explore the unfamiliar (assuming that healthy attachment has been established).
The infant’s major task of being aware of the self as an agent is learning to walk. For some children, toddler-hood begins with crawling, followed by attempts to get up on the feet. For those who by-pass crawling, thrusting the body up on the feet, assisted by either an adult or by leaning against something, is the “first step” to walking. The infant has yet to gain balance or to know how to put “one foot in front of the other,” so first steps are either maintained by adult “sky-hooks” (similar to how adults help children learn to balance a bicycle) or result in a bounce on the bum.
The infant’s awareness of others as agents has a similar primitive quality at this age. Before, when the infant wanted something, he just looked at it and whimpered. Now he whimpers and looks to mother for assistance. He realizes he has to appeal to her for the object to magically appear. He is also learning to go beyond eye-contact and find out what mother is looking at so as to establish mutual attention. Using the unique quality of the human eye, he can follow the direction of her gaze so that he can participate in what she is attending to. This ability to develop mutual attention is crucial for later language development. Bruner describes in detail the way mothers initiate infants into repetitive games such as “peek-a-boo” and “what’s this?” to provide a format in which children can increasingly participate (become “agents” in the game rather than just “experiencers” of the game; Bruner, pg. 56) to the point of creating their own lexical items.
This stage has the character of repetition. Physically the toddler is toddling, taking one step at a time, using the arms not to help balance but to break a fall — hence the unsteady quality of the operation. The toddler’s uncertainty keeps her eyes on her feet rather than where she is going, and often needs props such as chairs or adults to keep standing and moving.
Communication also has a shaky two step quality. To get help from mother, the toddler is aware that he needs to both get her attention and specify what he wants with conventionalized gestures and vocalizations. But these two functions are not well coordinated as yet. And while trying to figure out what mother is focusing on, if he is not successful in following her gaze the first time, he will return to her face to try to follow her gaze a second time (Bruner, pg. 74).
If the infant’s sense of agency is first primitive and then erratic, it now becomes coordinated and organized. The toddler becomes a walker when she uses her arms for counter-balancing the legs rather than shielding an impending fall. And she can now coordinate gestures and vocalizations to better get mom’s attention where she wants it. And in ritualized games like “peek-a-boo,” the infant now can be a full participant with inter-changeable roles, everything short of using words symbolically (vocalizations are still imitations of sounds used ritually in the game sequence rather than symbolic referents).
The “relation” quality of this stage can be seen clearly in what the literature calls “give-and-take reciprocity.” Children learn that roles are reversible and reciprocal such as when one takes what someone has given and then turns around to give what was taken (going from being a taker to a possessor to a giver). Sometimes a gift is a material benefit and sometimes it is a symbolic act where the giving is the focus more than the gift itself. So children are initiated into give-and-take games such as rolling a ball back and forth — the object is not to keep the ball, but to send it back to its previous possessor. Here is how an extended family member or family friend can engage the 11 to 15 month old:
First, you want to make sure Junior understands that Uncle is a trusted family member and won’t over-stimulate him. Junior then sees that Uncle is delighted with a ball as he sits on the floor, creating a desire in Junior to get the ball himself. Uncle rolls the ball to Junior who then picks it up. Well, it’s just a boring ball, so now what? Well, Uncle seems very interested in getting the ball back. If Junior doesn’t catch on yet, Uncle may need to gently dislodge the ball from Junior’s grasp. At the point at which Junior might get upset, he finds the ball immediately rolling back to him. A little prompting from Uncle may still be necessary, but if Junior is ready to learn, he will find that “playing ball” is more interesting than “having ball.”
During this time parents are typically “bathing” their infants in language. The infant’s developed sense of agency is primed to take on words as communication tools once these ritualized “proto-conversations” are established. Once the infant makes the symbolic connection, she is no longer an “en-fant” (French meaning “without speech”), and has been drawn in to the world as a symbolic realm.
“Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein
Now is the time for the child to “stand and deliver.” As she identifies, distinguishes and uses lexical items, she can drop the gestural accompaniments of “performatives” and experience the power of words.
Science tends to rely on numbers and mathematics to establish “quantitative” truth, and as a result tends to downplay the significance of language: words are “qualities.” But all numbers are words, but not all words are numbers. Without language, math and science would not exist in consciousness. Numbers come into consciousness as a result of narratives, but narratives do not come into consciousness as a result of numbers (this is not to say that mathematical formulas are irrelevant to narratives; as with relativity, they can inform their own narratives).
Scientists often compete to be “hard-headed realists,” eschewing what are considered “sentimental” subjects such as poetry. But without sentimentality we wouldn’t have babies to become children whom parents expect to learn to talk as their first contribution to being part of the family and community.
There are things beyond language probably more significant than language, but we know of them because of language, not in spite of language. In other words, this website will be taking the significance of language development very seriously. To understand the child’s experience, it would be silly not to. And a “good” scientist would never want to be silly, eh? [irony intended] Or, as Wittgenstein has observed, “Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness.”
Or, more generally, “If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.” (Wittgenstein)
So let’s get down to the serious business of playing with the idea of language.
Learning to talk is a very emotional process. We can see this most clearly when there is a major failure to learn language, followed by its remedy. This process is revealed in the story told by Susan Schaller, teacher of sign language (which shares the same brain region as spoken language) in her book, A Man Without Words (UC Press, 1995). Schaller tells the story of Ildefonso, a deaf man who never was taught sign language until she helped him learn, requiring an arduous and ultimately creative effort. His experience of life before he learned language was similar to the “no-world” that Helen Keller described before she learned language at age seven. The relief both felt when language brought them out of their solitude shows the central role of language acquisition on development.
Does language spring upon us, or does it slowly and imperceptibly sneak up through the babblings and performatives of the infant? The “birth of language” has been shrouded in the mists of time and the clutter of everyday family life. This has led to many fine researchers to throw up their hands and enlist the relativist cliche, as Elizabeth Bates (1976, pg. 72) does here:
Anthropology recognizes that man has no birthday; zoology recognizes that life has no birthday; physics recognizes that matter has no birthday. The murky line between life and non-life, man and non-man, matter and non-matter stems from the fact…that we can recognize what, for example, is definitely at either end of a conceptual continuum…the transition from one to the other is continuous and not discrete.
While she concludes this, she also subscribes to Piaget’s assumption that language is secondary to symbolization, and that the cognitive symbol forms the basis of the linguistic social label for the symbol. The symbol is the “body”, the word the “costume” designed to “display” the symbol outside the mind.
Vygotsky, and Bruner in his stead, criticised Piaget on that score, showing how language is acquired in social interactions, with the language ability and the symbolic ability being one and the same. If language and symbolization are “born” in social interaction, is it something we can see? It turns out that yes, we can see (and hear) it, especially with the aid of modern technology. In the March 2011 TED Talk, “The Birth of a Word”, MIT researcher Deb Roy presented some findings from 90,000 hours of home video he took over the course of three years in all the rooms of their family house (excluding private areas). He sought to detail the influence of social environments on language acquisition, and ended up tracking 7 million words of home transcripts. The most significant findings are contained in the following transcript of the TED Talk (link):
So he didn’t just learn water. Over the course of the 24 months, the first two years that we really focused on, this is a map of every word he learned in chronological order. And because we have full transcripts, we’ve identified each of the 503 words that he learned to produce by his second birthday. He was an early talker. And so we started to analyze why. Why were certain words born before others? This is one of the first results that came out of our study a little over a year ago that really surprised us. The way to interpret this apparently simple graph is, on the vertical is an indication of how complex caregiver utterances are based on the length of utterances. And the [horizontal] axis is time.
And all of the data, we aligned based on the following idea: Every time my son would learn a word, we would trace back and look at all of the language he heard that contained that word. And we would plot the relative length of the utterances. And what we found was this curious phenomena, that caregiver speech would systematically dip to a minimum, making language as simple as possible, and then slowly ascend back up in complexity. And the amazing thing was that bounce, that dip, lined up almost precisely with when each word was born — word after word, systematically. So it appears that all three primary caregivers — myself, my wife and our nanny — were systematically and, I would think, subconsciously restructuring our language to meet him at the birth of a word and bring him gently into more complex language. And the implications of this — there are many, but one I just want to point out, is that there must be amazing feedback loops. Of course, my son is learning from his linguistic environment, but the environment is learning from him. That environment, people, are in these tight feedback loops and creating a kind of scaffolding that has not been noticed until now.
When Deb Roy says that caregivers “create a kind of scaffolding that has not been noticed until now”, he seems unaware of the work of Vygotsky and Bruner. Bruner says the same thing when defining “fine tuning”: “Parents speak at the level where their children can comprehend them and move ahead with remarkable sensitivity to their child’s progress.” (1983, pg. 38) Bruner also supplemented Vygotsky’s term “scaffolding” with his concept of the “format”: “A format is a standardized, initially microcosmic interaction pattern between an adult and an infant that contains demarcated roles that eventually become reversible.” (pp. 120-1) Examples include “peek-a-boo”, its older sibling “hide-and-seek”, picture book reading (“What’s this? It’s a…”), greetings and departures (“Say bye-bye!”). etc.
Now that we have explored the heart of symbol formation in the inspiration of language acquisition, we can move to the details of the development of declarative sentences and simple narratives of young children, before language becomes internalized and polite forms develop. But first, a word of advice for parents and teachers of young children from my 35 years of family therapy practice: Just as you don’t want your child yelling to get his way, you also don’t him whining to get his way. Whining regresses the child from language competent requests to infantile demands, and goes against what Bruner calls the “felicity” conditions of language acquisition, which is a way to say that when mom’s not happy, nobody’s happy. Which is why parents and teachers should train the child more on appropriate delivery than correct for grammar or diction (which they naturally do, unless they are training in the grammar police academy).
Now that she is a walker and a talker, the child is ready to take off in both the world, and the world of language (for a great depiction of the walking toddlers new perspective on the world, see this Air BnB Ad). But before she moves on from being a walker to becoming a runner, she picks up dancing. It may be necessary for children to practice different leg, hip and arm movements to attain the required balance to run without crashing. (Again, music takes its place nudging the newbie walker into a full-fledged runner.)
Not only does the advent of language play a central role in human development, it also irreversibly alters the brain. By the end of symbol formation, the child has acquired the basic building block of “the neural lyre of poetic meter” (Turner & Poppel, The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time, Poetry, vol. 142, no. 5, Aug. 1983). Of poetic meter, Turner and Poppel say:
This fundamental unit is nearly always a rhythmic, semantic, and syntactical unit, as well: a sentence, a colon, a clause or a phrase; or a completed group of them. Thus other linguistic rhythms are entrained to the basic acoustic rhythm, producing the pleasing sensation of “fit” and inevitability which is part of the delight of verse, and is so helpful to the memory. Generally a short line is used to deal with light subjects, while the long line is reserved for epic or tragic matters. (pg. 288)
To sum up the general argument of this essay: metered poetry is a cultural universal, and its salient feature, the three-second LINE, is tuned to the three-second present moment of the auditory information-processing system. By means of metrical variation, the musical and pictorial powers of the right brain are enlisted by meter to cooperate with the linguistic powers of the left; and by auditory driving effects, the lower levels of the nervous system are stimulated in such a way as to reinforce the cognitive functions of the poem, to improve the memory, and to promote physiological and social harmony. Metered poetry may play an important part in developing our more subtle understandings of time, and may thus act as a technique to concentrate and reinforce our uniquely human tendency to make sense of the world in terms of values like truth, beauty, and goodness. Meter breaks the confinement of linguistic expression and appreciation within two small regions of the left temporal lobe and brings to bear the energies of the whole brain. (pg. 306)
The fit of the three-second meter with children’s developing neurology helps explain the often noted “ritualistic” characteristic of two year-olds who will adamantly correct a parent’s re-telling of a story if anything is changed, or who won’t go to bed without every step of the “going to bed” ritual being completed in proper order. Metered poetry’s effectiveness at aiding memory is how human oral traditions have thrived over the centuries, and why music helps with memorizing sets like the alphabet song (6 verses ending with “mother aren’t you proud of me!”: of course, children at this age don’t understand the alphabet yet as a written code, but can memorize the song and enjoy it).
Once children produce enough simple sentences, their vocabulary starts to explode, and they start piling sentences on top of each other using the simple conjunction “and”. In terms of narrative development (Applebee), this moves the child from unjoined “heaps” to conjoined “sequences.” An example of this in a basic child narrative might look something like this: “The boy is lost and he is hungry and then he got found and eats dinner and goes to bed.”
So here are some characteristics of the “terrible twos”: run-on sentences and running out into traffic! Parents often use a method to “herd” their run-away two-year-old with the game of “chase” (as one mother told me of her relationship with her 2 year-old, “we love to be chased”):
A mother in the park was with her 2 year-old; he was mock-running-away, looking over his shoulder and giggling uncontrollably, as his mother ambled after him, mock-threatening “I’m going to get you! I”m going to get you!” Then, as she closed in on him, she swooshed her arms around his torso, and spun him around as she exclaimed: “Wheee!”
Experiences like this explain why many young boys want to marry their mothers.
In terms of temporal distinctions, symbol comparison encodes the sensor-motor distinctions that occurred during image and agent developments. With symbol comparison, the now/not now distinction is encoded, in the form of now and then (past). This is when children learning English over-generalize the -ed ending marking past tense (e.g. “swimmed” for “swam”). It won’t be until the child has achieved symbol relation that the past/present/future distinctions are fully encoded.
Linguistic conjunctions allow children to verbalize two-step communications: if the child needs mom’s help, he can first use language to get her attention (“mommy, come here”) and then to direct her attention (“gimme bear” when bear is out of reach).
Another linguistic development that helps two-year-olds accelerate their speech production is the development of pronouns. During symbol formation, young children use names — they learn that everything has a name — but now they start shortening those nouns with pronouns. “I” and “you” are first to develop, then third person pronouns (“he”, “she”, etc.). At this stage, children can only handle a single substitution of a noun into a pronoun in a sentence (e.g. “I give the ball to mommy” rather than “I give it to you.”); it won’t be until the next stage that multiple pronouns can be substituted. There is a parallel in pretend play where children at this stage can substitute one pretend item to facilitate the play, but cannot yet substitute two items.
