19. A Nation's Formative Experiences and Social Trust
As an individual grows up, it strives to define itself through its interactions with the influences and pressures around it – family, neighbourhood, events, atmospheres, experiences. So do nations and peoples.
However, humans are not just mechanical entities who react to life in programmed ways. We deal with life according to the nature of our character, calling and soul, as well as the influences around us. These factors can be rooted in genetics, soul-qualities, family patterns and cultural psychology, race memory, pre-natal experiences, deep memory and subtle energy-conditions at the time of incarnation. Some experiences can shatter one individual while they might leave only a dent in another, or they might even give an individual strength.
Our capacity to handle the unfolding rough-and-tumble of life is greatly affected by what unfolds during three interrelated formative phases: our pre-birth experiences, our experience at the time of birth (especially our very first, pattern-forming reaction to being alive) and our upbringing patterns and experiences particularly during childhood and youth but also later in life too. We experience these phases during our early days and later years when we feel vulnerable and unprepared – growing up is a process of hardening of personality, of creating and inventing ourselves in terms recognisable to others and of becoming accustomed to the buffeting life gives us.
Of the actual pre-birth historical experiences of nations we know little, since the origins of most nations lie in the misty depths of prehistory or unrecorded history. However, mythology and folk traditions often exist, even if scanty, leaving traces of the origins of peoples. The Germanic peoples, for example, are known to have emerged from Scandinavia and the Baltic shores and to have spread, sometimes after having migrated in full circles, to the German-speaking landscapes where they live now, yet we know little of what happened to cause this migration or before it. We can only surmise that population pressure, climatic change, power struggles, personal initiative or other factors moved them.
In the case of Tibetans it is possible, by simply looking at faces, to see several different constituent peoples – Chinese-Mongolian, Indian and Caucasian faces – within the same clearly-defined national grouping, yet it is not easy to say when this mix was forged and at what stage it formed into a relatively clear national-cultural identity. It will have been incremental, though certain defining moments will have had a large influence too.
Personal birth experiences can be more definitive. In psychotherapy, the first impression an emerging individual gains as it takes its first breath and gets its first look at the world is seen to fundamentally affect its perception and way of handling life thereafter – unless there are ensuing experiences which radically affect this.
This concerns basic trust. If a baby's first thought is "I like this world – this is okay", then that person will subsequently tend to experience its life in a relatively relaxed, trusting and confident way, living 'at cause' rather than 'at effect' of events and other people around them. However, if a child emerges into an insensitive, experientially-grating or disturbed birth environment, as many nowadays do, its first reaction is shock, retraction of energy and self-protection – "Ouch!". It later meets life with wariness, with a win-or-lose attitude or a fundamental expectation of threat. These unconscious response-patterns lead to very different outcomes in later life – unless they are changed through therapy, personal inner growth or defining decisions made in response to emergent circumstances.
If a child is brought up in supportive, sympathetic and safe circumstances, it will generally feel okay about itself. It will feel integrated with its surrounds, with a feeling of belonging and competent involvement. On the other hand, if a child experiences being sidelined, undernourished, traumatised or imposed on, it will grow up with psychological issues about manipulation, betrayal, loss or alienation – it will live with an unconscious anticipation that such hard realities are normal, that other people experience life similarly and that love or good fortune are unattainable or unrealistic. This is a cultural as well as a personal matter: different cultures have different ways of giving birth and raising their children, and also cultures themselves have their transpersonal experiences that can define collective responses to national or ethnic life.
In Maasai society in East Africa, for example, women are trained not to express their pain during childbirth – it is seen to be over-demanding towards others and impolite. Thus Maasai children are born under conditions where self-control is a major characteristic of their very first experiences – and the Maasai happen to be a notable warrior society too. It might well be that all warrior societies – such as British, Japanese, Sikhs, Mongols and Maoris – share similar patterns of held-back emotion or non-expression of maternal energy-rushes in childbirth. In traditional Maori society, all boys are consecrated to the god of war shortly after birth, regardless of their individual nature. In other words, life is seen as a fight.
Birth and formative experiences thus very much colour our early experiences as we grow up, causing us unconsciously to re-create them, in the underlying belief that such experiences constitute reality. This is a key point.
Life is more of a unity than we are trained to believe. In other words, what happens within us and what happens around us is not by any means separate. Also, what we consciously think and believe to be happening is not by any means all that is actually happening - we are not as objective and consistent as we would like to be. The unconscious has tremendous abilities to manifest real-life situations too – often with more will and perseverance than we consciously intend. In other words, whatever our on-top, thought-through beliefs, our underlying patterns can talk through body-language, tone of voice, eye-movements, breathing and other unconscious signals, even contradicting our intended behaviour.
When a child experiences the sometimes cruel scraping, wrenching and buffeting of early life, it draws conclusions and responses to the best of its ability, building up a stock of psychological programs with which to deal with and respond to experiences. With these programs and routines it may recognise such experiences more quickly if they recur. This accumulation of programming means that we do not have to engage all of our beings in every single life-experience which comes along – we run pre-recorded tapes instead.
These tapes look for characteristic cues from life and respond accordingly, according to underlying expectations of what might happen next, and based on previous experience. This programming is called 'learning'. Some of this learning arises from routinised, repeating circumstances, while other forms of learning derive from traumas, shocks and other experiences of an imposing kind. About 90-95% of everything we learn in a lifetime is learnt in the first five years.
