Friday, March 21, 2008

“The Authority Problem—Redux”

The boy lay in the darkness, his heart beating fearfully—It was those loud, angry shouts and the muffled sobbing of his mother that brought fear to his heart. He had never heard such sounds before. On the other hand, he did remember the suppertime when he was five. He had sat there puzzled. Why was there such ominous silence; such tense faces and sharp looks? Later he would describe the moment as one in which, “The air was so thick with tension, you could cut it with a knife.” Then, he had wondered what he had done to cause such a thing. Had he spilled his milk? No—but he better not try picking up the glass now.—It might indeed spill, so trembling was his hand. Maybe it was something that he hadn’t done! He searched his mind for the slight mistake he’d made—and came up with all sorts of things, certain as he was that this horror was all due to him.

Now, at age ten, lying there, he did the same thing. He desperately searched his mind. Could he have been responsible for this eruption of chaos in his mind or the war ensuing in the other bedroom (actually the living room where they slept on a pull-out couch)?

The next day, when he came home from school to find his mother furiously doing her best to install a newly purchased sliding bolt on the kitchen door (and later silently crying as she did the dinner dishes in the kitchen sink), he still did not know if he was the cause. Yet there seemed no clear reason that he could see for it at all. What he did see, however, was his father’s clothing, thrown in a disordered pile on the back porch—His heart sank at the awareness of what that meant. It was all clear now. Father must be to blame; at least that was evident by mother’s angry actions at the back door. Nevertheless, his anxious mind dare not allow itself to consider the horrific possibility that they might actually hate each other. For if that was so, what would happen to him? Too frightening to think of.

A simple solution leapt instantly to his mind. From the dark depth of his terror, from the trembling dread of his helplessness came the saving solution. He must be the cause, because only then would he have the power to bring an end to their conflict—and an end to their war was crucial to his survival.

The solution seemed brilliant and, best of all, at no seeming cost to himself. All he had to do was to be good—no, be better than he had ever been before. And in every one of the ways he knew they expected of him. He was certainly smart enough to figure all that out.

The trouble was, the solution he found didn’t bring happiness! For one thing, being good took an awful lot of effort, and constant questioning whether or not he were good enough. It all bordered on a kind of slavery. And with the slavery came resentment. Certainly it was no recipe for happiness.

And another thing: despite all his efforts, his plan wasn’t working. For father had chosen to live in humiliation down in the basement, down with the coal bin and the furnace. Not only that, there were a lot of spiders down there—he’d seen them! Worst of all, as Christmas drew near—(that usually wonderful time when his family seemed really to care about each other, gifts were given, and the house seemed brighter, and warmer)— his father was still down in the basement. Maybe he wouldn’t be upstairs to open the gifts on Christmas morning! The young boy cried, every time he thought about that. So he tried not to think about Christmas at all. Of course he failed. Despite his fervent prayers, when Christmas morning came, father was still in the basement. The boy slowly carried his present, wrapped as tenderly and carefully as he could manage, down the two flights of stairs to the basement. As he walked down, the stairs seemed to go on for miles. It seemed to take an eternity to reach the basement door.

It may have been at this moment, as he stood there at the basement door, that his idea of who was to blame for all this shifted. Shifted from himself and his father to his mother (shifted at least for the moment). As his father opened the door, the boy may have well thought, “How can I blame Dad? He looks so sad—just as sad as I feel this Christmas morning.”

Mother then became the one who was the force that was punishing both of them. After all, wasn’t she the one who hatefully put that bolt on the kitchen door? Wasn’t it she who threw father’s clothes on the porch floor? Perhaps it was at that moment that the boy became aware of his hatred for his mother. And of course also the inevitable painful guilt that follows in hate’s wake. Surely it was at that moment that the boy made a fateful determined decision—that he would never, never, ever allow himself to be put in such a humiliating position in which he now saw his father, and as he now saw himself. It seemed crystal clear to his impressionable mind that power and control were crucial if he were to avoid the bitter pain of helplessness and the humiliation that accompanied it. It would be many long and torturous years before he learned the enormous cost of that early, bitter, embedded idea. It was only much later that he would come to the liberating truth that the lust for power and control brings with it the horror of separation from others—and worst of all, separation from himself, and the loneliness and empty despair that accompany it.

Copyright 2007 Frank West

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