These development give the child’s language production a quality of uncoordinated and headlong compulsion, as though the child’s tongue is stuck on the accelerator and obstacles are dealt with by piling on more language at greater speed and higher volume. Until children can take their tongue off the accelerator and eventually apply the brake, the more social children tend to be more aggressive until the means of self-control are at hand.
1-2-3 Go — Going
1-2-3 Going…etc., etc.
Sample from Pilot Study, 1983
Counting to three becomes prevalent as children approach their third birthday. In the sample above, a boy almost three years old, used this chant , rocking back and forth, while waiting in the back of his father’s pick-up truck (as if to get the truck going by pushing it forward). Notice the shift from the present indicative (go) to the infinitive (going). The boy uses the 1-2-3 rhythm as a cue for the wait —> release pattern of his rocking — while holding on to the tailgate, he lunges forward on the count of 3.
In our culture, the child’s third birthday makes this ability to count relevant to encoding time distinctions: he begins to understand “I was 2, now I’m 3, and I will be 4.”
In the above example, the boy is using his chant to help him wait until his father is ready to go. Children at this stage can wait when told to, but can’t wait on their own accord. This example demonstrates two aspects of language for the 3 year old: first, he can take his tongue off the accelerator and stop aggressively pestering his father, and he can use language to entertain himself while he waits. When psycholinguists examine the functions of speech, particularly “private speech”, they tend to neglect the fact that children love to play with language.
Two important conjunctions children learn here are “but” and “because” (Bates). These are important because they allow children to verbalize conflict, which is a first step towards learning how to resolve conflict. We intuitively know the difference between “and” and “but” — we see this when we prompt someone to complete a sentence. For instance, if a friend says “Harry wanted to go to the store…”, and then stops, if the partial sentence ends with lowering intonation, we are likely to say “and?”, which may prompt the completion of “and he borrowed my car.” But if the partial sentence ends with rising intonation, we are cued that for some reason the intended action was not completed, and we are likely to prompt with “but?”, which may prompt the completion of “but he didn’t have any money.”
In this way children can better communicate with parents about what is wrong. These findings are in line with Applebee’s description of children’s “primitive narratives” at this stage.
Another linguistic development among 3 year-olds is the subordinate clause. This allows the child to go from two sentences like “the horse was tiny” and “the horse struggled up the hill” to “The horse, who was tiny, struggled up the hill.” (and eventually to “the tiny horse struggled…”) Patricia Greenfield (The Development of Rule-bound Strategies for Manipulating Seriated Cups: A Parallel Between Action and Grammar, Cognitive Psychology, 3, 291-310, 1972) found an interesting parallel between action and grammar on a task of “nesting” seriated cups. She finds that children develop through three strategies for successfully seriating the cups that parallel the stages of symbol formation, comparison, and relation. At first children need to understand that they can’t put any cups in any others if they first pick up the largest cup. After they figure that out, they can then pile a number of smaller cups inside the largest (and another, and another). At the end, when they can produce subordinated (“embedded”) clauses, they can also seriate a cup in the middle of the series when given it after having seriated the others.
These parallels between action and grammar should not surprise us since Applebee’s definitions of narrative structures came from a sorting exercise Vygotsky developed.
So all-in-all, the child at this stage is much more coordinated than the 2 year-old, but he still cannot be trusted alone because he has yet to develop the self-regulation that comes with the internalization of speech.
Sphere of Subjectivity
With this new sphere of experience, the child is thrown back on herself in confusion as she realizes that her experience is subjective, or “internal” and private, as is the experience of others. The “interior” nature of subjectivity is reflected in children’s drawings at this stage. 3 year-olds can do circles and lines and crosses. 4 year-olds can form a radial, where spokes come out from a center point. Here is when we see children producing suns with rays emanating out, or sunflowers, with happy faces. This is the beginning of the stick figure, which first has arms and legs coming out of its round head — later, a torso gets added with arms and legs coming out from the torso. (Rhonda Kellog, Understanding Children’s Art, Psychology Today, 1967, 1, 16-25) Children’s imagination now makes them less interested in stories about the familiar world and more interested in strange worlds they can master from a distance (Applebee, pg. 75). Imaginary friends can help children learn social expectations and limits (Brazelton, Imaginary Friends Help Kids Develop, SF Chronicle, 11-17-1992, D4).
But before we go down this rabbit-hole, a few words on how we got here that were not covered in the last section.
In 1968, Kohlberg wrote an article on the issues of “private speech” and its relation to the internalization of language. “Private speech ” are the verbalizations of children that occur while they are alone or when they do not seem to be considering the response or understanding of others present. His researches concluded that private speech is not exclusively egocentric as Piaget contended, and that it did play a role leading to the internalization of language. He especially singled out “mumbling” as a clear predecessor to internal dialogue.
This is an interesting finding, but a rather narrow one given the range of speech behavior exhibited by 3 year-olds. For instance, during my MSW thesis participant-observer pilot project, I was able to observe and elicit a range of verbal behaviors from two research subjects who were neighborhood children in family student housing at UC Berkeley. One was a 3 year-old girl, I will name Sydney, who was rather soft-spoken. In the housing complex, which was former WWII ship-builder housing, our married studio unit was up-stairs and next door to a one-bedroom family unit in which the subject family resided. When Sydney was on the up-stairs balcony and her mother was in sight down below, Sydney had to make a special effort to yell loud enough for her mother to hear. Conversely, when she was sitting right next to her mother, she would share something in a whisper, obviously making sure her mother could hear but others couldn’t. This volume control leads children to realize that when they are speaking to themselves, they can be quieter than a whisper — indeed not vibrating the vocal cords at all (not even a mumble).
These findings are reinforced by research on “sub-vocalizations” and auditory hallucinations. “Sub-vocalizations” are when the vocal tract is muscularly engaged, but the vocal cords are not. This may be because when we are thinking rather than speaking the words, we are still imagining saying them. So when researchers found that psychotic patients experiencing auditory hallucinations were sub-vocalizing at the same time, it suggests that their sub-vocalizations have become dis-associated from their sense of agency, and they experience the thoughts as coming from outside themselves (Louis Gould, Verbal Hallucinations and Activity of Vocal Musculature, American Journal of Psychiatry, 105, Nov. 1948, pp. 367-72). This was further reinforced by the finding that auditory hallucinations can be interrupted by having the subject hum a song. I used this technique to great benefit with a psychotic teenager who loved his new ability to banish the voices he didn’t like. He was quickly able to sub-vocalize his humming so that the disruption of his voices didn’t make him appear “crazy.”
Further collaboration of these findings comes from a study showing that 4 and 5 year-old children recall items better when they subvocalize while learning the items and while they wait to recall them (internal rehearsing). (Linda Garrity, An Electromyographical Study of Subvocal Speech and Recall in Preschool Children, Developmental Psychology, 1975, Vol. 11, no. 3, 274-281) This suggests that the internalization of speech is not only a sign of development, but is also a driver of development during this period.
“Confusion” at this point in development (following the “inspiration” of the symbolical realm) means the fusion of mind and body, as evidenced by blushing (Bhuwan Joshi, personal communication). Shame and the development of modesty and politeness are the hallmarks of this phase. Whereas the two year old will thrillingly shed his clothes to nakedness and balk at being clothed by parents, the three year old is helping to have clothes put on, and the four year old is learning how to clothe himself. Typically 3 1/2 is the time when children are most “potty-mouthed” with their language, and struggling with toilet training. The cooperative and coordinated homeostasis of the 3 year-old becomes disrupted by the nearly 4 year-old’s self-consciousness, resulting in often strained relations with peers and adults.
In the mental health field, the experience of shame is associated with some controversy (one does not want to spend one’s life “in shame”). In my perspective, there is a marked difference between “humility” (as a virtue) and “humiliation” (as an abusive practice). Along these lines, I agree with the Canadian philosopher and anthropologist of everyday life Margaret Visser (The Gift of Thanks, 2009) who points out that the opposite of shame is not pride, but shamelessness. To best understand this term, it helps to know Spanish, where the term “sinverguenza” is a well-defined character-type that is best well-avoided in life. Attached to a “sinverguenza” for long, one will live a life of continual grief if not devastating scandals, embarrassments, and other calamities.
When we look at the more mental side of the child, we see that 3 1/2 year-olds can say honestly “I don’t know”, showing their initial understanding of mental verbs similar to “know.” Aside from “know”, other mental verbs start to rear their heads, such as “dream”, “think”, “imagine”, and “guess.” Over the course of this period of development, children learn how to sort out these mental verbs, such as to “know” should mean more than to “think” or “guess”, and that to “dream” or “imagine” are altogether different things. More committed mental verbs, such as “plan” or “promise” are not yet within the young child’s grasp. At this stage, the child understands a difference between “know” and “think” which is that “knowing something” means it is true, whereas “thinking something” might not be true (Johnson & Maratsos, Early Comprehension of Mental Verbs: Think and Know, Child Development, 1977, 48, 1743-1747).
So the child’s mental and social worlds have been disrupted, he knows that the world is expecting that he control himself more, and he is entering the social world of peers outside his family. He is increasingly expected to be potty trained, to clothe himself, and to be patient and polite. He deals with it, but not very well at first. He knows when he is being polite, but misidentifies how he does it, generally underestimating how polite he is being (what Bates calls “Minus Polite”). Similarly, children make mistakes copying a hierarchical tree structure (“mobile” shape; see illustration below right) — whereas at 3 years-old, they can accurately copy part of the structure without realizing it isn’t the whole structure, 4 year-olds make a more complex structure, but with obvious errors that they are unable yet to track (Greenfield, Building a Tree Structure: The Development of Hierarchical Complexity and Interrupted Strategies in Children’s Construction Activity, Developmental Psychology, 1977, vol. 13, no. 4, 299-313). In general, the child’s functioning can be characterized by Applebee’s description of children’s narratives at this stage as “unfocussed chains.”
At 3 years-old, children have learned how to metaphorically take their foot off the gas pedal — now at this stage, children are learning how to apply the brake. It can be rough riding, and often children will skid in and still bump the person ahead of them, but this is the messy beginnings of “executive functioning” as in “Stop and Think.” Cognitive-behavioral researchers and therapists have found that at 3 1/2, children start to be able to follow directions to not do something, such as pressing a red button when it lights when the instructions were to press the green button when it lights and not press the red button when it lights (Meichenbaum & Goodman, Reflection-Impulsivity and Verbal Control of Motor Behavior, Child Development, 1969, 40, 785-797). Meichenbaum also found that impulsive children could be taught methods of self-talk to improve their patience and attention to detail (Meichenbaum & Goodman, Training Impulsive Children to Talk to Themselves: A Means of Developing Self-Control, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1971, vol. 77, no. 2, 115-126), methods that have been incorporated in best practices such as Aggression Replacement Training (Glick & Gibbs). See also the program I developed for Self Control Trainings on this website under Welcome to My Projects.
Just as the “symbol comparison” stage is based on an “and, and, and” template, (propelling the story forward), so the “subject comparison” template is based on “why, why, why.” Children of 5 years old never tire of asking “why” to every answer to their previous question of “why.” In some instances, this is a sincere attempt to understand and find meaning in experiences; at other times it is an attempt to fore-stall the inevitable, the final reason being “Because I’m the Mommy.”
5 year-olds can do more than count their fingers, they can also appreciate the perception of age. My pilot study subject, Jason, was aware of age norms when he said “I’m in kindergarten but I’m still 4.” (5 being the stereotypical kinder age) Once I was with Jason and one of his neighborhood friends, Sonny. Being the researcher that I am, I had asked Sonny previously if he was 4 years-old, and he had said yes, but it turned out he was still 3 years-old.
Peter (to Sonny): “Why did you tell me you’re four?”
Sonny: (no response)
Jason: “Because I think he makes so that you’ll think he’s four.”
Differing perceptions mean a lot to 5 year-olds. Whereas the four year old considers hide-and-seek to be an interesting diversion, the five year old considers it an obsession (good skill for hunters!). At the previous level, she understands the basic idea of keeping a secret hidden, but is not very good at maintaining secrecy. Now at 5 years old, she is better at hiding, making sure nothing is sticking out in view (well, pretty much), and trying to keep totally quiet (suppressed giggles, no wiggling around). Similarly, five year-olds can keep a surprise a secret for far longer than 4 year-olds whose inhibitions break down fairly quickly to blurt out the secret.
My pilot study research subject, Jason, started his hide-and-seek career with me when he was about 4 1/2. On his first outing at hiding, when I started to approach the hiding region of the game, he said “I’m in the living-room — come and find me!” But as he approached five years old, his strategies of hiding and finding expanded considerably, but not yet as thorough as possible. Here is a full account of a complete game of hide-and-seek when Jason was nearly five years old:
Jason was the first to hide, which he did under the living room couch. He tried to be completely hidden and remain silent. The latter became difficult for him as I entered tromping like the jolly green giant, pronouncing “Where is Jason? Where could Jason BE?” As a result I heard the muffled snorts of a child trying not to laugh by holding his breath and smothering his mouth with his hands. A noble effort.
When it was my turn to hide, I used a method I had learned in my hiding career: if you want to keep someone anxious to find something from seeing it, put it above eye level. When anxious, people tend to not look up.
So I went into the bathroom and shimmied my way up, Spiderman style, into the upper bracket of the shower stall. True to form, when Jason investigated the bathroom, he didn’t look up and didn’t find me. After he left to investigate other rooms, I used the echo chamber effect of the small bathroom, aided by my hands forming a mega-phone, to pronounce “HE’S IN THE BATHROOM.” Jason responded by scampering into the bathroom and re-investigating the spots he had already examined. Again failing, he left to try his luck elsewhere.
Before giving up the game, I spontaneously decided on one more trial, and mega-phoned out: “HE’S IN THE TOILET!” Jason rushed in and lifted the toilet seat. Fortunately he found nothing there but clean water. I realized at that point that I had broken down his reality testing and it was time to give up the game so as not to traumatize him. I revealed my hiding spot and we had a good laugh.
