What follows is a collection of thoughts that have yet to arrive at a cohesive whole. That may come in time.
We were in Portland (OR) for the weekend, and spent a day wandering around using the city’s streetcar system. Which brought up a personal psychological curiosity. I like streetcars and feel comfortable using them to get around. I don’t like buses and am not comfortable using them to get around. Why? What’s the difference?
I have warm memories of streetcars from my childhood. Everything about them was warm. Soft warm lighting. Warm wood and cane seats. Warm sounds of bells and the clickity-clack of the railroad track. I imagine them as a warm refuge on cold winter days. On warm summer days, open windows let in the sounds and smells of parks and lakes. My few city bus experiences were not warm. They were cold, wet, late, confusing, and long. So that’s part of it. But I think there is more. I think it has to do with the certainty of knowing exactly where a street car on a track is going. It has a certain kind of reserved right of way.. It doesn’t try to navigate through traffic because it can’t. Other traffic has to navigate around it. I was never quite sure where a bus would go, even if there is a printed route map. Buses spewed smelly exhaust as they grumbled along on badly tuned Diesel engines. Buses were easily delayed or detoured by other traffic. In short, streetcars were friendly, buses were not. They still are. It’s a childhood thing brought into adult life.
It’s just one example of how much of our childhood experience we tote along with us into adulthood, even into old age. For most of us, childhood based attitudes and beliefs that pop up in our adult worlds are curiosities, sometimes very amusing curiosities, the source of jokes told at our own expense. But sometimes they are the source of dysfunctions that present themselves to pastors, therapists, and consultants (now sometimes called life or career coaches). Well trained therapists may be able to dig down and do some fixing without causing any more damage. Most of the rest of us can’t and shouldn’t try. Nevertheless, we do have to take them under consideration, as we work around them to help a person in need.
I thought about that the other day when talking with a someone about trees. He was angry and emotionally defeated by a neighbor’s tree that littered his driveway and yard after a storm. As we talked it became clear that the offending tree was symbolic of something altogether different; a deep fear instilled into him as a child that failure to be neat and clean in all things and at all times was a moral failure that jeopardized his value as a person worthy of love and acceptance. With that out in the open, it made sense of his lawn without a single weed, of a house never in need of painting, and of things repaired or replaced before they needed it. This was a guy with an otherwise successful life and well along in age, so deep therapy seemed like a waste of time. What would be the point? On the other hand, it made the offending tree make a lot of sense, and it opened a way to talk it through so that the tree, if nothing else, could be dismissed, at least for a little while, as something destructive to his quality of life.
What else is there besides streetcars and littering trees? Likely answers tend to go in the direction of serious psychiatric problems, but that avoids the more common issues that haunt our otherwise reasonably sane adult behavior. As a pastor, and sometime management consultant, I see these kinds childhood inspired behaviors acted out in the normal ways of getting through life. For the most part, they are benign, causing problems only when they disrupt one’s ability to live and work in a comfortable way.
Yet, some adults take their childish neuroses as signs of imperfection that must be treated with unending therapy as they pursue an ideal of mental health that is always just behind their grasp. They are much like the man obsessed with the littering tree. Others fashion them into life long excuses for lazy, sloppy habits of life. Neither leads to abundance of life. In fact, they throw up unnecessary fences of limitation that inhibit abundance of life.
The point is that we sometimes make too big a deal out of minor neuroses that are nothing more than mildly interesting eccentricities unique to each of us, or we sometimes employ those eccentricities to manipulate the world about us in inappropriate ways. Classical Christian practice suggests ways to keep both in check through the disciplines of self examination, honest confession, and repentance (i.e., choosing a new path). It is’t always easy work, but the intention is to open the way to a life of greater abundance and joy. Other traditions agree: Plato for instance with his commendation of an examined life, and Jung with his injunction that to know the shadow self is to open the way to a more full and healthy life.
Jesus came that we might have life, and have it in abundance, but living into it requires a little work as we strive not to take ourselves too seriously while, at the same time, assuming responsibility for the habits of life that make for abundance.