Thus, a boy who hurts himself falling down the stairs at age three might well tend to anticipate pain or shame when faced with later life experiences where he stands on a threshold or precipice - such as when applying for a job or taking a driving test. But a boy who falls and somehow comes right when falling can build a belief that it is capable of dealing with life's tests, unafraid of things that might happen next or feeling competent to deal with them. In both cases, this can happen regardless of the actual scale and magnitude of experiences it encounters later in life.
The problem here is that a human builds up expectations. These can be positive or harmful anticipations, depending on what lies in a child's own stock of past experience. It also depends a lot on the way the child is helped or not helped by its parents and role-models in the art of interpreting life-experience and dealing with it. If expectations are relatively harmful, with a cramping effect on facing subsequent experiences, a child can mis-identify events or jump to hasty conclusions and reactions born of its readiness to protect itself or to trust in circumstances. It can interpret life-events narrowly, grouping them into classificatory types to which prepared responses exist at the ready.
A hurt child can develop a tendency even to unconsciously seek cramping, traumatic and repeating negative experiences, since they thus can verify and reinforce its hurt standpoint and help it maintain its known comfort-zone of programmed responses. Even abuse and pain can form into a comfort-zone if this is a predominant known experience. In this light, it can be easier for a person to unconsciously manifest further abuse than to be given healing experiences of love and support, which would demand a fundamental referencing back to basic human questions and a reframing of its responses.
Unwittingly, such a growing being can thus box itself into a set of roles and expectations, reinforced by simple statements: "I'm no good", "Life's hard", "Love is a threat – if I fall in love I'll just be let down", "Men are bastards", or "It's not my station in life to succeed". Thomas Hobbes (early 1600s) described human life as 'nasty, brutish and short' and 'a war of each against all' – such an assessment reflects at least as much on his own personal experience as it does on life as a whole.
However, such an assessment has been shared by large and increasing numbers of people. The way things have gone in modern times, Hobbes' statement is not as outrageous as we might prefer it to be. Humankind has become accustomed to endemic abuse, immorality and inhumanity, to the extent that negative programming has become a standard default pattern – and outbreaks of positivity thus can become items of suspicion. "Something is bound to go wrong sometime...", or "What's the catch?", "Life's a bitch, then you die" or "Of course there is no God".
This tendency to programme oneself can work positively too: in its more extreme forms, a person can be brought up like royalty. As a result such a person can become unconsciously arrogant, unappreciative, exploitative or wasteful of life – "I'm God's gift to the world", "The world is my playground", "You can't eat bread without butter" or "Men are knights in shining armour, and someone's coming to save me". In such extremes, a person develops positively inaccurate perceptions, upon which it will fall time and again, blaming others or itself if expectations are not fulfilled. However, in less extreme cases, positive programming can endow a sense of basic confidence, a can-do attitude and an ability to manifest what one needs without great difficulty. But being brought up with self-confidence can also be reinforcing and positive too, even affecting a person's 'luck' and fortunes - if the basic expectation is there that one will be supported and successful, it's often the case that one is.
We need a measure of blessings and a measure of hardships to hone our character, in amounts which allow us to understand and to retain awareness and personality-balance. We have a natural capacity to make use of awareness, to step outside our life-situation, understanding it from a wider viewpoint. However, if we have grown up in an environment of shut-offs, of lack of interest in life, of misperceptions or of institutionalised lies, or in an environment where autonomy is discouraged and obedience is enforced, our capacity to form clear and balanced judgements becomes clouded.
Sometimes the peer-pressures amongst older children can have a drastic effect on the formation of an individual's social values. The dysfunctional families and neighbourhoods, the media and education systems of today in the West – all of which generally fail to encourage the flowering of personality and of individual creative qualities – impose this ignore-ance as a socially and culturally enforced standard. Anyone who stands outside this norm has something 'wrong' with them. A lot of bright children become under-achievers simply because the world doesn't make sense to them or recognise and reinforce their strong points - this is the psychological basis of a class or caste system.
These marks we pick up can later be transformed if we meet healing or therapeutic influences which encourage emotional release, development of insight and a welcoming of change. They can be transformed if we encounter a gut-thumping crisis in which our programming crucially misfits experience, forcing reassessment and transformation as a simple survival-strategy. At such times we are given an opportunity, a choice of consciousness, a personal apocalypse or experiential revelation, a light-bulb moment: we may choose either to awaken to presented reality or to reinforce our old patterns retrogressively. The latter option involves a declaration of war on reality in which, in the final analysis, the battle is eventually lost – reality is bigger than we are.
Nevertheless such psychological wars are not uncommon since our very civilisation is founded on such a basis – fighting against reality. With thousands and millions fighting the same war, it looks as if such behaviour is normal. It looks as if a state of war is what human life is about.
Psychology and medicine are both geared to adjusting individuals to a standard of 'normality' – though some researchers investigate whether this normality is the best normality we humans might achieve, or whether normalism is a desirable standard to work by. Yet, as R D Laing discovered in the 1960s, many of those poor souls who are classified 'schizophrenic' are frequently victims of a society which itself is schizoid, and those classified insane, maladjusted or disturbed can actually have a clearer grasp of reality than people considered to be socially successful. In less 'civilised' societies such people can become shamans and respected truth-speakers, or are given roles which endow them some status and value in society.