What we see here is not simple “egocentrism,” but earnest attempts to transcend egocentrism. Which leads to the next study where Jason demonstrates his understanding that thoughts are private:
At the time I had a 1966 Chevy in-line six-cylinder truck. Jason was with me when I changed the oil. There is a lot of space under the hood to see the engine and what I was doing. The session went as follows:
I open the hood, place the oil pan under the engine, remove the bolt to drain the oil (glug, glug, glug), remove the old oil filter and install a new one, replace the bolt, and pour in the new oil (glug, glug, glug). Then I put the hood back down.
I used this as a metaphor by asking Jason some questions:
“Jason, you know how I could open the hood of the truck and see how the engine works?”
“If I opened your head, could I see what you think?”
In response to this Jason went into a somewhat lengthy description of a scene from the recent Star Wars movie when a space ship penetrates into a hollowed-out planet. He was clearly following the metaphor, and I was being very patient, but I didn’t want to get side-tracked with another metaphor. So I persisted:
“Yes, but Jason, if I opened up your head, could I see what you think?” To which he responded:
“You have to guess until I tell you.”
“And if I did open your head?”
“Then I won’t be alive.”
“What would I see?”
Obviously time to sew up that interview. Because of the trusting relationship, Jason took my questions both playfully and seriously without getting over-stimulated or scared, and no scar was left. But his response “Not until I tell you” has gained notoriety – as one of my clinical supervisors said, “Jason has better boundaries than most of my (adult) clients.”
Jason’s comprehension and use of “Not until” is important to understand what children that age are learning by way of frustration tolerance. Prior to this kind of impulse control, children understand that their requests/demands are met with “yes” or “no.” In this frame, a contingent yes is not understood (“not now, but later”), and is responded to as a “no” (eliciting either defeat or tantrum). Now children are learning that parents will grant contingent permission, with “first this, THEN that” (e.g. yes you can have dessert, but only after you finish dinner). Prior to the age 5 developments, children need this spelled out in order to not get upset — now parents can use the shortened “not until” phrasing with a chance their child will understand the contingency isn’t a categorical “no.”
In the more mundane world of “mobile construction,” children now perceive the mobile as two separate parts joined at the top, so they construct each side separately from the bottom up and then attach the two parts at the top (these structures are similar the Applebee’s “focussed chain” narratives). The results are more accurate than the 4 year-old versions, but the two sides aren’t reliably the same. Other areas where children struggle with accuracy are: perceptions of politeness, where children remember behaviors as more polite than they really are (“Plus Polite” — Bates); as well as children’s understanding of the mental verb “guess” where they assume that a “guess” is a wrong thought, assuming that guesses are never right. (Johnson & Wellman, Children’s Understanding of Mental Verbs: Remember, Know, and Guess, Child Development, 1980, 51, 1095-1102) Applebee describes narrative structures here as “focussed chains” in which the story line is held together by one constant feature, usually a character, but the plot is not fully developed and reversible.
Hallelujah! Around 6 years-old, most children’ functioning is much more coordinated. She has sorted out her mental verbs, understanding that knowing means perceiving directly or remembering accurately, and that thinking or guessing can be wrong or right (Johnson, 1980). Perceptions of politeness are accurate (“Correct Polite” — Bates) and narratives are fully narrative in that the plots are fully reversible, i.e. the ending makes sense in relation to the beginning (Applebee). Children can accurately copy the mobile structure as a whole, constructing it by going up one side, across, and down the other side (they don’t perceive the crossbars as hierarchical elements until seven years-old). Common games (other than hide-and-seek) that help spur these developments are “mother-may-I”, “simon says”, and “tic-tac-toe”, all of which require the child to hold a rule in mind to select the successful response.
All of these developmental gains are good things as the child moves from pre-school and kindergarten to first grade where teachers can welcome children who can dress themselves, are toilet trained, know how to be polite, and can wait their turn without much prompting or fuss. What could possibly go wrong?
What too often goes wrong is the children who don’t gain these self-control skills by 3rd grade (8 years old). Impulsive children do poorly both socially and academically. Peers certainly notice this and social sorting ensues accordingly. If handled badly, impulsive children can become more aggressive, gaining “friends” (more like accomplices) through bullying and ridicule. Although there are certainly effective remedies to these situations, these means are not often employed. Given this picture, the self-control skills normally developed in the 3 to 7 age range may not be biologically and chronologically “critical” (in the sense that they cannot be learned later, such as “imprinting” in baby ducks), but developing these skills within a normal age range could be considered humanistically critical (where both bully and bullied lose potential for sustainable happiness). I say this because in his 1964 article, Kohlberg makes the case that it is not very important that the skills learned in pre-operational development be learned within the normal age range. Ask third grade teachers and they will tell you a different story.
A widely noted characteristic of the typical 6 year-old is how imaginative he is and interested in fantasy and magic. Typically this quality endears him to his mother, who is delighted by his levity and imagination. Fathers typically wait until he can be “realistic” and do “real” things to engage him in favored activities such as sports or projects in the garage. In his article The Loss of Pete’s Dragon: Developments of the Self in the Years Five to Seven (in The Development of the Self, Robert Leahy [ed], Academic Press, 1985) Robert Kegan provides some good descriptions of this quality, while at the same time repeatedly stating that the 5 and 6 year-old child “lacks impulse control” (pg. 195). I hope the research findings I have presented are sufficient to debunk the myth of the “egocentric pre-operational” child. Because “concrete operations” don’t come from nowhere.
[For more on this age and how it relates to upcoming challenges, see the Calvin and Hobbes section in the Literary Depictions article on this website. For a Calvin and Hobbes depiction of Jane Loevinger’s “self-protective” stage, click here.]
There is little to no controversy over the character of “concrete operations” as they normally develop in the 7 to 12 year-old age range. The changes that normally ensue around 7 years old are far-ranging and well documented. The changes generally involve hierarchical thinking and organized behavior sequences. Thus, for instance, children can now copy Greenfield’s mobile tree using the cross sticks as hierarchical organizers of the vertical sticks. Over the period of a few years they find increasingly more efficient ways of constructing the mobile. This is similar to children’s developing understanding of social organizations such as sports teams — they are directed by a “superior” coach who delegates on field strategies to an on-field leader (e.g. quarterback in football, center in basketball) who coordinates the moves of the other team positions.
Among all these changes that develop with the onset of “concrete operations” (which I think of as more cultural practice identification), I will be focussing on one change that seems to me to be central to the school-aged child’s social and emotional functioning: the understanding of, and the ability to, promise something. The realization of the meaning of promising is at the heart of children’s role development: to be a parent, a teacher, a student, an older sibling, a team member, etc., one understands that there are certain expectations that go with the role, and that agreeing to play a role is not just a matter of agreement with an idea — it is a promise to do the things that fulfill the role. And if one fails these expectations, others can be expected to be disappointed.
In her book The Acquisition of Syntax in Children from 5 to 10 (1969, MIT), Carol Chomsky conducts some enlightening studies on children’s understanding of “promise” (pp. 32-41). When asked to depict sentences involving “told” and “promise,” she found a sharp difference between the understanding of 5 year-olds and 8 year-olds. For instance, if the sentences were “John told Mary to go to the store” and “John promised Mary to go to the store,” the 8 year-olds had Mary go to the store in the first sentence, and they had John go to the store in the second. Whereas the 5 year-olds had Mary go to the store with both sentences, not understanding that a promise commits the promiser’s own actions in the future, not somebody else’s.
In this sense a role sets certain expectations that the role-player promise to do the culturally prescribed performances attached to that role. So let’s have some fun and explore how children take on the role of “joke-teller.”
Paul McGhee explored this question in his article Development of Children’s Ability Create the Joking Relationship (Child Development, 1974, 45, 552-556). In it he concluded that children can create a joking relationship along with concrete operations at the age of 7. Too bad his examples are kind of lame, but we can fix that! Following are some examples from holiday family gatherings:
For many years running, we had Thanksgiving with our extended family, including an adult nephew, his wife, and their three children: Ashlyn, born in 2005, Connor; born in 2007; and Lucas, born in 2014. Their mother is an elementary school teacher and their father an engineer (with good social skills). The mother and I would typically talk about child development, including observations of the children’s current interactions as well as various ploys to elicit interactional sequences (such as rolling a ball back and forth with infants getting close to speech). So this was a familiar and friendly setting for the adults and children. The parents are attentive to their children, but do not let them interrupt adult conversations, so the children develop various acceptable ploys to enter a conversation without interrupting it.
During Thanksgiving of 2012, the adults were sitting in the living room with a coffee table surrounded by a couch and various chairs. Ashlyn (now 7 1/2 years old) and her younger brother Connor (who just turned 5) came into the room crawling, Ashlyn in front and Connor following. They went around the perimeter of the room with Ashlyn pretending they were hiding by crawling under chairs between the chair legs. Ashlyn knew she could be seen but was making a good pretense of hiding; Connor was just along for the ride, knowing that following his sister generally led to fun.
Ashlyn ended up slithering on the couch beside her mother. I was on the other side of mom and told her the story of Jason and the hide-and-seek game (above), using verbal dramatic effects (e.g. cupping my hands mega-phone style to reenact “He’s In The Bathroom!”) At the end of the story, mom says to Ashlyn, “That was a funny story, Ashlyn, wasn’t it?” Given what Ashlyn did later, it is evident that Ashlyn got the idea that the name of the game in this setting was to tell funny stories, which to her translated as telling jokes.
So in the wake of the meal, while she still has a full audience, Ashlyn stands up and says that she has some jokes to tell. There were four of them along the lines of “What kind of ship never sinks?” “What kind?” “Friendship!” and “What kind of weather do mice hate?” “What kind?” “When it rains cats and dogs!” There was no theme to the jokes — she told them as she remembered them.
After this, the father told me that Connor didn’t understand that with a joke, when you ask a funny question you are expected to supply a funny answer — he would just ask the funny question and expect the adult to supply a funny answer. The social convention is that when you set yourself up in the role of joke teller, you are promising to deliver the punch-line.
This theme continued for the next two years of Thanksgivings. For 2013, Ashlyn will be featured in the next section. For 2014, Connor had just turned seven, so it was time to check in with his joke-teller status.
Towards the end of the visit, I asked Connor if he had heard any jokes recently. While he hesitated thinking, Ashlyn was ready to tell a joke, but I held up my hand to stop her while I focussed on Ryan, waiting for his response. Finally he said: “What do you use to drive the cows home?” “What, Connor?” “A cow-dillac!” To reinforce his knowledge of jokes, his mother then prompted him to tell the joke he brought home from school recently: “How do you spell I-CUP?” Being game, I immediately blurted out: “I see you pee!” which brought giggles all around. Many people obviously fall for this, but the “real” answer is eye-cup, as in the device used to wash out your eyes. Alas! But it did establish Connor as a bona-fide joke teller.
2013 Ashlyn smuggles a joke book:
Ashlyn planned to do a stand-up comedy routine armed with a joke book written for children her age. Apparently her parents told her not to bring the book, but she smuggled it in anyway. After the meal, while people were standing around talking before they started to leave, Ashlyn pulled out her joke book to try it out on her small audience, myself and her father. After shoe-horning in a couple of jokes she read from the book (not that good), her father declared the last one to be a “groaner” (which everyone understood to mean “lame”). This was the signal to break up the audience, and father went one direction and I went another. Never one to be discouraged by a mild rebuff, Ashlyn went on the practice her other, more successful, conversational ploys.
That year Ashlyn tried to extend her joke “performances” into an assembled routine of jokes as they appeared in the joke book. Although there is a focus on augmenting the routine one joke at a time, there is no reciprocity that would make it a stand-up routine where one joke builds on another, where jokes refer back on themselves and where the built-up structure can come tumbling down like a house of cards (to the merriment of spectators who can view the travesty at a safe distance). Joking partnerships can be so motivating that two years later (11/24/16), after not seeing me in the intervening two years, her younger brother Connor (now nine) told me he had a joke for me as his greeting upon first seeing me:
Q – “What do you call a key that doesn’t work?” A – “A donkey [don’t key]!” When I first answered his riddle with “don’t key” it didn’t sound enough like “donkey” for Connor to understand. Unfortunately for Connor, his older sister Ashlyn, now eleven, pointed out to him that my guess of “don’t-key” was correct even though it didn’t sound enough like “donkey” for him to notice. Undeterred, Connor went on to include variations such as “turkey” and “monkey.” I then explained to him that a “monk-key” was used by a monk to enter the abbey. Lost on him but not on his sister who will continue to indoctrinate him into the world of joking partnerships).
However diversified and inter-related the elements of the performance become, at each stage of the way the school-age child is measuring his and others’ performances by a concrete standard which the performance strives to achieve. The involves inductive reasoning, generalizing a specific performance as a standard to measure performances of the same type (the “right” way to do it). Children 7 to 12 years old are encouraged and interested in “getting good at something” (Erikson’s challenge of Industry vs. Inferiority), both to make their parents proud, and to make themselves interesting to like-minded friends.
But as the above story of Ashlyn shows, it is not just doing things well, it is doing them when people expect them. It is hard to keep a promise if one forgets it at the relevant time. To be successful at this stage, children need to develop ways to remind themselves about their responsibilities. Children at the previous stage are inconsistent about this: they can find a way to remember one thing, but can’t generalize this method to similar situations, nor articulate how they did it. Eight-year-olds can do this, and parents can expect them to keep on track without needing to be reminded (see Carolyn Hoyt, “Developing Your Child’s Memory,” from Parenting.com). Consider this day-long performance by 8-year-old Ashlyn on the day of her First Communion:
It was the day of Ashlyn’s First Communion. She had a series of tasks to accomplish that day: get dressed and ready, go with the family to the church, understand and complete her role as a first communicant, sitting with the other children and following the priest’s directions with the other first communicants and the other children attending. At the same time she was responsible as older sister to make sure her younger brother followed directions as well. After the priest’s talk with the children, Ashlyn’s family was the chosen family to bring the gifts before the altar, and this involved getting on-the-spot instructions about how to carry the gift, when to start the promenade, the pacing and spacing of the gift-bearers, and the custom for handing the gifts to the priest for his blessing. Last but not least, she was the hostess and guest of honor at the family reception afterward, greeting new guests as they arrived, making sure people had drinks and food, and generally circulating so as to stimulate conversation amongst the guests. All flawlessly performed: hurray to Ashlyn! [5/5/13]
Children are certainly relieved when they remember the things that are expected of them, but their greater interest tends to focus on getting recognition for a good performance. A good example of “getting good” at something comes from the life of multi-grammy award winning music producer Daniel Lanois. He was not given a musical instrument at a young age as many musicians were, but instead made a choice at age nine to pursue music in his own way:
Interview: Daniel Lanois
The Brian Eno, U2 and Harold Budd collaborator talks about his remarkable career
By Frosty October 14, 2015
Red Bull Music Academy Daily
How did you get introduced to playing and recording music?
When I was nine-years old, my mom would give me a dollar a week to go to the movies. I would walk a couple of miles to the movie house and enjoy my Saturday cinema – but, on this one Saturday, I saw a video in a music store window for this little, plastic recorder. It cost a dollar. On that day, I didn’t go to the cinema. I bought the recorder and played that thing until I made everyone in the building go crazy. I started inventing melodies and then my own annotation system, too, because I didn’t know how to read music. That was the beginning of composition for me. I’ve been a dedicated note-keeper ever since.
When Lanois’ production mentor, Brian Eno, heard this story, he reflected (as documented in Lanois’ movie Here Is What Is) that Lanois’ spontaneous decision to buy the recorder at nine years old changed his whole life trajectory, and those of many around him. Watching this interaction between Lanois and Eno reinforces the importance of friendship in cultural development.
In the Cultural Realm, friendship is a role involving expectations and promises, the sharing of interests, likes, dislikes, and (danger zone!) friends. As Selman (1976, 1981) has found, ideas of friendship go hand-in-hand with ways of dealing with conflicts and understanding the perspectives of others. I find particularly interesting Selman’s findings on children’s understanding of “apologies.” But before investigating the details of this, let’s cover some background on the developments Selman finds, starting from the “friend as playmate” orientation during the Sphere of Subjectivity, through the three levels involved in the Cultural Realm.
Selman Friendship Concepts of Children (1981, pp. 250-251) in relation to Double-Helix Model Patterns:
Sphere of Subjectivity
Stage 0: Momentary physicalistic playmates. Conceptions of friendship relations are based on thinking which focuses upon propinquity and proximity (i.e., physicalistic parameters) to the exclusion of others. A close friend is someone who lives close by and with whom the self happens to be playing with at the moment. Friendship is more accurately playmateship. Issues such as jealousy or the intrusion of a third party into a play situation are constructed by the chid at Stage 0 as specific fights over specific toys or space rather than as conflicts which involve personal feelings or inter-personal affection.
Stage 1: One-Way Assistance. Friendship conceptions are one-way in the sense that a friend is seen as important because he or she performs specific activities that the self wants accomplished. In other words, one person’s attitude is unreflectingly set up as a standard, the “friend’s” actions must match the standard thus formulated. A close frieind is someone with more than Stage 0 demographic credentials; a close friend is someone who is known better than other persons. “Knowing” means accurate knowledge of other’s likes and dislikes.
Stage 2: Fair-weather cooperation. The advance of Stage 2 friendships over the previous stages is based on the new awareness of interpersonal perspectives as reciprocal. The two-way nature of friendships is exemplified by concerns for coordinating and approximating, through adjustment by both self and other, the specific likes and dislikes of self and other, rather than matching one person’s actions to the other’s fixed standard of expectation. The limitation of this stage is the discontinuity of these reciprocal expectations. Friendship at Stage 2 is fair-weather — specific arguments are seen as severing the relationship although both parties may still have affection for one another inside. The coordination of attitudes at the moments defines the relation. No underlying continuity is seen to exist that can maintain the relation during the period of conflict or adjustment.
Stage 3: Intimate and mutually shared relationships. At Stage 3 there is the awareness of both a continuity of relation and affective bonding between close friends. The importance of friendship does not rest only upon the fact that the self is bored or lonely; at Stage 3, friendships are seen as a basic means of developing mutual intimacy and mutual support; friends share personal problems. The occurrence of conflicts between friends does not mean the suspension of the relationship, because the underlying continuity between partners is seen as a means of transcending foul-weather incidents. The limitations of Stage 3 conceptions derive from the overemphasis of the two-person clique and the possessiveness that arises out of the realization that close relations are difficult to form and to maintain.
The chart below organizes Selman’s Role Taking Stages (1976) in relation to Sutton Smith’s studies of children’s creations of stories (chart created by this author):
During the Sphere of Subjectivity the child fails to understand that people have perspectives that may differ, and the stories they create have conflicts where there is no attempted solutions. With Culture Formation, children understand that people have perspectives and will provide one-way assistance in a conflict, while the stories they create have an attempted solution that is not sufficient to resolve the conflict. With Culture Comparison, children can start comparing perspectives and providing “fair-weather” assistance when the conflict to not too serious or complicated, while the stories they create involve responses that resolve the immediate threat. With Culture Relation, children can understand the mutuality of perspectives from a “third-person” viewpoint and start to “talk things out” when conflicts are more serious or complex, while the stories they create involve transforming the circumstances of the conflict as well as eliminating the immediate threat.
Since the role of a friend involves keeping promises, any failure to keep a promise presents a role conflict that threatens to end the friendship if not rectified. Younger children are typically told to “say you’re sorry” when they create a conflict, but with Culture Formation children understand that an apology is an important means for restoring the relationship. Children first register “sorry” or some other gesture to make things better as an important step, but they soon come to realize that sincere apologies involve more than saying “sorry,” as the following interaction demonstrates:
I was working for a Family Service Agency, providing consultation for school personnel, running multi-family groups, and student-assistance activities at various elementary schools. At one school where I provided multiple services, I was outside a classroom when recess was ending. As I walked up to the room two students were arguing — a smaller boy was confronting a large 10 year-old girl about some bullying behavior. Just as I walked up, the girl said loudly “I SAID I WAS SORRY!!” I said to the boy, “But sorry is as sorry does.” The jaws of both the boy and the girl literally dropped, and the girl walked off.
As Selman says, the child at Stage 2 (Culture Comparison) is concerned that “one must mean what one says” (1981, pg. 260). In terms of perspective-taking, Selman would say that the girl needs to “be aware that another self can judge one’s beliefs and intentions as well as one’s actions” (pg. 260), a point that was not lost on the boy. And he saw that she got the message too.
The third stage in any realm or sphere is always the more organized, and Culture Relation is no different as characterized here by Robert Kegan (1985, pg. 197):
In bringing impulses and perceptions under his or her own regulation, the child creates a self that is distinct and in business for itself; in its fullest flush of confidence this is the bike-riding, money-managing, card-trading, wristwatch-wearing, pack-running, code-cracking, coin-collecting, self-waking, puzzle-solving 9- or 10-year-old known to us all.
The nine to twelve year old youngster who has gotten really good at something is often at the top of their game, particularly for concrete performances such as gymnastics, spelling bees, and multiplication tables. Kegan’s description reflects the typical boy at this age, but girls have similar, often more social performances they like to show off, such as the culturally ubiquitous hand-clapping games (e.g. “Miss Mary Mack”). Youngsters generally love getting accolades when they can tell that they “stuck it” with their performance. A good description of the high feeling associated with a recognized accomplishment comes from an interview with actress Helen Mirren (1975 with Michael Parkinson, link, be fore-warned, the interviewer is very sexist):
I first discovered I wanted to be an actress when I was at primary school. I played the Virgin Mary — why do they laugh? — I don’t understand. And I was really rather good — people said I was good anyway. And I got that terrific feeling of being good at something and other people recognizing that. I remember very clearly that feeling.
[Helen Mirren played this role when she was 6 years-old. The part had no lines but had a stunning costume. By the time she left primary school at 11 years-old, she had played the leading role in Hansel and Gretel, with so many lines that the script was bound in a book. She tried to get out of the ordeal, but her mother wouldn’t let her. (see In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures by Helen Mirren, Atria Books 2008, pp. 47-8)]
This is all great stuff, so what could go wrong? Let’s talk about narcissism.
This age group has strong inductive powers, but not yet the deductive powers that involve defining abstract principles and applying them to specific situations. Therefore, a “good” performance is one that meets the standard of excellence whether or not it is helpful to others or beneficial to humanity. Hitler Youth were very disciplined, but had no conscience about the misery and evil their actions were creating. Children who are attractive and talented are in danger of becoming smug, showing off at others’ expense. Narcissists become used to getting their way, and are generally very charming while they do. But when they don’t, watch out! In this regard, the story of Tonya Harding, the famous figure skater who “landed her first triple lutz at age 12” (Wikipedia), comes to mind: when her place at the pinnacle was challenged by Nancy Kerrigan, Harding had her knee-capped in 1994 so she couldn’t compete against Harding in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Unfortunately, her life since 1994 has not evidenced much of what could be called “soul searching,” which begins when we get thrown back on ourselves and start to explore Character Formation.
Sphere of Character
“The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.” Blaise Pascal
“Confusion will be my epitaph, As I crawl a cracked and broken path. If we make it, we can all sit back and laugh. But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying, Yes I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.” King Crimson, “Epitaph”, The Court of the Crimson King, 1969.
Before going into the heady sphere of character development, let us bid farewell to our “research subject” Ashlyn, who at 11 years old (11/24/16) has joined the world of “elders” who help the younger learn and become successful in social life:
At my last encounter with Connor, who eagerly greeted me with “I got a joke for you!”, Ashlyn played the concerned observer who was the first to point out to him that I had actually got the punchline right (see above, under Culture Comparison). Along the same lines, during Thanksgiving dinner, she actively observed when Connor started to go into too much detail about a time he got sick and his mother, with that thin edge to her always friendly voice, warned him to change the subject. On our side of the table, I cast a glance at Ashlyn, saying “too much information,” to which her smile and wink communicated her understanding of the “wisdom of the elders.”
Thus, Ashlyn has earned the privacy afforded responsible adolescents, and her further role will be as a research assistant (with her mother and father) rather than a research subject.
In this model, as in many others, character development involves balancing the seemingly conflicting demands of justice and caring, self and others, ethical disciplines and indulgences. For a snapshot of how we got here, let us consider the testimony of an unlikely source, the 18th century philosopher and economist Adam Smith:
According to Smith’s theory, we begin developing our moral instincts — our “sentiments” — by sympathizing with the pleasures and pains of others through imagining what we would feel in their place. As we become aware of these sentiments, we recognize that we approve of a man’s behavior when his behavior accords with with the emotions we imagine we would feel were we in his place. When his actions and our imaginations coincide, we approve of, or sympathize with, his actions. We then observe how others see our own behavior. We learn which behaviors elicit sympathetic responses in others — which of our actions seem to others to be appropriate to the circumstances — and we adjust our own behavior, so as to cultivate praise from others. Finally, we internalize the mechanism. We develop our own “impartial spectator” inside us. We no longer seek the praise of others; instead, we seek to be praiseworthy in the eyes of our own internal, impartial spectator. Only at this point are we equipped to become fully functioning members of society.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759, by Adam Smith, reviewed by Edward D. Kleinbard in Commonweal, Dec. 4, 2015, pg. 33.
Adam Smith was the author of The Wealth of Nations, 1776, which has been mis-understood as supporting “dog-eat-dog”, un-regulated capitalism. But Smith considered his “Moral Sentiments” book as primary to his philosophy, and “Wealth of Nations” should be read in its context (there is now a movie about this very issue, click here). In the above summary of Smith’s book, we can see that Smith understood the basic moral developments from the “reward seeking” orientation of the Subjective Sphere to the “approval seeking” orientation of the Cultural Realm, ending up with the “internalized spectator” of formal operations and the Sphere of Character.
For the most part, formal operations are associated with civilization and its accomplishments: literature, law, advanced mathematics, architecture, agriculture, politics, trade, science, etc. But the only necessary function of abstract reasoning is “soul-searching.” Civilization is not sustainable without ethical codes such as the Torah or the Code of Hammurabi.
Although literacy and urban life extend formal operations into many domains of life, they are not necessary to the development of abstract reasoning. Ramakrishna, the great spiritual master of India (1836 – 1886) was illiterate, but his soul-searching reached the heights of eastern spirituality; aside from his following in India, his message has been brought to the west by artistic luminaries such as Romain Rolland (French novelist and biographer who also wrote the first biography of Gandhi) and Phillip Glass (modern minimalist composer who published his opera, “The Passion of Ramakrishna”, in 2012).
Indeed, around the age of puberty, every culture has its rites of passage that transform the initiate from a participant in cultural performances to a contributor to cultural institutions.
One way or another, youth get knocked off their competency game, whether it be by puberty itself, or cultural rites of passage, or simply the cognitive demands of high school education. The concrete “ideas” of late childhood are developing into the abstract “theories” of youth. In this sense, formal operations and character development mirror the development of skepticism as researched by William Perry (1998).
But not all youth and young adults evaluate their theories in the same ways. Some take on their theories as beliefs, and use their abstract reasoning skills for “theory preservation” (Paul Klaczynski, Motivated Scientific Reasoning Biases, Epistemological Beliefs, and Theory Polarization: A Two-Process Approach to Adolescent Cognition,Child Development, Sept./Oct. 2000, 71, no. 5 pp. 1347-1366). For those who might think that these conclusions are themselves based on “motivated reasoning” to preserve more relativistic perspectives, the conclusions of the study are enlightening and solid:
Finally, epistemological dispositions were negatively associated with analytic reasoning biases and with theory polarization but were positively related to reasoning competence as indexed by total reasoning scores. “Knowledge-driven” adolescents — those who placed primacy on logical (versus intuitive) knowledge acquisition, and who appeared to subordinate the goal of theory preservation to the goal of learning — were more competent thinkers than belief-driven adolescents and showed greater balance in the use of their abilities. Yet, these adolescents had theories as wide-ranging as those of belief-driven adolescents. It is not, therefore, the relative neutrality of their theories that separated knowledge-driven from belief-driven adolescents; rather, the competence-performance gap was smaller for adolescents motivated to understand knowledge and its origins.
Knowledge-driven adolescents may have been more metacognitively careful than their counterparts and may have consistently monitored the quality of their justifications as they moved from problem to problem. Regardless of the relation between evidence and their theoretical beliefs, these adolescents engaged in predominately analytical processing and rarely lapsed into heuristic processing, as shown in Figure 2. Presented a challenging task, knowledge-driven adolescents, motivated by the desire to look beyond superficial task characteristics, were more likely to decontextualize beliefs from reasoning than adolescents whose predominant goal was theory preservation. (pp. 1360-1361)
The findings on “theory polarization” are crucial for understanding the development of abstract reasoning and its relation to life as a whole. Theory polarization not only involves over-looking the weaknesses of own’s own arguments and the strengths of competing arguments, but involves stereotyping of the competing theories and often imputing “underlying motives” to those who hold those theories. Global-warming deniers are a case in point: not only do most of them rely on theories that have been dis-credited, but claim that those concerned about global warming are not concerned about the planet and its habitability for animal life, but only want to control others and get research money for their “cronies.” “Motivated reasoning” in this case takes the forms of avoiding the scientific evidence and consensus, changing the subject, and smearing or even suing scientists with whom they disagree.
Back to the initial development of abstract reasoning in the young adolescent, I want to cover two issues: the “character” of Character Formation, and routes to get there in different domains.
Loevinger (1976) describes the shift from Conformist to Self-Aware stages as follows (pg. 19):
Two salient features from the Conformist Stage are an increase in self-awareness and the appreciation of multiple possibilities in situations. A factor in moving out of the Conformist Stage is awareness of oneself as not always living up to the idealized portrait set by social norms. The growing awareness of inner life is, however, still couched in banalities, often in terms of “vague” feelings. Typically the feelings have some relation of the individual to other persons or to the group, such as lonely, embarrassed, homesick, self-confident, and most often, self-conscious. Consciousness of self is a pre-requisite to the replacement of group standards by self-evaluated ones, characteristic of the next stage.
In relation to this, Loevinger, Kegan and Perry all point out that most youth start their analytic careers by questioning the standards in certain domains but not in others (what Loevinger call Conventional-Conscientious). Only later is their skepticism generalized to question the group standards they identify with.
This is true of young people who enter adolescence with supportive relationships with family and/or friends. Indeed, many youth who do not enjoy these supports, such as foster youth, have a hard time getting past the Self-Protective Stage because they have a risk-prone temperament (difficult or slow-to-warm-up) and don’t make friends easily, especially when moving frequently from placement to placement.
But we can see from some youth who are orphaned or children-of-divorce, that this is not always the case, and some resilient youth can develop quite readily in spite of the multiple stressors they face. These youth tend to become healthy sceptics (not cynics) about all areas of life: themselves, adults and peers. So, for instance, a child of divorce who lives with one parent who serves them up a daily portion of “bad-mouthing” the absent parent, when older will ofter gain enough experience of the other parent to turn their allegiance against the “custodial” parent, using their moral lapses to condemn them more roundly than the previously absent parent. Detecting hypocricy can be a strong suit for young people in this situation.
A more general and stunning illustration of this phenomenon is the fictional story of the orphan Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847 ). At age 10 Jane is living with her aunt whose son, John Reed, bullies her. When Jane finally tries to defend herself against her cousin, her aunt calls her a liar and locks her in the room in which her father died. When Jane is finally brought to account before her aunt, who gives her a morality book about lying, she tells her:
“I am not deceitful: if I were, I should say I loved you; but I declare I do not love you; I dislike you the worst of anyone in the world except John Reed: and this book about the Liar, you may give it to your girl, Georgiana, for it is she who tells lies, and not I.” (Bantam, 2003, pg. 33)
Strong stuff for a 10 year-old, but for those who are familiar with the English literature of Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austin, Virginia Woolf and Georgette Heyer, this is the kind of realism that can be expected from authors who are able to detail the thoughts, feelings, experiences and interactions of well-developed characters. [For more on Jane Eyre’s character development and spiritual formation, see the paper on Literary Depictions of Developmental States linked here.] Carol Gilligan knows this literature well, and references it when she explores women’t development (e.g. A Different Voice). In a recent PBS interview (Makers Profile: Carol Gilligan link), Gilligan gives a good example of this perspective when she asked a woman what she thought of something, and the woman replied: “Do you want to know what I think, or do you want to know what I really think?” This interviewee understands that it is best to confide in people one finds trustworthy.
Thus far, we have explored the ethical and interpersonal aspects of Character Formation; now it is time for something completely different!
There are sometimes interesting mathematical correlates to social and emotional developments, and my professional experience has reinforced this notion. So now I am going to detail the way I helped an 11 year-old special education student, who was gifted at math, shift from concrete arithmetic computations to abstract algebraic computations by means of teaching him a version of “Casting Out Nines”:
This 11 year-old middle school special education student was referred to me because there was friction between him and his math teacher. Although the student was very successful at getting the right answers on math questions, he could not show his work. This lowered his scores on many tests and threatened his math education. Both teacher and student were frustrated by this circumstance.
I decided to try a novel approach with him that I had been developing with other students, using math metaphors for dealing with interpersonal issues. In this case I focussed directly on the times tables of 9’s, first testing his memory of this part of the times table. So I write on the board the table as follows for him to fill in the answers:
9 X 1 =
9 X 2 =
9 X 3 = etc. etc.
He was able to supply the correct answers pretty readily. So the next step was to put “plus” (+) signs between the ten’s and one’s places of the answers, with an “equal” (=) sign afterwards, so that he could do another calculation:
9 X 1 = 09 / 0 + 9 = 9
9 X 2 = 18 / 1 + 8 = 9
9 X 3 = 27 / 2 + 7 = 9
9 X 4 = 36 / 3 + 6 = 9
9 X 5 = 45 / 4 + 5 = 9
9 X 6 = 54 / 5 + 4 = 9
9 X 7 = 63 / 6 + 3 = 9
9 X 8 = 72 / 7 + 2 = 9
9 X 9 = 81 / 8 + 1 = 9
9 X 10 = 90 / 9 + 0 = 9
9 X 11 = 99 / 9 + 9 = 18 / 1 + 8 = 9
9 X 12 = 108 / 1 + 0 + 8 = 9
9 X 13 = 117 / 1 + 1 + 7 = 9 etc. etc.
So my question to the student is, “Why all the 9’s?” At which point his eyes are spinning, and he can only wait on the edge of his seat for an answer. Then I point out to him that as you go down the ten’s column, it goes up, “0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 etc.” And then as you go down the one’s column, it goes down, “9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, etc. etc.” So this is the clue.
He is further on the edge of his seat, and it is now my professional duty to prevent him from falling off. So I conclude, “It is because 9 = (10 – 1). Each time you go up ten, you also go down one.”
He sits there contemplating this revelation, and then I show him an example:
9 X 6 = 6 (10 – 1) = 60 – 6 = 54.
With a few more examples, he gets the concept, and has now transferred his times tables for 9’s to an algebraic formula. (It was agreed that this student needed no further counseling after this intervention.)
Later in my career, one of my supervisees, after being trained in this intervention, pointed out how the operation can be done on one’s ten fingers (from 9 to 90 by progressively bending one uncounted finger down, tens to one side and ones to the other). I have since found that it is linked to the more general concept of “casting out nines.” (link)
Tried to make it real compared to what? — “Compared to What” by Les McCann and Eddie Harris, Swiss Movement 1969.
Life-span developmental literature generally seems to consider the above description of Character Formation to be the normative stage where many if not most youth and adults settle in. Many people establish their ideas of life, fairness, and relationships on that basis, choosing certain beliefs, attitudes and opinions with like-minded individuals, while managing the complexities and ironies of life as best they can, adding to the chosen social conventions a dollop of common sense and personal philosophy. Mostly they follow the conventional expectations of society, performing as best to standard as they can, but ultimately disappointed in their short-comings. Research suggests that their entrenched approach to life will serve them poorly in old age, resulting in low sense of self-worth and life-satisfaction as the losses of spouse, friends, work and health take their toll in an embittered attitude (F. Clark Power, Ann Power and John Snarey, Integrity and Aging: Ethical, Religious, and Psychosocial Perspectives, in Lapsey and Power, Self, Ego, and Identity, Springer-Verlag, 1988).
But for those of us who trudge on, for the sake of learning, discovery, and enhanced life possibilities, our skepticism generalizes and becomes able to better compare the strengths and weaknesses of different theories. One important generalization is that theories have authors whose lives and works can be evaluated. This was the great realization of the first “modern” historian, the Venerable Bede (673-735) who understood that history had generally been written by the victors of war and was slanted accordingly to make the victors appear deserving of their spoils. Bede was very careful to use multiple sources, relying not just on an extensive library, but he also had access to original documents and accounts from colleagues. In other words, a reliable historian should “consider one’s sources” and not just take legends at face value.
In the technical domains, youth in the mid-to-upper teens are able to do more advanced mathematics such as algebra and geometry. Understanding graphs with X and Y coordinates (such as bar graphs), including the full-fledged Cartesian Coordinates (1637), comes within these developments. Keplerian astronomy (1609) fits in this mold, where elliptical orbits are mapped on graph paper according to a mathematical formula. Although elliptical models of orbits are more accurate than circular ones, ellipses still require “retrograde” adjustments to be even more accurate. This is because Kepler’s model assumes that all the gravity in the system resides in the object at the “center” of the ellipse (e.g. the sun relative to the orbiting earth). A more realistic, Newtonian model (1687) takes into account the relative mass of the Earth which exercises a gravitational pull back on the Sun as it is pulled more strongly in its orbit around the Sun.
Included in the developments of this stage are all the advanced and coordinated deductive systems such as most science and mathematics (including Newtonian calculus), as well as ethical and legal systems (e.g. Kantian ethics).
I inherited a mind for math from my father who was the aerospace engineer and lead scientist developing the hydraulic systems for retractable landing gear in jets during WWII. My interests in history and psychology led me away from pursuing a career in math and science — consequently, the most advanced math I mastered was trigonometry (which makes the focus on the double-helix possibly a remnant of my adolescent mathematical mind) and the most advanced science was three quarters of astronomy at UC Santa Cruz (which has internationally-renowned research facilities and graduate studies in astronomy).
Scientific philosophers have postulated that deductive procedures are infallible as long as all relevant inputs are included in the deductive process. I am willing to accept this proposition at face value: what I will not take at face value is that any single deductive act has indeed included all relevant inputs. A good name for this phenomenon might be the “Deductive Uncertainty Principle” which probably has similarities to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle of Physics. For me, the “take away” truth from this is that deduction is best used as a tool for decision-making, and should not be held as the rule for all decision-making. As Paul Ricoeur notes (The Rule of Metaphor, Univ. of Toronto, 1975, pg. 242), deduction does not lead to discovery — it only narrows the choices already being considered. In this sense, deduction should serve discovery and not constrain it.
On the more personal domains, young adults face the life-choice decisions that emerge with the crowning question of skepticism: Who am I? (see Perry 1981, pg. 79) Their experience cannot but compel them to eventually conclude that their identity is partly determined by choice and partly by temperament and experience. But even the freedom to choose involves another side — whenever we choose to take on one thing, we also de-facto choose to let go of the other choice, constraining our experience by our choice. This makes Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer (1951) relevant: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Although the Serenity Prayer was adopted by Alcoholic’s Anonymous, there is a non-AA version of this circulating: “Lord, give me coffee to change the things I can, and wine to accept the things I cannot.”
Unfortunately, coffee and wine cannot give us the wisdom to know when to drink coffee and when to drink wine. Wisdom will have to wait until we get beyond the deductive dilemmas of character development.
A challenge that I faced in the later years of high school and in college was male peer pressure (not friends or females) that in one form or another tried to label me as “naive” if I was not vocally cynical (I did not find this peer pressure in graduate school, but I was in a social work school then and not in business school where selfish motives are assumed to be the norm). This “either/or” attitude of “you are cynical or naive” can be translated into “both/and” endeavors of how to be sceptical without being cynical and how to be hopeful without being naive.
Before I graduated from high school, I wrote a paper for a psychology class which summarized Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness in 8 pages (the teacher who assigned me that project also guided me in the direction of Jacques Maritain’s existentialism, as did other college professors). Out of that high school experience, I sought to discover and generate an “assumptionless” philosophy using phenomenology (e.g. Edmund Husserl and Alfred Schutz) to identify and “strip away” assumptions. What I finally found was that the assumption that one can live life based on an “assumptionless” philosophy to be a pretty poor assumption. My endeavor then shifted from identifying assumptions for the purpose of getting rid of them to identifying assumptions for the purpose of choosing the better assumptions to employ in order to enhance life.
There are many ways to look at the dynamics of Character Relation, which include the struggles to balance self and others, discipline and indulgence, realism and altruism, justice and caring. If we only care for ourselves, we do an injustice to others; if we only care for others, we do an injustice to ourselves. The pushes and pulls entangle this system in a web of unresolved relations, potentially compiling complexities that serve to dampen decisive actions and commitments. One version of this is the Kantian “categorical imperative” that dictates that principle should be the only guide to action, damn the consequences. The admirable fact that most women won’t go along with this stricture seems to be the main reason Kant considered women incapable of complex abstract reasoning. Tell that to Hannah Arendt, Barbara Tuchman, or Margaret Visser (or Miss Manners, for that matter!). Ultimately it is the balance and complementary relationship between truth and love that counts toward developing a spiritual perspective. In this sense, there is a formula that:
Truth without Love = rigid discipline = overly punitive
Love without Truth = unruly indulgence = overly permissive
When Perry writes about the shift from relativism to commitment, the commitments he is talking about are to people (e.g. marriage) or causes (e.g. professional missions and ethical guidelines, generally to do no harm, or social justice efforts), not abstract principles. If a principle does involve the importance of consequences for people, it is more than a principle: it is a value.
Principles are followed, values are balanced. Except when defending ourselves against attack, it is our adult responsibility to provide the proper levels of support and challenge to the people we deal with in difficult situations. As we do so, we need to assess the relevant levels of responsibility of the involved parties: immediately traumatized people need immediate support, infants need support and guidance, children and youth need to learn responsibilities, and adults need to be responsible while finding the necessary supports to maintain those responsibilities. There are various balances that need to be struck in order to help with difficult situations. These are some of the broad guidelines I used in supervising clinical social workers to provide beneficial services to families and schools, where various complementary and conflicting agendas prevail. To deal with multiple levels of complexity, one need to have a hearty tolerance of ambiguity in order to untangle the dysfunctions.
I think this is the most appropriate point to mention Jane Loevinger’s most significant contribution to social science: her finding that the Authoritarian Personality (identified because of the Nazi threat to world peace presented by Hitler) was based in an intolerance of ambiguity rather than some psycho-sexual anomaly. Ideology does not accept ambiguity for any period of time — the task of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity (you are either with us or against us) at the first opportunity. We cannot reasonably tolerate ambiguity without developing critical thinking, considering sources and motives and self-deceptions. One of the primary training, supervision and co-treatment goals I evaluated with the clinicians I supervised was how well they tolerated ambiguity while maintaining friendly helpful relationships with all involved parties to any social problem.
An interesting description of what it is like to be trapped in the “either/or” world is given by Gil Noam (1988) who uses Franz Kafka’s Letter to my Father (1953) to show how complex abstract arguments can hamstring one’s sense of efficacy in life, resulting in the kind of despair reflected in Kafka’s novels The Trial and The Castle (neither of these novels have endings, and neither the first-person narrator nor the reader know what is really going on in either of the legal or bureaucratic nightmares) and his most famous story, The Metamorphosis (in which the first-person narrator is turned into a cockroach without any rhyme or reason). Kafka’s worlds are worlds without choices or intimate relationships, prompting Noam to call Kafka “A Prisoner of Adulthood” (from “The Self, Adult Development,and the Theory of Biography and Transformation” in Lapsey and Power, eds. Self, Ego, and Identity, Springer-Verlag, 1988, pg. 18).
So commitment does involve positively choosing one’s assumptions, which means at least a temporary “suspension of disbelief”. In his song Word on a Wing, David Bowie writes (1976):
Just because I believe don’t mean I don’t think as well,
Don’t have to question everything in heaven or hell.
This is a strong statement from the androgynous rocker who made his career on questioning everything in heaven or hell with hit songs and characters such as Major Tom, Bewley Brother, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke (not to mention the Elephant Man and the Man Who Fell to Earth). But by the time Bowie wrote Word on a Wing, he realized he had to leave the frenetic cocaine scene in Hollywood and slow down in Berlin under the calming guidance of Brian Eno. Otherwise his relationships and career would have crashed and burned. (If you have questions about the meaning of these lyrics, listen to Bowie’s introduction to the song on VHS Storytellers, 2009 MTV; full transcript link here.)
Along these lines, Jon Anderson, founder and lead singer of Yes, sings in the vein of Pascal’s wager: “Better to be sacred than sorry.” (from the song “Youth”, on his solo record The More You Know, Eagle Records, 1998).
And now on to spiritual discovery!
Whereas a major task of character development is pursuing knowledge rather than certitude, with spiritual development we pursue wisdom as more valuable than accumulated knowledge. As David Bentley Hart writes: “Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience; it is the ability to see again what most of us have forgotten how to see, but now fortified by the ability to translate some of that vision into words.” (Experiencing God, Yale, 2013, pg. 10)
This development into the spiritual realm is named by James Fowler “conjunctive faith” (1981, pg. 184). Fowler begins this section bemoaning what appears to him to be a vagueness about this development, leading him to conclude that it had not been adequately described by him or others. At the same time, Kohlberg had written his articles with F. Clark Power (1981, referencing Fowler) about a “hypothetical stage 7” that Kohlberg later abandoned as “soft”, “metaphorical” (1984) and not adequately researched (1987).
I beg to differ with these views, even from the standpoint of 1981. What I am going to do is to string along a number of descriptions of the spiritual realization identified by this juncture of inspiration in the double-helix model, ranging from William James and Jacques Maritain, to Brother Steindl-Rast and F. Clark Power. We will also consider how this realization relates to the Overview Effect experienced by astronauts, as well as non-western traditions.
William James published The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902. In it (Image Books, 1978, pg. 468),he looks at what is common to a variety of religious experiences. In the broadest sense, he finds these commonalities to include the following beliefs and feelings:
- The the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe fro which it draws its chief significance.
- That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end.
- That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof — be that spirit “God” or “law” — is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.
- A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form of either lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism.
- An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.
See also The Gospel of Relaxation in Pragmatism and Other Essays (Washington Square Press, 1975) where it is also clear that this kind of experience does not occur in the hectic world of commerce. This is important to understand for the quality of life in intimate relationships where creative problem-solving is essential. In the traditional “problem-solving” process in the social work profession, the first step is to make sure one is in a “frame of mind” to define the problem in a way that makes it solvable. One cannot be very upset and do this at the same time.
From William James, we get the elements of the spiritual experience to be calm, joyful, creative and holistic. Let’s first compare this to the description from F. Clark Power (Kohlberg, 1981, pg. 345):
In religious writing, the movement to “Stage 7” starts with despair. Such despair involves the beginning of a cosmic perspective. It is when we begin to see our lives as finite from some more infinite perspective that we feel despair. The meaninglessness of our lives in the face of death is the meaninglessness of the finite from the perspective of the infinite. The resolution of the despair which we have called Stage 7 represents a continuation of the process of taking a cosmic perspective whose first phase is despair. It represents, in a sense, a shift from figure to ground. In despair we are the self seen from the distance of the cosmic or infinite. In the state of mind we have metaphorically termed Stage 7 we identify ourselves with the cosmic or infinite perspective itself; we value life from its standpoint. At such a time, what is ordinarily background becomes foreground and the self is no longer figure to ground. We sense the unity of the whole and ourselves as part of that unity. This experience of unity, often mistakenly treated as a mere rush of mystic feelings, is at “Stage 7” associated with a structure of ontological and moral conviction.
This description includes the movement from despair to belonging (“we sense the unity of the whole and ourselves as part of that unity”), the gestalt shift from figure to ground, and the “commitment” of “ontological and moral conviction”. The “calm joy” of William James’ description is echoed here.
Next we can look more closely at the emotional and intellectual elements involved. Here is Brother David Steindl-Rast’s description of gratefulness (Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness, Paulist Press, 1984, pgs. 9-10; see also his website here):
A rainbow always comes as a surprise. Not that it cannot be predicted. Surprising sometimes means unpredictable, but it often means more. Surprising in the full sense means somehow gratuitous. Even the predictable turns into surprise the moment we stop taking it for granted. If we knew enough, everything would be predictable, and yet everything would remain gratuitous. If we knew how the whole universe worked, we would still be surprised that there is a universe at all. Predictable it may be, yet all the more surprising.
Our eyes are opened to that surprise character of the world around us the moment we wake up from taking things for granted. Rainbows have a way of waking us up. A complete stranger might pull your sleeve and point to the sky: “Did you notice the rainbow?” Bored and boring adults become excited children. We might not even understand what it was that startled us when we saw that rainbow. What was it? Gratuitousness burst in on us, the gratuitousness of all there is. When this happens, our spontaneous response is surprise. Plato recognized that surprise as the beginning of philosophy. It is also the beginning of gratefulness.
This description adds the “child-like” quality of wonder to the kind of spiritually awakening experience we are considering. Erik Erikson often wrote about the value of “child-likeness” as distinct from “childishness”, thus identifying an antidote to the Prison of Adulthood described in the previous section. As Wittgenstein wrote: “What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”
Brother David is part of an intellectual milieu that includes authors whose work led up to Vatican II and the Encyclicals of Pope Francis. One of those authors was Jacques Maritain. Perhaps Maritain’s most important contribution to philosophy was his description of the experience he calls “the intuition of being.” Various authors have noted the key role that the idea of the “intuition of being” plays in the philosophy of Jacques Maritain, and how it revolutionized Thomistic metaphysics by translating ontological concepts into experiential descriptions (link).
Here are two passages describing the experience:
Precisely speaking, this prime intuition is both the intuition of my existence and of the existence of things; but first and foremost the existence of things. When it takes place, I suddenly realize that a given entity, man, mountain, or tree, exists and exercises that sovereign activity to be in its own way, in an independence from me which is total, totally self-assertive and implacable. And at the same time I realize that I also exist, but as thrown back into my loneliness and frailty by such affirmation of existence in which I have positively no part, to which I am exactly as naught. So the prime intuition of Being is an intuition of the solidity and inexorability of existence; and secondly, of the death and nothingness to which my existence is liable. And thirdly, in the same flash of intuition, which is but my becoming aware of the intelligible value of Being, I realize that the solid and inexorable existence perceived in anything whatsoever implies — I don’t know yet in what way, perhaps in things themselves, perhaps separately from them — some absolute, irrefragable existence, completely free from nothingness and death. These three intellectual leaps — to actual existence as asserting itself independently from me; from this sheer objective existence to my own threatened existence; and from my existence spoiled with nothingness to absolute existence — are achieved within that same and unique intuition, which philosophers would explain as the intuitive perception of the essentially analogical content of the first concept, the concept of Being.
Jacques Maritain, The Range of Reason (Scribner, 1952), pg. 88.
Thus, the intellect embraces at one and the same time, and in its own proper sphere, with the possible real (the object “all being…” set before the mind and grasped by it and signified in the statement of the principle of identity “every being is what it is”), and the actual real (the reality of the thinking subject, though as not yet attained in final act). Intelligible being and the self are given to the intellect together and from the very start. But being is given in the foreground and upstage; the self is in the background, behind the scenes, as it were. It is only with the mind’s second movement, in the reflex intuition that serves as the starting point for critique, that it moves to the front of the stage.
Jacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge (Scribners, 1959), pg. 78.
In these two passages from 1952 and 1959, we find Maritain identifying many of the elements noted by the authors above. Included are the relationship between absolute reality and our finite selves, our sense of being overshadowed and then identified with absolute reality, and the gestalt shifts from figure to ground and ground to figure.
Next, let us consider the holistic experience described by astronauts and termed “the Overview Effect” (from Wikipedia: Overview Effect):
Two years later, Apollo 14 astronaut, Edgar Mitchell (joint record holder with Alan Shepard for longest ever Moon walk of 9 hours and 17 minutes) reported experiencing an “Overview Effect”. He described the sensation gave him a profound sense of connectedness, with a feeling of bliss and timelessness. He was overwhelmed by the experience. He became profoundly aware that each and every atom in the Universe was connected in some way, and on seeing Earth from space he had an understanding that all the humans, animals and systems were a part of the same thing, a synergistic whole. It was an interconnected euphoria.
Schweikart and Mitchell’s experiences are not isolated anomalies, many other astronauts since the 1970’s have reported this Overview Effect. Andy Newberg, a neuroscientist/physician with experience in space medicine, hopes to find out whether this is an actual psychological phenomenon. Perhaps there is a medical reason for an actual change in an astronaut’s brain function when in space. What’s more, he’s noticed a psychological change in the men and women that have come back from space:
“You can often tell when you are with someone who has flown in space, its palpable.” – Andy Newberg
Planetary Collective produced a 19 minute video about the Overview Effect in 2012, interviewing 5 astronauts and including stunning footage: Overview video link.
These testimonies are very consistent, including both intellectual and emotional components of the experience of belonging to the universe in spite of the mortality of our material bodies and frailty of our earthly world.
Similarly, Carl Sagan wrote In his book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Ballantine, 1997):
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”
And for those of you who are fans of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Univ. of Chicago, 1970), yes, I do consider Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to be a spiritual perspective on matter and energy (and having the wisdom to know the difference as well as interchangeability of the two).
If the discussion thus far appears overly “western”, there are “eastern” equivalents as well. In Chinese and Japanese spirituality, “kokoro” is the character for the essential being which is the core, heart, or basic nature of reality. To perceive kokoro, one must manage “ki”. Ki is the character for breath, and is associated with our posture and movement. Thomas Rohlen (“The Promise of Adulthood in Japan” in Adulthood, ed. Erik Erikson, Norton, 1978) points out the emphasis on posture in this tradition:
Posture is a primary initial concern here. Whether seated or standing, a relaxed but alert posture that opens the central area and provides stability is often taught as the first step in managing ki. The early practice of Zazen is a matter of learning to sit correctly, and posture is crucial to learning virtually all of the traditional arts. There is no more powerful symbol of the perfected inner life than that of outward composure. (pg. 136)
Managing ki is a prerequisite for mastering the traditional arts, and also a prerequisite for perceiving kokoro. Rohlen says of kokoro that “its characteristics are ones that begin to appear as one holds ki properly” (pg. 135). Again, a method of relaxation has allowed for a growing ability to perceive, recognize, and relate to another order of being: the source of reality becomes manifest in reality.
The elements we have so far identified dove-tail with the findings of Paul Marshall who has studied to elements of mystical experience, which he identifies as: cessation of time or experience of eternity, intuitive knowing, experiences of unity beyond the self, including the luminosity of reality involving intimate experiences of light, love and bliss (pg. 70, “Mystical Experiences as Windows on Reality” in Beyond Physicalism, ed. by Edward Kelly, Rowan & Littlefield, 2015).
But how do we know that this is an ultimately a viable and sustainable perspective given the grinding pressures of daily living? Stay tuned.
P.S.: For a gratitude survey, click here. For Brother David Steindl-Rast’s presentation of a grateful day, click here. And for the effects of spirituality on intimacy, see the Spiritual Development section of the Macro-Analysis at the beginning of this section, including the examples of Jeff Bridges’ marriage decision and Bono’s relationship to his newborn daughter linked here.
Once one has had the kind of experience as described by “the intuition of being” or” the overview effect”, there is a natural motivation to sustain or revive this “savoring” of the universe. But this cannot be done with the same “theory preservation” kinds of “motivated reasoning” that we reviewed in the section on Character Formation. Simply put, the spirit does not lend itself to ideological treatment. More flexible and creative problem-solving is required. David Bentley Hart writes the following about dealing with the aftermath of the “intuition of being”:
One cannot dwell indefinitely in that moment, of course, any more than one can remain a child forever. For one thing, there is an almost paralyzing fullness to the experience, a kind of surfeit of immediacy that is at the same time an absolute remoteness from practical things. For another, there is nothing to hold on to in the experience, because the source of one’s amazement is not some particular object among the objects of the world but simply the pure eventuality of the world as such. The question of why anything at all exists is one that already exceeds its occasion, already goes beyond the reality of all particular things, and attempts to lay hold, however uncertainly, of the transcendent conditions of that reality. Sooner or later, therefore, one simply must let the apprehension slip away, just so one can get on with the business of life. (The Experience of God, Yale, 2013, pg. 89)
So how do we go about our daily business and while maintaining and developing the benefits of the perspective of gratitude? First and foremost is a healthy sense of humor, particularly about oneself and one’s often tiresome spiritual pretensions. Here is a good place to apologize for my occasional preachiness — and how pretentious is this!? Enough said.
Aside from a ready sense of humor, systems thinking, also called dialectical or dialogical thinking, can help bring more imaginative, responsive, and resourceful approaches to difficult situations. This is not just new age thinking, but ancient wisdom as well. A sense of the unity and interdependence of the universe makes it easier to trust that one will find one’s friends when in a lurch, and a sense of humor sure helps to make and keep good friends.
Creative problem-solving has some enhancements over traditional problem-solving. In the traditional model, first one gets into a frame of mind to solve the problem, then one defines the problem in a way that it is solvable (e.g. must be specific and subject to change), then brainstorming ideas, evaluating those ideas separately after brainstorming to look at possible consequences, both positive and negative, for self and others. Next is fashioning a proposed solution, implementing that solution, and evaluating its success.
Creative problem-solving puts these methods into a broader life context where one is able to have a confident spontaneity based on a well-practiced sense of personal boundaries (e.g. not mixing business relationships with personal relationships). When one is more comfortable within one’s own skin, it increases one’s situational awareness and ability to see potential danger from afar. This “depth” perception for “red flags” gives one the latitude to rally personal and/or social resources to prevent or prepare for unwanted eventualities. What success I have had as a professional social worker has largely been due to my skills at “dodging bullets”, allowing me to get more involved with problem-solvers to successfully address problems rather than getting bogged down with the problem creators and consequently mired in tragedy. Over the years, this has helped me to help various institutions (schools, families, foster and group homes) to reduce aggressive behaviors and establish more cooperative problem-solving practices.
This stage of Spirit Comparison can be fascinating, bewildering, multi-faceted, and gratifying. At the same time, the detachment that comes with the spiritual perspective helps keep all of this stimulus seeking into a manageable, long-term focus. A lot of what I gained intellectually at this time in my life helped me to identify my preferred identity, which is to be a friendly helpful adult, with enough personality, skills and judgement to contribute to society and stay out of trouble. So far, so good.
This detachment is the same as what these days gets called “mindfulness.” Mindfulness as a spiritual practice has been fostered by masters such as Austrian Catholic Brother David Steindl-Rast and Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh (for an account of how Thich Nhat Hanh influenced the UN climate change agreement, see link). Mindfulness involves weaving contemplation into our daily activities, appreciating each thing/person/task for its own nature and qualities, doing one thing at a time to avoid distractions. Doing so helps to perceive the wholeness of persons and situations so that one can see past people’s conflicted positions and draw out the motivating interests to find common ground (see Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury, 1991).
Another spiritual practice that is relevant for many during this stage is the experience of kneeling. Guitarist Eric Clapton found this spontaneously and without any spiritual intent when he was in rehabilitation for alcohol and heroin withdrawal:
“I was in complete despair. In the privacy of my room, I begged for help. I had no notion who I thought I was talking to, I just knew I had come to the end of my tether…and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered. Within a few days I realized that…I had found a place to turn to, a place I’d always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in. From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life, and, most of all, for my sobriety. I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray, and with my ego, this is the most I can do. If you are asking why I do all this, I will tell you…because it works, as simple as that.” (Christianity Today, “Eric Clapton: In the Presence of the Lord” by John Powell, April 9, 2008)
One of the struggles people often have in the stage is the lure of positive thinking. Thinking positive certainly helps, but does not guarantee good results. Without some healthy skepticism, positive thinking can become wishful thinking. My motto is: hope for the best, prepare for the worst (realizing that things could end up even better or worse than we can imagine, so don’t obsess on trying to predict). This is my formula for being easily amused and seldom disappointed.
This discussion taps into one of the controversies over the nature of “post-formal” developments. Klaus Riegel (Toward a Dialectical Theory of Development, Human Development, 18: 50-64, 1975) and Michael Basseches (Dialectical Thinking and Adult Development, Ablex, 1984) represent opposing views on whether dialectical thinking operates differently than formal operations (Riegel) or consistently with formal operations (Basseches). This is a secular version of the Jewish/Christian debate over the role of “law” in the “kingdom of love”: Riegel views Basseches’ position to be a kind of modern Pharisaism, whereas Basseches virtually calls Riegel an Anarchist in the following passage where he calls for the need for formal stability in the face of necessary fluidity: “However, if this fluidity were maintained at the expense of sacrificing those abilities to grasp and create stability which I view as essential to the organization of modern civilization, I would not equate such thinking with cognitive maturity.” (pg. 219)
Perhaps Basseches here is warning against the ideological axiom that demands radical counter-culturalism: “Subvert the Dominant Paradigm!” Or a naive “love wins over all” attitude that would neglect important social institutions. But that is not how I read this issue. Riegel is pointing out what many other developmentalists and spiritually minded people (such as James Fowler) understand: deductive reasoning plays a relatively small role in our over-all functioning, which includes throughout our lifetimes habits, imagination, inductive reasoning, pattern recognition, and abductive reasoning (among others, I am sure).
On the other hand, the relentless push to formalize all functioning (e.g. Kohlberg) and consider it “immature” until it meets all formal requirements impinges on spontaneity and the logic of discovery. In other words, there is no significant appreciation of the joy and gratitude involved in dialogical thinking when it is subjected to this treatment (compare the above criteria for Spirit Formation, including gratefulness, to Basseches’ “Dialectical Schemata Framework”, which has many complex cognitive correlates, but no affective correlates, only a mere mention of the “value of relatedness”: link). To his credit, Basseches does acknowledge that not all dialectical thinking involves formal operations. But his emphasis on stability leads him to consider a study subject (Subject #22, a 41 year-old college professor, pp. 199-204) who has obviously lost or never had much interest or pleasure in teaching, to be considered to have achieved an “incomplete” level of dialectical thinking simply because he has thought a bit about being a teacher (meta-cognition). Formal operations is all about meta-cognition: it does not matter how many times you think about thinking, if you still take everything for granted, you are still a “stick-in-the-mud.” Read the interview: the subject obviously has no interest in what the interviewer wants to talk about. And the subject shows many of the symptoms of what was described under Character Relation as the Prison of Adulthood. (For more on the debate between Basseches and Riegel, click here.)
The main point I would agree with Basseches on is that dialogical thinking requires prior “soul-searching.” While soul-searching (questioning one’s own motives and judgements) is related to deductive evaluations, it also includes the affective caring values involved in character development. By-passing soul-searching to assume a spiritual persona is a form of narcissism based in cultural development and the goal to impress an audience, not character development and true spiritual insight.
For those of you itching to get back to more cosmic considerations such as the overview effect and gratefulness, we’re now going to go on a little excursion with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Speculation is that James Lovelock developed his Gaia theory (that the earth acts as an organism) from his contacts with NASA and those who experienced the Overview Effect. Another source for the Gaia theory is the writings of French Jesuit priest, scientist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Teilhard de Chardin was silenced by the Church for his researches into evolution, but he was not ex-communicated. His writings were not banned, but they were not allowed on Catholic college campuses. The main charge was that there was vagueness and ambiguity in his writing, and that he didn’t repeat the church doctrine on original sin (for some reason, any speculative work has to repeat all the main positions on moral doctrine to qualify for the nihil obstat –granting that the work poses no doctrinal obstacle). Catholic supporters of Teilhard’s works after his death included Cardinal Henri de Lubac and US Senator Patrick Leahy. Most recently Pope Francis refers to Teilhard’s philosophy favorably in his groundbreaking encyclical on global warming, Laudato si.
Teilhard’s speculations into cosmological evolution, tracing earth’s transformation from geosphere to biosphere to noosphere, generated important insights and possibilities, but was not initially clear on the relationship between the material and the spiritual. This is a common issue for spiritual writers, who will either over-materialize the spiritual (e.g. gnosticism, where good and evil are personified as opposing material forces) or over-spiritualize the material (e.g. pantheism, where all of nature is divine). Either way, the significance of matter and humanity loom large in the face of God, making God’s “will” dependent on human moral accomplishments. Gnostic spiritualists compose collections of opposing archetypes, like the poetic sciences of C.G. Jung, Claude Levi-Strauss and Mircea Eliade. Or it may take the form of a modern Christian metaphysics like the humanism of Nicolas Berdyaev (Orthodox), the psychologism of Willam James (Protestant), or the evolutionism of Teilhard de Chardin (Catholic).
The issue here is the difference between the spiritual and the material, the creator and creation, the source and its manifestation. For Berdyaev, “the idea of God as sufficient unto Himself and as a potentate who wields power, still includes relics of an idolatry which is not yet overcome” (Will Herberg, Four Existentialist Theologians, Doubleday Anchor, 1958, pg. 107). He concludes form this that “human freedom creates God”, and:
“The apocalypse of the religion of the Spirit depicts the final destinies of mankind as a divine-human creative act, as a work achieved by the collaboration of God and man. The positive end, the end which decides things, must depend upon man as well, not only upon God.” (pp. 113-4)
William James also mitigates the absoluteness of God through a psychological interpretation of divinity:
“Meanwhile the practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and his ideals. All that the facts require is that the power should be both other and larger than our conscious selves. Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step. (Note: this sounds an awful lot like Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development) It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably even be only a larger and more godlike self, of which the present self would then be but the mutilated expression, and the universe might conceivably be a collection of such selves, of different degrees of inclusiveness, with no absolute unity realized in it at all. Thus would a sort of polytheism return upon us — a polytheism which I do not on this occasion defend, for my only aim at present into keep the testimony of religious experience clearly within its probe bounds.” (Varieties of Religious Experience, pp. 504-5)
For Teilhard, the universe as a whole and its evolution are metaphysical principles guided by the Omega Point (center and end of creation). In other words, the universe’s material evolution is immortal and infallible. In this manner he holds a position similar to Berdyaev: God depends on the fate of the world. Teilhard is different from James in that for him the universe is necessarily a unity, whereas for James, reality is probably a plurality (a multi-verse). In the next section, we shall see that Teilhard partially moves away from this position.
I came across this kind of pantheism in the development of my own metaphysical thinking. When I first explicated the metaphysical principle of identity, the formulation I first arrived at was that “the source is fulfilled in its manifestation.” As with Berdyaev, James and Teilhard, this makes the creator dependent on the creation for realization, the result being a form of pantheism. This vague pantheism hindered the development of my thinking until I reformulated it later (I took a session off from college before completing my thesis over this, working at a group home, only to return to UCSC to find that my thesis sponsor, Bhuwan Joshi, had died).
In spite of the metaphysical thicket involved in this stage, many strengths come out from this searching, including speculation on the relationship between science and religion. We can learn a lot from Berdyaev’s distinction between spiritual freedom and spiritual slavery, from James’ distinction between the higher self and the lower-self, and from Teilhard’s distinction between the believer in divine unification (the monist) and the unbeliever (the pluralist).
This chart summarizes the spiritual stages covered above up to and including Spirit Relation. Donald Gelpi, SJ, used Carl Rogers’ schema of affective development and extrapolated it into other domains of development (Experiencing God: A Theology of Human Emergence, Paulist Press, 1978):
Coordinating the elements of the previous developments has many advantages. One more quickly arranges one’s priorities so that problems can be addressed in a step-by-step fashion while having the situational awareness to change course when needed. In this way, contemplation can be woven into action so that a sustainable pace of change can be established and maintained. These are all good things for long-term goals and long-term relationships. Sustainable pacing increases reliability and good working relationships.
Along with this long-term view comes some creative methods of de-escalating conflict. There were two key articles written by Donald T. Saposnek, PhD, that I have found most useful for my own practice and the training and supervision of students and interns. The first is his expansion of the work of Thomas and Chess on temperament and development, and the second is his use of Aikido as a metaphor for mediating conflicted systems. The attention to temperament is important for dealing with diverse people since one style of responding works better for one kind of temperament than another, and it is better to not rub against the grain unwittingly.
The use of the Aikido metaphor brings into play a perception of the direction of energy in order to work with rather than in opposition to that energy:
In contrast to the more linear Judo axiom, “Push when pulled, and pull when pushed,” the Aikido axiom is, “Turn when pushed, and enter when pulled.” It is this spherical motion that give Aikido its dynamic and effective variety. (Saposnek, “Aikido: A Sytems Model for Maneuvering in Mediation”, in Applying Family Therapy Perspectives to Mediation, Mediation Quarterly, no. 14/15, Jossey-Bass 1987, pp. 119-136)
This metaphorical perception of maneuvers allows one to “slow down” how one perceives the action and con-currently realize more opportunities to change the course of the energy and eventual outcome. Having this long-term, slow-motion view of developing conflicts can help pre-empt problems from starting in the first place. The perspectives and methods Saposnek identifies include: knowledge of attacks, process of defense, blending without clashing, extending, leading control, centering and using leverage, maintaining flexibility, preempting, presenting the unexpected, multiple challengers, and maneuvering rather than manipulating. The “spherical motion” of an aikido maneuver fits well with the double helix dynamic by anticipating that development involves twists and turns as one shifts the energy of a “combat opponent” to that of a “dance partner” (Saponsnek, personal communication).
A perspective on creativity that I have valued and passed on to the students and interns I have supervised comes from an interview musician and producer Daniel Lanois did with Brian Eno (musician, producer, artist, innovator) for Lanois’ film (and CD, 2008) Here Is What Is:
Creative problem solving requires a retreat from “hero worship”, and an understanding that one’s creativity stems from the creative milieu in which we operate. Eno is the ultimate musical collaborator because he understands this so well.
Let us now shift from creative problem-solving to the relationship between the divine and human. The previous stage established a compromise between the human and the divine: we move “up” towards God as God moves “down” towards us. The conclusion of this way of thinking is that God is a higher force who changes as we change (the role angels perform in Catholic theology). The result is that God is neither fully transcendent nor fully immanent. God has neither the full characteristics of personality nor universality.
God’s universality means that God is unchangeable. This is God’s transcendence (e.g. God’s truth). God’s personality means that even though God is unchangeable, still God cares for us. This is God’s immanence (e.g. God’s love). We can find these two aspects of God expressed in the writings of Teilhard de Chardin (Chrisitian) and Martin Buber (Jewish).
Teilhard says of God’s personality:
It must be that in the supreme personality we shall inevitably find ourselves personally immortalized. You may find this an astonishing prospect; but that is because the materialist illusion is still at work, in one of its many forms, and it is leading you astray, as it has led astray the majority of pantheists. We almost inevitably, as I recalled at the beginning of this section, picture the great whole to ourselves as a vast ocean in which the threads of individual being disappear. It is the sea in which a grain of salt is dissolved, the fire in which the straw goes up in smoke. Thus to be united with that great whole is to be lost. But what I want to be able to proclaim to all men is that this is a false picture, and contradicts everything that has emerged most clearly in the course of my awakening to faith. The whole is not, definitely not, the tensionless, and thus dissolving, immensity in which you look for its image. Like us, it is essentially a center, possessing the qualities of a center. Now, what is the only way in which a center can be formed and sustained as such? Is it by breaking down the lower centers which fall under its governance? Indeed it is not — it is by strengthening them in its own image. Its own particular way of dissolving is to carry unification still further. For the human monad, fusion with the universe means super personalization. (pp. 53-5)
Teilhard is able to criticize intellectual pantheism by reference to an inclusive (rather than exclusive) absolute. God is merciful. Buber also speaks of God’s personality when he writes of “the Divine Presence which resides in this world.” (Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Early Masters, Shocken, 1978, pg. 3). And Buber refers to God’s universality when he makes it clear that it is not this world that is holy: “We do not put up with earthly being, we struggle for its redemption, and struggling we appeal to the help of our Lord, Who is again and still a hiding one.” (quoted in Herberg, Four Existentialist Theologians, Doubleday Anchor, 1958, pg. 203)
As I mentioned in the last section, the principle of identity formulates the relationship between a source and its manifestation. The error in the previous stage was to think that the source is fulfilled in its manifestation. In this stage, it is realized that it is the manifestation that is fulfilled in its source. The source here is identified as the guiding partner independent of the choices made by a self-conscious manifestation. Thus, our relationship with God is dependent yet undetermined.
My intent here is not to defend these philosophical and metaphysical perspectives (which I cover in the Roots: Philosophical Perspectives section) but to describe them as they appear in the developmental and spiritual literature (including my own experience) and organize them in the patterns I perceive.
Before moving into the next forms of self-consciousness, there is one remaining major issue with Teilhard’s writings that bears mention. Teilhard’s view of cosmic evolution predicts the inevitable union of this manifestation (the noosphere created by human consciousness) with the divine Omega Point. This view was easier to maintain before WWII and the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Teilhard’s cosmology accounts for this evil as part of the inevitable birth-pains of a new creation. Gabriel Marcel sparred with Teilhard at a debate on “Science and Rationality” (1946), arguing how technological society de-humanizes us, and citing the Nazi medical experiments at the Dachau concentration camp as an example where technological “progress” masked pure evil. To the astonishment of the audience, Teilhard maintained his optimistic perspective, declaring that “Man, to become fully man, must have tried everything.” (Mary and Ellen Lukas, Teilhard: The Man, The Priest, The Scientist, Doubleday, 1977, pg. 238) Problem was, the Nazis not only tried everything once, they tried it over and over, and were intent on making evil reign over the earth. Teilhard had experienced the horrors of trench warfare during WWI, maintaining a remarkable detachment during that time, but was studying paleontology in China during WWII, while Marcel endured in occupied France, marking the end of any idealistic tendencies he had previously entertained. (see Teilhard, Writings in Time of War, Harper and Row, 1968, and Marcel’s autobiography Awakenings, Marquette, 2002)
This leads us to our spiritual limit where discernment becomes crucial to deal with the existential issues we inevitably face, whether through death, trauma, sickness, oppression or unjust incarceration. This is an area more familiar to me through study than through direct experience. To clarify the developments here, I will be focussing on the final years of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who left Germany with the rise of Hitler, but returned to join the resistance to Hitler and the plot to assassinate him.
Sphere of Discernment
This is the development that James Fowler named “universalizing faith” where the rare individual decides to sacrifice their own self in service of a larger cause. In the field of mysticism, it is what the Spanish mystics Saint John of the Cross (1542 to 1591) and Saint Teresa of Avila (1515 to 1582) called the “dark night of the soul”, which follows the consolation of spiritual prayer experienced by the proficient. Note that St. John was secretly imprisoned while he wrote the poems of the “dark night” (he escaped), and St. Teresa faced serious opposition to her reforms when she wrote her poems. Both of them escaped their “imprisonment” in order to realize their vision of union with God, however painful.
We can also approach this development from a somewhat different angle.
Physician, philosopher and novelist Walker Percy wrote that when scientists or artists embark on a creative flight (metaphorically speaking), it doesn’t so much matter how high or how far or how fast they go, but how they land. Many artists, and scientists, have crash landed in a blaze of alcoholism, insanity, suicide, etc. This shows a lack of spiritual preparation and unsustainable creativity. (Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1983)
This reminds me of the story of Romel Joseph, blind Haitian violinist, music teacher and head of a music school. When the 2000 earthquake hit Haiti, Joseph was buried in concrete for 18 hours, both legs injured and the fingers broken on his left hand. To keep himself sane until he could be rescued, he mentally played violin concertos, one an hour, for 16 hours. He says that Rogers and Hammerstein’s My Favorite Things made it so that he wouldn’t “feel soo bad.”
His pregnant wife was never found, and it took him 3 years of rehabilitation before he could play in public again. Stevie Wonder gave him one of his keyboards as part of his treatment, and a Florida hospital sponsored his treatment. His son and his daughter are both musicians and played with him at a benefit for the hospital (see it on this link). He focussed more on his spirituality and wrote a book on music before dying of a stroke at age 56.
Romeo Joseph didn’t crash land in a frenzy of creativity, but the world crashed down on him. His spiritual preparation saved his spirit from being crushed in this blow, and he came out of it a more inspiring human being.
Discernment is a multi-faceted process, with many twists, turns and insights. It lays in wait, keeps in shape, is alert and on the ready, and sleeps on things. It is necessary to be successful in very trying positions, such as Pope Francis and Vice-President Joe Biden (in spite of being known for his loose tongue). Examples?
Pope Francis (after Pope John XXIII): See all, turn a blind eye to much, and correct a little. (We all need encouragement)
Joe Biden: Do not question other’s motives, but their judgement. (We are all subject to self-deception)
I personally have been through a number of trying situations, but I have not had to deal with the degrees of responsibility shouldered by the individuals quoted above. None-the-less, both Joe Biden and Pope Francis chose to pursue their positions of responsibility. The story I am going to depict in this section was partly chosen, but more significantly imposed, on Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by the German Nazi regime during WWII.
Like Joe Biden, Pastor Bonhoeffer consistently questioned his own motives, and stated towards the end of his life that he was never really sure of his true motives. This is the mark of a life-time soul searcher. At the same time, he didn’t let his skepticism prevent him from bold, well planned action.
Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 to prominent German parents. His family and in-laws included well-connected legal, medical, religious and military professionals. So when Hitler rose to power, the whole family was in alert to various degrees. They knew they had to counter-act Hitler, but it was not clear how to go about it safely.
Bonhoeffer was a pacifist and planned to train with Mohandas Gandhi in India. He had two reasons for this: 1) to get closer to what he considered authentic Christian roots, 2) to learn ways to resist the Nazis. Bonhoeffer received a personal invitation from Gandhi to accompany him for a few months in 1935. Bonhoeffer abandoned this plan when pressures within his church hierarchy required his attention and he considered taking a post in the U.S. When he realized that the church’s efforts to resist Hitler would not be effective, he decided to return to Germany and join the resistance.
The first plot was to have Hitler arrested, tried, and certified as criminally insane. The group had the necessary professional authority to attempt to do this, but when France surrendered in 1940, Bonhoeffer realized that the plot was unrealistic. The only realistic plot was to assassinate Hitler. With no military training, Bonhoeffer assumed the role of the group’s moral compass, buttressing their resolve when it faltered. Bonhoeffer reasoned that the command to love your neighbor, under Hitler’s reign, meant that lying and killing become necessary evils. The group would have to lead double-lives, protecting each other and their families first.
The following account by Bonhoeffer’s biographer Eberhard Bethge (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Harper & Row, 1977, pg. ) depicts a dramatic moment when he realized and communicated the need for the double-life:
While we were enjoying the sun, there suddenly boomed out from the cafe’s loudspeaker the fanfare signal for a special announcement: the message was the France had surrendered. The people round about at the tables could hardly contain themselves; they jumped up and some even climbed on the chairs. With outstretched arm they sang “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles” and the Horst-Vessel song. We had stood up, too. Bonhoeffer raised his arm in the regulation Hitler salute, while I stood there dazed. “Raise your arm! Are you crazy?” he whispered to me, and later: “We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!” (pg. 585)
Now that Bonhoeffer made his decision, he had to put it into practice in a disciplined, thorough and detailed manner. The plot launched three attacks on Hitler — two before Bonhoeffer was arrested, and one after. Secrecy was essential, meaning that family and friends not directly in the plot were to be kept in the dark. Documentation was kept to a minimum, was guarded closely, and was destroyed when endangered with discovery.
From 1940 to 1943, Bonhoeffer travelled extensively throughout Europe to plan future international relations based on the assumption that a coup would be successful. Unfortunately, a note written on a slip of paper by his brother-in-law got into the wrong hands and both his brother-in-law and Bonhoeffer were arrested in 1943.
Bonhoeffer spent 18 months at Tegel Military Prison. During that time he made friends with many of the other prisoners as well as the guards. When he got gifts from outside of books, tobacco and food, he shared it with his fellow prisoners. He became so well regarded at the prison that the head of the prison asked him to head up a committee to improve prisoner treatment.
Bonhoeffer had four means of communicating with those outside the prison: 1) visits with family that were monitored and allowed no physical contact, 2) official letters sent through the prison censors, 3) smuggled messages coded in the borrowed books Bonhoeffer received, marking letters every few pages, and 4) smuggled letters carried by a sympathetic warden. Through these means, Bonhoeffer was able to maintain his family relations (including visits from his fiancee), as well as help with the final plot on Hitler’s life July 20, 1944.
In his Letters and Papers from Prison, smuggled out by the warden, Bonhoeffer described his thoughts and experiences. He agreed with the general guideline Victor Frankl (From Death Camp to Existentialism, republished as Man’s Search for Meaning) developed for surviving in a chronic moral dilemma: never do anything to save your own skin that might put others in danger. Maintaining a regular routine, exercising and keeping healthy, and an active sense of humor were important elements for him in staying sane. Humor helped in three ways: 1) boosting own’s own morale, 2) boosting group morale, and 3) discerning who is a true friend from false friends. In this case, humor is a language of solidarity that helps detect those who are not practiced in the language. (For more on this theme, see my chapter Humor and Forgiveness: A Multi-Culture Survey in the Project Forgiveness section of this website.)
Bonhoeffer was so successful in making friends in prison that the warden who smuggled his letters plotted to help him escape. The plan was almost implemented — a mechanic uniform was smuggled into the prison for a disguise and the warden was going to walk out with Bonhoeffer disguised at the end of his shift — but then they got word that Bonhoeffer’s brother had just been arrested. An escape would have increased the danger for everyone considerably, so the plot was abandoned, and Bonhoeffer’s fate was sealed. His cover was blown off, and we was sent to the concentration camps.
The final attempt on Hitler’s life was July 20, 1944. Bonhoeffer was executed April 9, 1945. There are two historical controversies concerning these two events.
Generally history had concluded that the attempt on Hitler’s life was a failure and that, although the German resistance was a noble effort, it had no effect on ending Hitler’s regime. But the fact is that the attempt did injure Hitler and tipped him into florid paranoia to the point where Himmler had to take over the reins of power. Hitler committed suicide 9 months after the assassination attempt, and less than one month after Bonhoeffer’s execution.
The other controversy concerns the account of his execution. At the end of Bethge’s extensive biography, he includes the following account (pp. 830-1):
On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners, among them Admiral Canaris, General Oster…and Reichsgerichstrat Sack were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was so deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.
Wikipedia notes some questions about this account. Apparently the doctor was on staff at the concentration camp and assisted with the executions. He was also charged with devising methods of torturing those being executed, prolonging their agony. The concern is that this doctor may have used this account as part of his efforts to exonerate himself, making it seem like the executions were less sadistic than they were. But the documentation is scarce. At the same time, there was so much chaos at this time that the executioners might have wanted to complete the task as quickly as possible.
Either way, the account is consistent with verifiable conduct by Bonhoeffer under chronic, dire conditions. Even if this doctor made the story up to save his own skin, by changing his allegiance from Hitler to Bonhoeffer, he made the right choice about who to admire.
So even if the account is not a true depiction of a prayer by Bonhoeffer, it may still be accurate as a prayer to Bonhoeffer and the spirit he represented.
After this point, all is speculation and beyond the veil of life. But notice: the pattern of the double helix has a “green button” at the end. Being “green”, whatever it leads to is pure affirmation, and that’s good news!
Look up here — I’m in heaven. David Bowie, from his death-bed, Lazarus, Black Star, 2016.
For Iggy Pop’s account of how David Bowie “resurrected” him (after Brian Eno did the same for Bowie), click here.
Here are the lyrics of a song by David Byrne (Talking Heads, Fear of Music, Sire, 1979, produced by Brian Eno). My favorite version of it he did live with Caetano Veloso at Carnegie Hall as their final song (Live at Carnegie Hall, Nonesuch, 2012). My interpretation of this song is that the reference to heaven as where “nothing ever happens” means that there is no negation, no bad vibes in this perfect experience. The ironic cast of the lyrics and song is that we can think that heaven is repetitive and boring, but this song is a lullaby to heaven as the best thing to be addicted to over and over, without cessation or need for rest. We can trust heaven to be ours together without competition or envy.
So what does it look like when the strand of negation in life ceases, and we are embraced by total affirmation? Maybe something like this: