Shield and Strength: The Power of Love, Part 2

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"It would seem that given a good start in life, almost any kind of stress can be withstood later on."

— Arthur Janov, The Feeling Child, 1973, p. 144  

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Strength and Warmth, Amidst Devastation and Pain  

Occasionally the power of early love, in particular, shines through in breathtaking fashion. I was moved to begin Part One of this column several months ago after watching God Grew Tired of Us (see also here for the film's official website, with trailer). The Rottentomatoes review page for the film includes this in its summary of the story:  

"In the late 1980s, 27,000 Sudanese 'lost boys' – some just toddlers – marched barefoot over thousands of miles of barren desert, seeking safe haven from the brutal civil war raging in their homeland. Half died from bombing raids and starvation. . ."  

Pause a moment, please, to consider what you just read. Imagine a government intentionally bombing a huge group of starving, displaced children – after having murdered their parents and driven the children out into the wilderness. This horror in the Sudan did not end in the 1980s; see here and here for more recent examples. Furthermore, mass murder, accomplished in a variety of ways, is a shockingly common activity for governments. My columns focus on love and freedom in part because a widespread increase in those qualities is the only antidote to such State-enabled orgies of hatred and violence. In addition, love and freedom provide the necessary foundation for positive, healthy life generally.  

Back to the film: The focus soon narrows to three of the boys (John Bul Dau, Daniel Abol Pach, and Panther Blor) and their eventual resettlement in America.

Here's what struck me about these young men (as they had become), and it's something I have not seen mentioned in any discussion of the film: Despite years of hardship and tragedy, these three appear sweet-natured, strong-hearted, and more emotionally healthy than many people in coddled American neighborhoods. Even the poor in America have what would seem luxurious, stress-free lives compared to what the lost boys of the film have suffered through, yet the mean-spirited tone and texture so common to American life (insert demeaning, cruelty-drenched rap lyric of your choice here) is nowhere to be found among these three young Sudanese refugees. 

The pain of their earlier years is undeniable, powerful, and does show through (indeed, one suffers a breakdown while isolated from his friends in an American city), yet somehow, even with the damage those years have done, these former lost boys seem deeply connected to each other and to life generally; they radiate a quiet strength without the rigid defenses so common in Western society, and they fairly glow with a charming and approachable humanity. They are gentle without being weak; they show a natural sense of compassion and have genuine manners without contrived politeness. Beneath their understandable pain, these young men seem fully connected to themselves and to the meaning of life.  

What could account for such strength and good-natured emotional health (neither being absolute, mind you, but rather in comparison to so many other people from less horrific circumstances) displayed by people who had been through years of hell as children and teens? What on Earth could have effectively shielded them from trauma enough to keep them open; to give them a mostly-positive outlook after having lived through such violence, neglect, and horror?  

Clearly, the answer is love, and in particular love at the earliest time in life – indeed in the womb, during birth, and throughout infancy. I say that without qualification because I consider the evidence for the power of early love to be overwhelming. Love at the earliest time of life has profound, positive effects throughout later life, while a lack of early love has equally profound negative effects.  

Early love and connection, including natural childbirth followed by strong family bonds throughout childhood and into later life, have long been the saving grace of downtrodden minorities – the shield and strength allowing them to survive and sometimes thrive despite prejudice, economic discrimination, and other cruelty by those in power.  

Here in America – more, perhaps, than in any other large nation right now – that saving grace of compassionate, loving treatment right at the start of life is being systematically denied to minorities and to the population as a whole, with results that are increasingly visible and increasingly dire. I return to the topic in Part 3 of this column.  

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Sensitive Dependence on Early Conditions  

Love really can provide a lifetime of inner strength, including better emotional and physical health and a sense of connection with others. But once again: although the benefit lasts a lifetime, to get the most from it, one must receive the foundations for this benefit early in life. The temporal distance between early life and adulthood makes it easy to miss the astonishing power of love as an early condition to strengthen yet soften, to enrich and to otherwise improve, a person's entire life.  

"Love as an early condition" includes the provision of healthy prenatal experience and a compassionate, natural birth. We don't often think of a pregnant mother's actions as being loving or not toward her unborn baby, but loving a child, an infant, a newborn, or a fetus requires providing for that new person's needs; this is in the nature of human life, because the very young cannot provide for themselves.  

Early experience, including in the womb, has huge effects on later life, as we see not only in the effects of thalidomide and other drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) but in the results of simple stress. A pregnant mother's poor diet, drug use, stress in her environment, or a less-than-optimal birth for her baby can lead to higher likelihood of problems for the child in later life, ranging from diabetes to drug addiction; from criminal behavior to depression and even to suicide.  

If we were to do only ONE thing . . .  

The most simple and effective single thing we can do to improve lives and the human condition generally is to build consensus on the need for emotionally and physically healthy pregnancy and for gentle, compassionate, natural childbirth. Birth in particular represents an intensely powerful window in time for every new life, and thus working to make birth a positive experience for the newborn, as well as for the mother, can pay huge dividends for relatively little effort.  

Psychologist Arthur Janov has spent decades studying the topic of early experience and its results. Here, he describes what a simple improvement in birth practices could do for the world:  

"In my opinion it [a change in birth practices] is the most important action we can take in the field of mental health. No other single factor can alter neurosis or psychosis on such a fundamental level; no diet, no conditioning, no manipulation of external circumstances, no massage, no lecture, no philosophy, no ideology, no religion, no amount of love and affection can do what a proper birth can do . . . . Ultimately, a simple change in birth practices would affect our social structure, our penal institutions, our mental hospitals and the values by which we raise our children--the next generation to inherit the earth."

Imprints: the lifelong effects of the birth experience by Dr. Arthur Janov, 1983, p. 248  

Dr. Janov talks frequently about the importance of prenatal experience as well as birth in a person's later life; see Why Most of Our Lives Is a Rationale for the Imprint (strongly recommended) for a glimpse of how important these very-early periods are. A snippet:  

"Another example: a child is born after a mad struggle to get out. He has learned aggression as a key mode of behavior. His passive parents give into him because he is so assertive. He takes on chores that are very heavy and he does not recognize real obstacles in his way. He does too much and does not know when to back off. To give up is to die, in his physiologic equation. He pursues a woman who really does not want him. He cannot see that because he has learned aggression as a survival technique. He thinks the woman just needs coaxing, but he does not know when to stop.  

"In these cases the left prefrontal area is just a large rationale-concocting apparatus to keep behavior ego-syntonic – comfortable to the self. It also keeps the feeling unconscious and unexamined."  

Consider common behaviors and the state of the world in light of that last paragraph. A great deal of evidence, of various types, supports the idea that people are driven by repressed experience to behave in ways they do not understand, and that they create ideas and philosophies and stories to justify and explain those irrational behaviors; this ideation is mostly created in the background, as it were, without conscious knowledge.  

The extent and power of early experience upon later life is truly astonishing – an assertion supported by common sense, folk wisdom, daily observation, scientific theory (including chaos theory, which describes the sensitive dependence on early conditions shown by evolving, complex systems) and, once again, by scientific studies. Perhaps the most compelling single study on the topic is the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study [pdf; article by study co-author Dr. Vincent J. Felliti, MD]. With over 17,000 participants, the ACE study provides a good sense of the types and levels of damage involved (in this case, from post-infancy childhood trauma) and of the numbers of adults who might be affected in middle-class America.  I have discussed this study before, especially in Roots and Branches (Part 2 of 2): The Root Evil of Widespread Emotional Damage (January 2007), but it is worth mentioning this study again in light of this column's topic. The study's conclusions are sobering:  

"Our two most important findings are that these adverse childhood experiences:  

·        are vastly more common than recognized or acknowledged and

·        have a powerful relation to adult health a half-century later."    

Many people are surprised to learn that lifelong physical health (as well as emotional health) are strongly impacted by early experience, yet that is exactly the case. For instance, "heart disease, fractures, diabetes, obesity, unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and alcoholism were more frequent. Occupational health and job performance worsened progressively as the ACE Score increased." Depression, attempted suicide, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and a host of other problems also showed "a strong, graded relationship to what happened in childhood." This is all, or should be, widely known and accepted; respected professional journals including The Journal of the American Medical Association have published articles on the ACE Study.  

In short: early experience has profound impact on later life, and strong negative events have serious, long-term negative impact. Early love creates the foundation for a lifetime of strength and health, while a lack of early love (or serious distress from other sources) portends life-long susceptibility to physical and emotional ill-health.  

A further note: there are good reasons to expect that children who suffer from childhood abuse or other trauma are more likely, as a group, to also have suffered from prenatal, birth, or infant trauma as well. Having an alcoholic mother in childhood (one of the factors tracked in the ACE study is growing up with an alcoholic or drug user in the household) seems likely to be strongly correlated with having a mother who drank during pregnancy, for example.  

Because a lack of early love (or traumatic distress from any source) affects one's life in negative ways, relevant studies are typically couched in terms of the harm done by that lack. It is worth remembering that these studies are also telling us that positive events have positive consequences. The negative effects of childhood abuse, for example, are negative in comparison to the effects of a loving, non-abusive childhood.  

For additional material supporting sensitivity to early conditions in human life, see the page of scientific and general references at the Paradise Paradigm website. My columns Womb, Birth, Infancy, Childhood (January, 2007) and Feeling, Emotion, Intellect (February 2007) provide further detail and commentary on the topic. Arthur Janov's personal website (with relevant commentary) is here, and the site for his Primal Center is here. The website for the ACE study is http://www.acestudy.org/.  

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The Alarm Clock of Love  

Whether you got the love you needed at the start of your own life or not, you can benefit from love in the present. Numerous studies (John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick discuss quite a few in Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection) make the point that close relationships in daily life, even with a pet, improve one's health, mood, and general outlook.  

While a lack of early love can endanger and afflict someone throughout later life, love itself, even in adulthood, is not only a blessing and a balm but also a wake-up call, reminding us of what is truly important in life. I make a point of listening to such wake-up calls in my own life when I encounter them, which is, thankfully, every day. For example, this morning I awoke when our small dog, Zoomer, made the brief, quiet whine he sometimes uses to get our attention. As I came awake and began stretching and yawning, Zoomer dashed up the stairs to the bed (he had been on the carpet, probably wriggling on his back, prior to voicing his desire for us to awake) and began to lick and nuzzle my face and neck. This went on until I started laughing (it begins to tickle), at which point I gently pushed him away. Zoomer immediately turned to my wife, who was now waking also, and began licking/kissing/nuzzling her. During these ministrations, Zoomer's tail was wagging (it is short, curves over his back, and has almost floor-length hair hanging from it, so the effect is of a small dust mop wriggling on his back), and his entire body seemed to be vibrating with joy and affection.  

After a time, Zoomer switched to hugging us dog-fashion, by pushing his entire body against one of us, feet scrabbling for traction on the bed, and then rolling further into the recipient and wriggling his body while snuffling/snorting and waving his legs around. Occasionally he would stop, raise his head, and favor us with an intensely adoring smile, and then return to his energetic wriggling and snuffling. When he was finished, Zoomer settled in between us while my wife and I cuddled and finished coming awake.  

Zoomer  

By greeting me and my wife in such fashion every morning, Zoomer not only wakes us up for the day but helps keep us awake to one of life's most important truths: that love is what makes each day worth living.  

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Lost Between the Realms  

I have described our morning love-fest with Zoomer before, and return to it above because I cannot think of a more vivid, cinematic example. The profound feeling of love and connection I experience from Zoomer's demonstrative, enthusiastic, and clearly genuine affection is beyond words – literally.  

All deep experience is beyond words, because it exists within lower levels of the brain and consciousness than does abstract language. Experience itself is an intangible, but unlike the experience of, say, Indian food, the experience of love is also the experience of an intangible – an intangible event about an intangible quality. Despite the hard-physics underpinning of all life processes, one's experience of love thus seems spiritual and almost not-of-this-world. Indeed, the experience of love, like consciousness generally, exists at an emergent level so far abstracted from its physical foundations as to be truly on another plane.  

Consciousness is not monolithic; there are three major levels of consciousness (feeling, emotion, and intellect) and each is different in kind and, to an extent, created in a different area of the brain. The physical distance between the brain's underpinnings for different levels of consciousness is partly responsible for the ability of human intellects to disconnect from feeling and emotion; the differing qualities of the three levels (feeling is dramatically different from abstract thought, for instance) mean that without healthy connection and communication between the three levels, life becomes unbalanced. Intellect is only tangentially useful for understanding love. Understanding any portion of consciousness requires experiencing that portion at the appropriate level, and thus to understand love we must experience love.  

With so little love in the world, it is no wonder there is so little understanding of love in the world. If a person unable to love deeply is told to "love thy neighbor" – what does that person actually hear? In what manner can such a person respond?1  

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The Cure  

What will it take to bring more love into the world? In particular, what will it take to create enough more love to make a real difference?  

This is an important question. Indeed, it is the most important question of the age, because without a very significant improvement here, humankind may soon destroy itself, or at least put an end to anything we might call civilization. Living with the Two Great Evils of widespread emotional damage and formalized, systematic State coercion has been a nightmare for the human race for thousands of years, but today – moments from the Singularity, and with one foot already in the high-tech future that will make or break humanity – today, we approach the final moment where our actions can save us. Perhaps we have crossed that threshold already.  

Here is the answer I give in The Paradise Paradigm to the question "What will it take to heal the human condition?" –  

"Only one thing: wide understanding of the cause of the problem, and of the importance of change."  

In particular, we need wide and growing consensus on the need for more love and freedom in the world, and especially in the lives of the young. A large and growing segment of the public must understand the interconnected nature of love and freedom and the need for those qualities early in each person's life. For that to happen, an accurate and widely-shared paradigm is necessary.  

The paradigms presently used by most of the public to understand how society works are dramatically wrong, highly toxic, and have been systematically put into play by the power elite for an obvious reason: the elite benefit from these toxic paradigms, which posit the "need" for coercive power, for war, for central banking, and for all the other things that siphon wealth and power from the masses. That wealth and power flows to government, to corporations, and to other favored groups and individuals. See War Is a Racket by General Smedley Butler (two-time Medal of Honor winner) for an excellent short look at how the game – or part of it – is played.  

It should be obvious that freedom is necessary for love to flourish, yet – thanks largely to the many sources of pro-coercion propaganda – few people have made that connection. This error has led millions of people who want a more compassionate world to support causes that can only reduce compassion in the long run. Government is not compassion (as I put it in my first column for STR); government is merely coercion, and coercion is a crime in human terms. Coercion is the mortal enemy of love; more of one brings less of the other, and history shows this clearly. Worse: Create a nexus of coercive Power, and sociopaths are drawn to that power like flies. It is no accident that men like Hitler, Mugabe, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Stalin, and thousands of other tyrants became government "leaders." Coercive government is the One True Ring of Power, and naturally, inevitably, that power attracts the power-hungry. Who did you think would scratch and claw and scheme to obtain such power? Gandhi? Mother Teresa?  

The results of coercive State power are staggering; they range from war and death camps to simple poverty and to emotional damage among infants and children who are orphaned or whose families are harmed in other ways, directly or indirectly, by State action. In a vicious cycle, emotional damage among the State's victims becomes a cornerstone element in the foundation of State power, as a neurotic and mal-educated public clamors for more State "help" while sociopaths and psychopaths strive, in various ways, to capture State power for their own use. Hitler's Germany2 came into being with help from both of these elements: an emotionally crushed public being led down the road to Hell by a nearly-insane Fuhrer and a State apparatus increasingly populated by severely damaged bureaucrats, from the inner circle on down to concentration camp guards, members of the Gestapo and SS, and so on. [Other factors involved in the rise of the Third Reich – America's entry into WWI, for example, which was funded by the newly-created income tax and Federal Reserve – are discussed in section 3 of The Meaning and Value of Gold, April 27, 2008; see also this very interesting comment from Winston Churchill].  

Ultimately, love and freedom are the ONLY cure for the human condition. Allowing freedom to others is an essential component of love, and thus the condensed phrase (and song title and lyric) "all you need is love" is precisely true.  

How to apply this cure? How to actually move the world in the necessary direction?  

There is only one tool powerful enough to do the job; only one tool appropriate to the task; only one tool that works fairly quickly yet also across long spans of time, even across millennia; only one tool with a track record of creating change on such a level: paradigms. Some comments on the subject from Chapter 2 of The Paradise Paradigm:  

"In his classic work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn developed the idea that paradigms, in the form of widely-shared assumptions, theories, examples, and beliefs, create the intellectual environment in which science can function. Indeed, they create some of the environment in which people and societies function in general. Paradigms give meaning to diverse sets of data. They provide frameworks in which to operate and guide action in useful ways.  

"Any approach to Paradise must, at a minimum, not violate the idea of Paradise itself. Paradigms fit that rule: they are powerful yet non-coercive; they are decentralized and entirely appropriate to the task."  

. . . "Paradigms work by harnessing the natural creativity, intelligence, and energy of millions of people.  

"By not forcibly imposing a single plan, many plans and approaches may be taken. By not creating a centralized bureaucracy, a paradigm fosters the sincere, diverse efforts of many people.  

"Paradigms are tools of perception, not coercion. Paradigms harness the free human action of as many people as care to join in – and nothing formal is required. The mere understanding of a paradigm begins to shape behavior in light of that understanding."  

Paradigms have repeatedly changed the world, often in staggering fashion. As the paradigm of science displaced the "demon-haunted world" and its paradigm of superstition, human life improved dramatically; the paradigm of freedom from tyranny that was partially implemented in the early United States and elsewhere (Switzerland, for example) also had a rapid and transforming effect. Lifespan in the developed world is now about double what it was in the early 1800s, and the benefits of modern technology and reasonably free markets have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.  

Those gains are now eroding as coercive central power grows in the United States and in many other nations, and as love and compassion are corrupted and eroded by that growth of coercion.  

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At the Tipping Point  

In 1971, the late Roger Zelazny3 published Jack of Shadows, set in a world where the Earth had stopped rotating and where science ruled the Dayside while magic ruled the Night. Here, in the world Zelazny brings to life (and unlike in Sagan's The Demon Haunted World), magic is real – it works as well for Nightsiders as does quantum mechanics for those living in Daylight – and clearly symbolizes, at least to me, the deeper levels of consciousness that intellect has largely displaced in modern life.  

Jack, born in Twilight between the worlds, is a Nightsider who travels often between the hemispheres and whose powers emerge when he is in shadow. Jack finds a way to set the globe spinning again – he finds that both magic and science are involved in the process – which causes storms and earthquakes as the old ways begin to die and as the two opposing realms rejoin into the natural and healthy duality they are meant to be.  

Morningstar, a winged creature who had been condemned to spend eternity in twilight, facing the coming sunrise that would never arrive, and who Jack has befriended on his frequent trips between the realms, is set free at the rising of the sun and flies to the castle where Jack is weathering the storm and wrestling with his disembodied soul; the castle is crumbling from the onslaught of earthquakes and Jack is finally thrown from a high tower. As Jack plummets to the courtyard below, he sees Morningstar swooping down like an arrow, arms extended to catch Jack.

The last line reads: "Jack wondered if he would arrive in time."  

Increasingly, I wonder the same thing: Will our salvation arrive in time? Will we choose to create enough love and freedom in time to prevent the onrushing horrors of the 21st  Century – including some that cannot be undone?  

The answer, for good or ill, will arrive sooner than most of us think.  

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This column will conclude in Part Three, date uncertain.  

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Notes:  

1) By far the biggest reason people have trouble understanding and communicating about love is the breathtaking power of defenses against old, unresolved trauma. These defenses not only prevent full consciousness of particular incidents, they dim consciousness generally. We do not "have" an unconscious – instead, we live in a partially unconscious state.  

2) See the writings of Alice Miller for examples and analysis; a good, short essay to start with is Adolf Hitler: How Could a Monster Succeed in Blinding a Nation? The essay is hosted at The Natural Child Project website, aimed at parents with young children, and the multi-colored text in the heading gives the site a pre-schoolish appearance. Much of the content, however, including Miller's essay, is quite serious. Miller's For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence is a more detailed source, and includes an entire chapter on German child-rearing manuals (with excerpts) from the era preceding the rise of Hitler and his National Socialists; another chapter examines Hitler's own upbringing.  

3) Much of Zelazny's fiction has amazing emotional impact. For a Breath I Tarry, about a machine in a post-apocalyptic world who wants to become human, is as insightful and powerful as Jack of Shadows, and a good introduction to Zelazny's work. You can find the story in The Last Defender of Camelot or read it here, hosted at a pirate site. My description above of Jack of Shadows is from memory, and while I believe it is accurate, it may contain an error or two.  

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 105

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity.