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Fresh Ideas: Problematic behavior breeds societal angst

Susan Stornetta

Why do honest, open, forthright children grow up into adults enmeshed in the society-wide phenomenon of deception, disappointment, dissatisfaction, and criticism? Newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and movies are filled with angst. My teenage granddaughter recently declined a New York City college because everyone was so angry.

How have we gotten this way? Is there any way out? As a society just 233 years old, one could argue we’re simply immature as a culture, experiencing the growing pains of an enormously varied population living together in a free society. The business universe runs on stress and achievement, our personal freedoms are under attack by radicals of every ilk, and countless people struggle for access to quality education and adequate jobs and income. Confused emotions run our national show.

We begin life as a spark of consciousness in a complex body, without deception or anger. Many parents, confused by infants’ helplessness, treat their newborns as mindless or ignorant, understanding nothing. I believe babies know all too well what’s going on around them, feeling things much more acutely than adults. They understand voice tone and the emotions conveyed with the acuity of the powerless. We adults have forgotten how to pay such full attention to our immediate actuality.

This sense of now, the knowledge life happens only at this moment and it’s all we actually have, is the only reality our babies know. Sadly, they live among folks who routinely ignore this truth. Children are naive, unfamiliar with the ways of the world, but soon realize their personal “I” isn’t actually the center of everyone else’s universe.

In our early years, we viscerally understand ethical behavior and believe everyone should behave so. When they don’t, we cry “It’s not fair!” Anguish at being considered inept can affect every facet of life. When a parent promises something that doesn’t happen, a child perceives it as a lie. Anger and resentment at deception accumulates.

Eventually, immersion in this unfortunate reality influences us to adopt the dominant behavior pattern. Everyone lies to some degree, to protect others or ourselves, or influence situations. Some lie to hurt, mislead, cheat, or threaten competitors, while others lie to bolster the speaker’s self-esteem or image, or to seem witty. Lying becomes habitual, and we may begin to lie to ourselves. It’s difficult to recognize and stifle these self-programmed patterns of thought.

Oddly, when misunderstood children don’t identify criticisms from others as essentially lies, they can become consumed with shame and guilt over their so-called imperfections. Kids with screaming parents who discipline by slapping can become fearful, confused, angry adults, blaming others for their disastrous choices, without empathy or remorse. Such demoralized, angry adults face a difficult life.

My interest in this is self-serving, for I see self-destructive thoughts or actions in myself. Reading about studies of neurological systems, and theories about the nature of “being” have suggested a way for changing such ingrained thinking.

All of us fend off, ignore, cry or rage about, and sublimate, vast amounts of false data about ourselves, throughout our lives, some of which we inevitably accept as fact and alter our behavior accordingly.

Cruel words have left people with residual traces inflicted by long-forgotten individuals, that continue to influence behavior patterns. When I regret something I’ve done, I picture every unremembered person whose comments contributed to developing this behavior, exiting my mind, thousands racing away, laughing, singing, free to reunite with themselves.

New age foolishness? Hippy dippy thinking? Maybe. So what? All I know for sure is I feel better afterward.

Susan Stornetta is a retired archaeologist and a long-time Comstock resident.