What is the Lay of the Land?

What do you think about people? Not just your nosy neighbor, or that fellow who won’t use his turn signal on his BMW.

I am talking about people in general. What are the assumptions that you make about people as you begin your day? How do you think they are wired? What makes them tick? What motivates people? What gets in their way of achieving what they desire, what they dream of?

I have been thinking about the assumptions that I carry around with me. I paused and started reexamining some of my basic premises about human nature as I have been working through a book that my friend, Dr. Charlie Palmgren, wrote, entitled, Ascent of the Eagle. Over the next five weeks, I am going to be writing about the five values that he thinks drive creativity in human beings….that means “most of you”. There are a few zombies out there that may not qualify, but most of you are like me, a human being, born of two parents, carrying the genetic make-up that Henry Lewis Gates could trace, linking you to some ancestors.

On top of genetics, sometimes referred to as “nature”, there is also the notion of “nurture” or how you were raised in your family of origin and in the mire of culture from which you emerged, or escaped. Here, we are talking ’bout your experiences in childhood that form you in certain ways, marking you with particular and peculiar tendencies, some lovable, some maddening, some cute, some off-putting. If you are honest, and self-aware, you know what I am talking about.

We emerge from the womb, that safe space of embryonic fluid/water, into the light of the world, fully exposed, as Eric Burton sang, “naked to the world”. We immediately begin our interactive, interpretive process: what is this thing called life? What am I feeling, what are my hungers, what are my needs? The infant begins from the word “go” to form ways, patterns of behavior that have intentionality, based on my experience of the world. I form an evolving ego that becomes my vehicle to carry myself in this world that I find myself “in”, or as Jim Morrison wrote, the world in which I am thrown.

Erik Erikson, the psychoanalytically-based developmental psychologist, names the first task we face as figuring out if the world is trustworthy. Can I get my needs met? Are my needs provided for by significant caregiving figures? This leads to the formation of trust, or mistrust, the basic building block of our way of making sense of the world. The good news is that most of us get those needs met to some extent by “good enough” parenting, so that we have a basic starting point of trust in the world.

Other developmental tasks emerge as we grow, shaping the person that we are becoming, skills like being creative, imagining, making things, sensing our own identity as separate from our parents, and then learning how to share that self with another self in this magical dance of intimacy. These are the human skills we must learn by doing, even though the capacity seems to be pre-wired. We each experiment, trying on the different tasks along the developmental path, getting it right and getting it wrong, in a process of learning.

Underneath it all, there is a basic task that is unique, distinctive to the human creature. We “make sense” of our world. As meaning-makers, homo poeta, we are forging an image of what we think of this world. Although this early time is critical in the basic funding of our sense of self, we will have additional experience that may alter positively or negatively how we think about the world and how we think about ourselves in it. Like our skills, this meaning-making is learned along the way, disrupted by events, prompted by seemingly unconnected moments linking us to a larger narrative.

The initial matrix is our family of origin, sometimes two parents, sometimes one parent, sometimes an extended family, and sometimes an institution. All of us start somewhere, and it’s that place that will provide an initial impression and answer to the existential question: What in the world is going on here?

Later, we will make the fateful move to engage a larger world. For most of us, it is school in which we encounter new adults in parental-type roles making demands on our behavior, and other children who we must interact with in ways that are healthy. By “healthy”, I mean ways that do not threaten your being, or survival. One of the toughest things to learn is to share our attention, our time, and our toys. By the current behavior of some adults, we find that some remedial work is necessary in this basic human task of being and caring.

For me, kindergarten at the Lakewood Baptist Church was an easy introduction to the social reality of “others”. I actually remember my half-days of leaving the security of my mother’s presence to spend with a group of other children. It was great preparation for the rather stark introduction of elementary school.

My first encounter was with Max. What a perfect name for a person of my initial peer conflict. I rode a school bus from my home in Lakewood Heights to the red brick structure of Tull Waters Elementary. There were a few children that I knew from my neighborhood, like Brent and Kay, who climbed on the Blue Bird bus with me at the bus stop, which was at the beginning of the route. Mr. Brumbelow was the driver, funny that I remember that, and the bowl of half-eaten oatmeal stashed under his seat. It was pleasant at the start of our journey, but the environment of the school bus changed dramatically when Max got on board.

Max was my age but much bigger. He wore a crew-cut hairstyle that seemed right out of Nazi Germany, blond, and always in a plaid shirt. He scared the hell out of me, almost from the moment I first saw him, pushing kids around even as a first grader. The safe world of my home, and the haven of my grandparents’ house had not prepared me for war. I was an innocent onboard, to riff on Twain’s adventures.

It was in this primal mix that I was discerning the nature of the world. I had experienced affirming love from my mom and dad, as well as my grandmother and grandfather who added an additional layer of regard. Also, I had a group of older retired men in my grandfather’s Sunday School class, who seemed to make special time to love on me. My grandfather would pick me up and put me on a table in front of the old men’s class, to lead the singing. I later learned that this is referred to in psychoanalytic circles as premature identity formation, but that another psychodrama.

Back to the Nazi on my bus. This introduction of this new element of Max disrupted my sense of safety. He never messed with me individually but one fateful day did pick on Brent, which touched my Scots defiance, demanding that he leave my little buddy alone. Max got right up in my face that morning, bringing a feeling of fear, but I was not sure why. Nothing happened, Brent was unscathed, but my sense of peace has been disturbed. And for the rest of that first year, Max’s boarding of the bus raised my anxiety just a bit in the morning, and his departure off the yellow bus was always a relief. That was my initial experience of a bully. I didn’t like it then, and I still react to it.

Fortunately, the rest of elementary and high school days did not bring any other Maxes my way. Mt. Olive Elementary in the Atlanta suburb of East Point was idyllic, and I pretty much had an environment much like that of the movie, The Sandlot, filled with a cast of characters, me in the role of Smalls, and Danny Hall cast as Bennie the Jet, a year-older who taught me patiently to play baseball. There was no Goliath theBig Dog, nor black former major leaguer. And Karen was my Wendy Peppercorn. We had us some “times” in our very own sandlot playing ball and taking a break for a swim at the community pool during the magical summers of my childhood. I was blessed.

One of my playmates these days, Dr. Charlie Palmgren, who I mentioned earlier, says that the basic stuff of the human enterprise begins with the notion of “intrinsic worth”. That’s a fancy, University of Chicago way of saying that we are good, just as we are. It goes with the territory of being human. Charlie, also an Episcopal priest, points to this goodness as coming to all creatures who are part of God’s Creation. He calls it our “original Self”, the one we are born with, Our worth is not up for grabs. God’s love and acceptance and valuation of us is a “given”. Charlie calls it self worth, which is differentiated from a term that is rampant in popular psychology, self-esteem.

“Worth” comes from a Germanic root (try not to think of Max) ‘worthen’ referring to “becoming”. “Esteem” comes from the Latin root ‘aestimare’, meaning estimate, which involves measuring to a standard. Charlie pushes the notion that self-worth is about your original Self which is of value by nature of your being. And self-esteem is based on comparing yourself to others to see how you measure up. And that differentiation proves to be crucial to the way in which we live. In fact, it makes all the difference.

If we start with the notion of our own sense of worth as part of our being, we are not setting up the game as defined by measuring up in some kind of competition. We are aware of our own intrinsic worth, and extend that same valuation to others. It is the nature of things as they are, This is in distinction to the competition that is set up by our society, beginning in school, in which our worth is dependent on some measurement, such as our test scores, our productivity, our net monetary worth, where we live, what car we drive, etc…. Don’t act like you don’t know what I am talking about!

If we are not in a competitive mode, trying to “best” the other by beating them in some way, making them a “loser” so we can be a “winner”, it frees us to simply be. One is able to recognize how this is more conducive to cooperation and collaboration. That changes the whole “game”, that is, the way we do life. Funny thing is, there is always someone or some group trying to convince you that there is a “game” going on, and you should be busting your ass to win. Sound familiar?

Now, let me be real. I believe that Charlie is right. We have intrinsic worth, and we share that identity with other creatures. And more importantly, this notion of “intrinsic worth” radically changes, alters, transforms the way we look at life. And concomitantly, how we live life.

By the way, it’s not Charlie’s original idea, even though Charlie is older than God. It’s in the teachings of Jesus who affirms the connection of every human being as our neighbor, worthy of love. Jesus pushes the envelope of the concept by imploring us to love our neighbor even if he/she wrongs us or persecutes us, or betrays us. That’s a tall order, but that is what is embedded in the Sermon on the Mount, which is sort of a “best of Jesus” teachings for those of us who weren’t around for the original show.

We try to make that explicit in my tribe of Christians, Episcopal, where in our baptismal vows, we pledge, promise, commit to “love our neighbor as ourselves, and respect the dignity of every human being.” This is no bargain-basement commitment, going for a casual compliance but an honest-tp-God ‘sign your name in blood’ commitment. That Jesus sure drives a hard bargain.

Now, again, let me be real, and even honest. The schools I went to at Tull Waters and Mt. Olive, even in my elementary school days were based on competition. What were your grades? Who was placed in the highest reading group? Who was chosen for a hall monitor? Who was named to the Safety Patrol? We were already in the business of sorting folks out. Our teachers did it, and we did it our own damn selves.

And it only got more complicated in high school, which would define where you went to college. And in college, it was amped up by who could get into med school, law school, or grad school. And that’s just the academic side. There’s the social climb as well. It was all about competition, measuring up, with your worth up for grabs at just about every turn. There’s very little you can teach me about competition. I knew what the game was, and played it well.

But along the way, I got momentary glimpses, sniffs of a deeper reality. At one particular moment, the “game” of rising in the ranks of the Church, my chosen “game”, it became more than apparent, lined out by competition and betrayal. As painful as it was, it was a moment of revelation for me. Looking back at the wreckage in my rearview mirror, I can be thankful for the grace of the moment at the clarity of my worth that was beyond my measure. For a guy like me, that is nothing short of a miracle.

Dr. Charlie teaches me that this thing of “intrinsic worth” is the starting point for great things to happen in life. It liberates, frees you to become more creative, more open to a Spirit that connects us in the act of being itself. He calls it Creative Interchange. It involves a sense of trust in ourselves and others, an unbridled curiosity, the art of connecting seemingly disparate things, and a furious sense of tenacity. It all comes together like a summer peach cobbler to make for a life that is pretty tasty.

I am hoping to write about each one of these in the four weeks ahead. I hope you will join me in this exploration of our native creativity. If you catch a sniff of insight along the way, drop me a note to share it with me. I might even pass it on to Charlie, just for grins. Here’s to the brave journey. Blessings.

2 thoughts on “What is the Lay of the Land?

  1. David,

    As always very well written and you have truly internalized the message of our mutual friend Charlie. And as a saying in my Flanders Fields says: the friends of my friends are my friends!




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