Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Eroticization and the unique developmental process of human persons - part 2 with conclusion

My purpose in these posts is to bring a variety of Christian and other writers in a desire to share significant writings that in my estimation contribute to the common good and directly or indirectly give glory to God and extend the Lord's work of salvation to all of humanity. G.S.


This is part 2 in a reflection on human sexuality following on part 1 which was originally posted January 14, 2014. Here were some titles in this original post of January 14, 2014 - Sexual abuse 1 - by clergy the tip of the iceberg

Sexual abuse is a crime against humanity
 The complex nature of the human person and sexuality 
 Sex is good, yes, but not in every instance
 Why do people pervert sex into violence?
 The beauty and power of human sexuality 
 Human sexual development requires mentoring
 Wandering away from the original design
 Exquisitely sensitive spouses or dangerous rapists
 Human development is a long and complicated process
Human development - becoming a person 
 Most of us have some "wrinkles" in our development 

May 20, 2016 I took this original post from January 14, 2014 on sexual abuse and re-framed it as a reflection with a focus on our unique developmental process as human beings with particular interest in the role of the process of eroticization in our development and growth as persons. Two additional titles were added to the original 11 to add the perspective of human development. It is helpful to realize and admit that clergy sexual abuse is in actual fact only the tip of the iceberg in human society. As it turns out the vast majority of cases of sexual and other forms of abuse take place wherever human beings are to be found and, in particular, wherever human beings are to be found in a vulnerable position with regards to others more powerful than they are. Fr. Gilles Surprenant 

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Human development and the role of eroticization

It would be interesting to dialogue with readers who have questions or comments on what has preceded as well as what is to follow or, for that matter, on all that is to be found in this blog.

Human beings develop into persons over a long period of time

It is admittedly impossible to thoroughly understand our human nature, including our sexuality, and even less in its distorted forms, unless we acquire a more fundamental and evidence-based grasp of what we are as human beings and how we become the beings we are whether at our best or at our worst. What are the many factors that enhance our free will to live lives of purpose and integrity on the one hand or on the other hand debilitate that ability and cause us to become mere shadows of what and who we might be, shameful or even dangerous counterfeit human beings?

In beginning this series of reflections on human sexuality and development we at first looked at the horror of sexual abuse as the distortion that it obviously is and then in contrast to it we opened this exploration to the broader vista of human development. Our premise is that we are not born fully developed but develop into the people we become over many years.

There seems to be broad consensus in the human sciences and in society at large that the early years in the womb and infancy are crucial for our development as persons and that our developmental process "closes the loop" as it were by the time we enter into early adulthood. As we consider human sexuality as it is experienced in the current landscape of human society we observe much confusion and pain around sexuality and sexual activity and expression. Even the casual observer can suspect the real existence of a very complex and protracted human developmental process which takes at least 25 years to run its full course.

Human development is a process generating a broad spectrum of characters

Professional anthropologists study artifacts left behind by people who lived in the past or those of people currently alive in various places on the Earth. Those now living can also be observed in the various moments, activities, social structures and practices and anthropologists formulate theories about those they observe, about how aware they are of themselves, how they see themselves, the meaning and purpose they give to their lives, and how they understand their place in the world.

In looking at our own lives and generations, at our own societies, we observe our human capacity for complex personal development, activity, and self-awareness, our profound capacity for reflection and understanding, and our unique capacity to be aware of our faults and to be willing to correct them. On the dark side we are also capable of ignoring self-awareness, of denying our own faults, and  instead of imposing on or attempting to dominate others. The contrast between the saint and the sociopath or psychopath illustrates this wide spectrum of possible human characters and personalities.

The  natural human family composed of a husband/father and a wife/mother with children

At one end of the spectrum of human life we find that the place given to human sexuality is merely as one of many refined dimensions of life. In the loving, faithful, fruitful, and committed relationship of a wife and her husband in marriage as a partnership of equals and a community of life and love, their human sexuality manifests a broad range of expression characterized by tenderness in a variety of relational contexts: towards each other, with children, their own parents and siblings, and others. For such a couple genital sexuality is always about their fertility and power to give life while it is also always about expressing and strengthening their union as persons joined in a unique couple.

Rather than seeking or grasping for pleasure, the husband seeks to pleasure his wife, to whom he attaches himself out of appreciation and gratitude for the multiple ways in which she pours herself out for him and their children as one who gives and nourishes life. His selfless efforts in the bridal chamber are consistent with his efforts each day and all week to attend to his wife and children. He notices each person and attends to them in accord with the nature and needs of each one and in this he greatly values the observations and judgement of his wife and mother of their children.

The tenderness with which she cleaves to her husband expresses her appreciation for his presence, his efforts on her behalf and that of their family, and his consideration and attentiveness to her needs as she forgets herself in pouring out her life energy for those she loves. She values his role in their joint parenting of their children, and she senses the importance of his role as each child develops a sense of identity, of their gender, and that they are loved.

The friendship and manifestly loving relationship of the couple is the solid foundation of their family, in which children are mentored by both a father and a mother and are supported in their individual and collective developmental processes as infants, children, adolescents, youth, and young adults living in the communal context of their own family of origin.

While explicit genital sex does not feature overly prominently in such a universe of marriage and family life; it nevertheless is ever in the background and enjoys a valuable but discrete place as the wholesome expression of the tenderness and affection bonding their parents to each other and open to them as their children. In such a family, human sexuality is appropriately protected and safeguarded by an air of privacy, mystery, responsibility, and mutual respect.

These parents are open yet guarded on sexual issues, taking care to properly form and inform their children at appropriate teaching moments, yet taking care to protect - especially in their early more vulnerable years - their children's innocence of mind, heart, and imagination. From their point of view, our modern social climate and culture is a battleground littered with casualties, with children and youth who have been violated and robbed of innocence. All the more reason do such parents see the importance of their role in doing all they can to construct a lively and loving family environment which is at the same time communally rich and personally responsible.

Sex as the currency of human transactions tends to generate "sex wars" 

If parents find themselves with an obligation to protect the innocence of their children, it is because at the opposite end of the human spectrum we find the casualties of what we could call the "sex wars": those who have suffered, often from infancy, verbal, psychological, and even sexual abuse, or who suffered deficits of loving care, of compassion, of the essentials of human respect and kindness.

Even those who have benefited from proper human care as they grew up may have suffered the lack of proper formation and mentoring that could have helped them to begin to accept and understand themselves, their sexuality in all of its dimensions, and the natural place it has in the whole realm of human relationships in all their variety and complexity. This could happen in environments where the parent or parents suffer a lack of sufficient self-awareness, autonomy, knowledge, or responsibility, and hence engage in sexual activity as a form of currency for surviving or obtaining other goods, attention, influence, of even a position of dominance. Such deficits leave human persons isolated, or poor or raw and needy, and put them at risk to employ their sexuality to grasp as a drowning person might grab a lifesaver; rather than as a way to tenderly give of themselves to the other.

What place does human sexuality have in the emerging lives of young people?

A crucial question which acts as a "tipping point" in the human development of boys and girls into young men and women touches precisely on the place of sexuality in their consciousness. What has their experience of childhood and adolescence allowed them to understand is of greatest importance for them as human beings? Are they discovering as paramount their meaning, purpose, and dignity in life and have they begun to enjoy the freedom of will to go on giving meaning and purpose to their life by fully assuming their inherent human dignity?

In this context are they able to see, understand, accept, and responsibly assume their human sexuality as one dimension among many composing their nature as human beings? They begin to understand that human sexuality is a capacity to give of oneself to the other rather than an impulse to grab and use the other for oneself. This understanding enhances their free will to responsibly assume both their rights and duties in life and in society in view of making their personal contribution to the common good with satisfaction; while engaging in the course of living out their lives as fully as possible.

Here is the reverse side of this "tipping point". On the other hand, when people are not sufficiently formed and mentored by their parents to see, understand, accept, and appreciate their life as a good yet complex reality requiring ongoing learning and personal responsibility; they are at greater risk at a young age or later to be troubled by their human sexuality - from hormones to attractions - and by all that is to be observed in an impulsive society and culture and to be endured at the hands of others.

Even with optimum conditions in which to grow up from infancy to young adulthood, life presents us with any number of challenges to our understanding of life, the world, and society in general and to our self-understanding in particular. Whatever confusion or uncertainty assails us becomes a "hot point" or "sticking point" in our psyche and may remain with us as a problem to be solved or as a vacuum to be filled or again as a challenge to be taken up. Whatever the dynamic is in a young man's or woman's life may determine to a great extent one of the principle directions or orientations of their whole life. Our instinct of self-preservation or of survival tends to push us to resolve those issues that remain as an irritant in our psyche, in our mind or heart or spirit, or even in our physical body.

A preoccupation with illness or injury can drive a person into the medical field. Sensitivity to mental or emotional pain or confusion can drive a person into the related fields of psychiatry or psychology. An experience of emptiness or a single or series of spiritual experiences can drive a person towards related fields of religion, philanthropy, a religious vocation, pastoral ministry, or priesthood. A sense of loneliness can drive a person into some form of communal life or partnership or marriage. A good experience of family life can draw one to find a competent spouse with the complementary gifts of a mother to bear the children one would father or a father for the children one would bear as mother.

A turbulent, effervescent, and unstable culture exacerbates gender confusion

It is not difficult to find in any culture or time or place some men and women either demonstrably militant or more discretely unhappy with their traditionally assigned sexual identities or roles. We could perhaps say that our own western society and culture may perhaps be giving more prominence to gender identity issues than any preceding generations.

Gender confusion or uncertainty - affirmed more factually according to recent research - has been considered a normal but transitory and temporary phase for some children, adolescents, and even for some adults. To be more specific, it has been widely observed that children may spontaneously play "doctor" and explore one another's bodies. Adolescents may suddenly experience arousal at the sight of a same gender friend's physical features or nakedness. While a young person's sense of identity remains incomplete and fluid it can and does happen that they experience such physical arousal and corresponding emotions of attraction and affection. However, for the most part, it has been found that such experiences turn out to be temporary and fade or simply stop as youth continue to develop.

It is not difficult to understand how fluid an adolescent's self understanding may be and how volatile the changes can be in how they are aware of themselves, what that may mean to them, what place that has in their life history to this point, and what other factors may affect and change or affirm how they see, experience, and understand their own self and their life. In negotiating a labyrinth one may find many dead ends and backtrack to seek out a path that goes forward. So too in human development any number of human experiences turn out to be dead ends, accidents along the way, temporary stops but not final destinations.

It is scandalous that certain ideological stances taken by individuals and interest groups are lobbied to governments to impose on children in schools sex ed programs that are in fact propaganda designed to exploit children and youth in order to advance their social engineering agenda. Such self-interested voices seek to replace fact based and traditional understanding of human sexuality with libertarian ideologies promoting sexual exploration and experimentation without any consideration of moral, responsible, or religious principles that have been proved to be beneficial for the individual, for the family, and for society at large. These interests would want to "freeze" children and young people into "labelled" categories of sexual preference or gender rather than respect them and allow them to find their way. Most people throughout history have found their way to some degree of identification with their own gender, either to enter into marriage and family or some form of celibate living.

Developmental stages and the levels of human identity

The "Institut de Formation Humaine Intégrale de Montréal" in its formation programs adopted and has refined classic psychological theory and practice explaining the stages of development of the human person in terms of levels of identity, of which are six.
  1. The body identity - from birth to one year of age
  2. The identity of the doer - from one year to two and a half years
  3. The individual identity - from two and a half to three years of age
  4. The psychosexual identity - from three to six years of age
  5. The psychosocial identity - from six to twelve years of age
  6. The identity of the self - the integration of the human identity at all five previous levels into a single autonomous identity from twelve to eighteen years of age
From eighteen years of age on, the emerging personality goes through the various stages of adult human life, and much research has been done on the stages of adult life. It is very important for all to understand however that from conception to the dawn of adulthood each human being is engaged in the fundamental process of human development which unfolds as best it can. Children need support and understanding, and all those in a position to offer it need to understand that throughout these initial stages of human development the identity of the young person is fluid and in no way fixed.

The trend to redefine and "personalize" gender

The latest trend emerging from France is a whole theoretical or hypothetical philosophical discourse around human gender. The intention seems to be to call into question all that has been understood until now in human history around our gender identity as male or female. We have always known that there is a wide range of expression of "maleness" and "femaleness" among human beings and from one culture and ethnic population to another, from one century or millennium to another. These new ideologues would want to define such variations as entirely new "sexes" or "genders". There would even be some individuals who would want to claim to have "no gender" at all.

Human society seems to be unreasonably tolerant in entertaining such wild imaginings to the point of absurdity by allowing subjective feelings and imaginings to be taken as more real, substantive, and permanent than objectively known, observable, measurable, and definable facts. Only a fool would declare of no value the subjective human experience of life, but it is equally foolish to let subjective experience trump or nullify the cumulative value of our collective experience and knowledge.

Understandably, as children and adolescents experience confusion and uncertainty, it is tempting for them and for those concerned with their development, to want to find clarity to understand what they are experiencing and what is happening to them, including in their human sexuality. The logic at work in what is variously called the "gay lobby" or related movements seeks to define the human being primarily as a sexual being, giving priority to this dimension above all other characteristics and faculties that constitute the human being, the human person. In our time it is no longer unusual to hear adults encouraging young people who experience attraction to someone of their own gender to "lock themselves in" or label / identify themselves as homosexual: lesbian or gay or any of the increasingly numerous fractions of gender "à la carte".

What began some fifty years ago as an offshoot of the civil rights movement seeking to obtain for those who self identify as homosexual the kind of freedom and public recognition increasingly gained by racial or linguistic or ethnic minorities has become an audacious and ostensibly misguided quest to redefine human nature itself and the human person with sexuality as the keystone, the primary factor defining the whole. I don't think there can be any clarity in understanding what it means to be human without beginning with some understanding of the developmental process itself. Eroticization is one of the mechanisms involved in this developmental process and examining this mechanism will turn out to be very enlightening indeed.

We will find the process of eroticization at least a clue to why the current situation is what it is, how it has happened in our day that the trend to define oneself primarily in terms of one's sexuality has come to pass, and why our society and culture has become so obsessed with sex and sexuality.

 What is "eroticization"?

Various dictionaries don't really define the term eroticization but only repeat it in a grammatical loop, such as "to eroticize is to make erotic". Our culture has become so hypersexualized, so obsessed with all that touches on or evokes genital sexuality, that it can only go around in circles without input from other sources, such as the human sciences. Even some of these manifest signs of obsession with sex and sexual pleasure, such that other forms of pleasure have all but faded into insignificance. 

For our purposes here, let us adopt the definition employed at the I.F.H.I.M. mentioned above in the course of teaching and giving practical formation in the mechanisms of the human developmental process. In this context, eroticization is the mechanism whereby a human being from one moment to the next, from conception on but especially from birth, takes "imprints" from the outside world and connects these with its own interior sensations and processes. In Introductory Psychology there is the much quoted experiment of "Pavlov's Dogs" in which the dogs at first don't salivate upon seeing and smelling unknown foods but who later on do salivate upon seeing or smelling them after having eaten and tasted them. The initial experience of seeing, smelling, and then tasting the unknown food leaves a new "imprint" in the animal's conscious and neurological processes. 

Eroticization has taken place, that is, the pleasure principle has been activated and experienced and has left traces or pathways which from then on will tend to seek repetition. Eroticization connects the animal with the object of its pleasure, and in time, other circumstances may join in the association, such as the time of day, or the light in the room, or the color of the plate, or a particular sound, and so on. Almost anything can be caught up into an association with a particular pleasure, and the association may be intensified with use or eventually disassociated altogether through disuse.

The role of "eroticization" in becoming a human person

It is not difficult to understand how dangerous it would be not to enjoy eating or drinking. Should eating and drinking be unpleasant we would all be at risk of dying of hunger and thirst. From the very first moments of life newborns seek nourishment. Every one of the billions of cells in a living body crave the replenishing of nutrients, oxygen, and water, among other things, in order to continue all the biological processes that make up a living being.

In our day most people have seen graphic animations or other representations of how the human brain works with lightning like sparks running between the synapses and establishing connections and paths. Those physical and chemical processes correspond to the "associations" we make between the sight of a food, its fragrance, its taste, the pleasure we take from those sensations, the satisfaction that comes from taking in nourishment and drink, and the awareness we accumulate of all these factors. All of this experience further develops into desire, anticipation, and future planning for acquiring, preparing, and consuming food and drink.

The first experiences of various pleasures and the process of building on those pleasures with the development of memories and imagination grows into a cumulative experience we could call a process of eroticization. We all have a rich and increasingly long and deep experience of pleasures and these make innumerable "associations" with material objects, places, other people, sights, sounds, tastes, fragrances, and countless other factors.

A friend years ago explained to me how he had developed such a strong association between coffee and cigarettes that he could hardly have one without also taking the other. There is abundant literature about strange "sexual tastes or preferences or associations" such as with pain or particular garments and so on. Such associations may initially come about by accident or coincidence, but they may also come about by conscious intent and choice.

Human beings and societies have always understood that we are not machines with no choice but to operate as built, but living organisms with free will and the ability to "shape" our behaviors, tastes, preferences, and choices. Different ethnic populations and cultures manifest different preferences to be assigned to gender as male or female. These have been, until now, widely accepted as beneficial in helping young people to find their way to clarity of identity within themselves but also socially.

The pleasure principle certainly contributes largely to the development, health, and prosperity of the human person, but through interaction with family and wider social groups, individuals also learn to curb their desires to satisfy the pleasure appetites in favor of the good of other people in particular and of the common good in general. Morality and religion have a lot of accumulated knowledge and wisdom that assure sufficient harmony between individual personal growth and happiness and the common good of others in a great variety of groupings.

Inclinations and appetites for sexual pleasure - both the diffuse pleasure of simply being male or female with all their inherent processes and sensations and meanings and the specific experience of sexual pleasure and union - are very powerful and for this reason open up great potential for coming together on such paths as marriage and family, clan or tribe, and nation as well as for division and distress, trouble and hurt, fighting, war, and death. The potential and actual consequences of sexual union are so extreme that most if not all societies develop rules of conduct and taboos to restrain excesses for the sake of peace and cooperation. 

 Eroticization enhancing or disturbing the congruence of one's gender identity

Families and societies that take great care to watch over, protect, raise, and form their children do so in the knowledge that from birth to adulthood children and youth go through and live in progressive states of uncertainty, confusion, curiosity, delight or fear, and desire to grow and emulate their elders. So much of human life and culture has been discovered through hard lessons that there is very great advantage to learning through the experience of others. It is not necessary to constantly re-invent the wheel nor to go through all the pain that others have gone through.

Even with excellent upbringing and mentoring, young people still go through unique experiences and face unique challenges, and they must all make their own decisions and find their own way. They can choose to ignore the collective wisdom of their elders and culture but they must then accept to endure or enjoy the consequences of their choices. Those whose upbringing has faults or deficiencies may very well experience greater challenges or pain as they learn through their own mistakes.

There is wisdom in adhering to the lessons and example of mentors we admire, but it is foolish to take the risk of following ideological speculation and theorizing about artificial constructs around speculative re-definitions of human gender and sexuality. What is even more damaging than theory and thought is trying to put such speculation into practice. With how the eroticization process works there is great risk in "experimenting" with sexual practices because each erotic experience builds on others before it. It is equally possible for a person to build up wholesome sexual development or unhealthy sexual experimentation.

Catholic Christian experience and wisdom teaches that sexual union is so powerful that it is evidently designed to unify one woman and one man for life, exclusively, faithfully, generously, and lovingly. Casual sex or sexual experimentation or union without a life commitment eventually lead to breaking up and this is so painful that there is great risk that one may not recover. Even when one does recover what is lost is the original innocence and the human person's "built in" optimism and joyful outlook.

Employing one's sexual faculty outside the parameters of a chaste, exclusive, faithful, life long union of one man and one woman builds erotic associations, habits, preferences that make it increasingly difficult to enter into the eminently human and paradigmatic union of marriage and family. 

Distorted human beings - undeveloped or "petrified" persons

The more we fire those synapses, the more "beaten" the "path" in the brain, the stronger the impulse or habit becomes to repeat particular practices. Any and every use of our sexual faculty outside of marriage and family has been shown time and again to lead to excesses that lean rather to pain than to happiness, to division rather than to union, to the disintegration of family rather than its progress.

When sexual habits outside the "norm" of marriage and family proven to be the most beneficial for society become increasingly "fixed", a human being becomes hardened, distorted, or petrified. The life of marriage and family provides the ideal environment for human beings to develop more fully their sensibilities to the good and well being of others. In other words, it is in these environments that they are more likely to develop more fully as human persons. Engaging in our human appetites without restraint is dangerous for ourselves but also for others. It is true in many ways and at many levels that "it takes a village to raise a child".

The irreducible complexity of the human being

For the infinity of moments during which we were carried and thrived within the warm, comforting confines of our mother's womb we found ourselves, without awareness of course, on a long growth curve of development in our capacities, sensibilities, and development of responses. Researchers have established much evidence that in the womb we learn to recognize and distinguish our mother's from our father's voice. There develops a complex web of "conspiracy" between mother and child, and more remotely, between father and child.

While in the womb we are more "hemmed in" allowing for few if any options, once "liberated" from the womb or "expelled" from paradise - however each infant experiences it - or both, a vast universe of possibilities and options open up to each little newborn individual human being. A whole host of processes kick in at first separately and distinctly, but in time begin to "network" and interact with one another. All this is true within the individual, in addition to all the hubbub and chaos of all that goes on in the "outside" world as well, requiring the individual to make sense out of the contrast and convergence between the "inner" and the "outer" worlds.

Researchers and psychologists inform us that at birth the infant is still "one" with the mother and is not yet able to experience, much less understand, that there is any distinction between the two. When the infant "grabs" Mom it has the impression it is grabbing itself, because to this point, everything "is me". The infant is literally, though apparently mythically, at the center of its universe. Whenever it has new experiences that contradict this comforting mega truth that "all is me", such as when it draws its first breath which burns its lungs, or when it is slapped by a doctor from the "old school", or when it first experiences the pangs of hunger or the discomfort of a wet or dirty diaper, or any discomfort, the infant goes into distress and cries out. The longer it takes for the discomfort to be resolved the more urgently it cries out to the point, eventually, of turning purple and dying.

The "school of hard knocks" has begun.

As the infant's faculties develop and sharpen, its eyes begin to focus more clearly and responds to the stimulation of color, shape, and movement. The ears begin to notice sounds and distinguishes timber, volume, and impressions of pleasant or unpleasant sounds. The same happens to the senses of taste, touch, and in time, smell. Gradually, these senses interact with one another and complex associations of sense and sensibility form and construct pathways in the brain.

According to the stages of development, in the first year of life, the largest human organ the skin has each individual develop a preference for one of two body modes: active / captative or passive / receptive. This is the very basic and fundamental "body identity". As soon as the infant begins to feel hunger, the one that prefers to be active will begin to grab at the maternal breasts, while the one that prefers to be passive will wait to the very limits of patience. In both cases, once they reach their threshold of patience they will begin to whimper, and if that doesn't work they will cry, and if that still doesn't work they will scream, and so on. Luckily, both modes remain ever possible. The active can choose to be passive at need, and the passive can choose to be active at need, but for the rest of our lives, our preferred mode comes easily while the other will always require more effort and a deliberate decision.

As time goes by, the infant's cerebral development manifests itself with new abilities to remember, to experience pleasure and displeasure, to acquiesce and to refuse, to learn and to reason, to speak and to write, to calculate and imagine, to play and to work, to conceive of goals and desires, and to take steps to realize them, to experience disappointment and jubilation, to conceptualize the difference between present and absent (when Mommy disappears from view she still exists, contrary to previous experience), and the passage of time (Mommy will still exist later when she will return).

At the second stage of human development, that of the "doer" from the ages of one to two and a half, the toddler learns to do many things and begins to take in that there are rules in this game of life. In this family or home we do certain things and we don't do certain things (pull other people's hair). It is the age of potty training, and the anal sphincter affords the individual a new pair of preferences: either to retain or to eliminate upon request, demand, or need. The whole personality will be shaped by this preference, such that the person will either find it easy to spend (eliminate) money and difficult to save (retain) it, or vice versa. One becomes a retentive or eliminative personality. Of course the other mode, the less preferred mode, remains ever possible, but it will simply require more effort and also a deliberate choice each time.

The third level of human identity, that of the "individual" identity, tends to manifest itself all of a sudden, when the toddler suddenly fells and says "I do it myself". Even if it doesn't yet have the skill to do it, the toddler will insist on doing it by themselves. Skillful parents learn how to assist the child without violating this all important sense that they can now do it for themselves.

Somewhere around these ages and stages, with considerable variation from one child to another, a "light" begins to "turn on" within the child's consciousness. It is the "moral compass" which "knows" whether a thing is "good" or "bad". At first it simply mimics the parents but quickly makes each little rule its own. It is quite enlightening to see a child repeating to its doll or teddy bear, often in the parents' own words, precise definitions of rules or behavior, including threats of punishment. The work of a child is carried out in play time, when it repeats what it is observing and learning and in this way building up a repertoire of knowledge about the world and how it works and our place in it.

Shocking but true: each moment opens options into life or towards death

There is no telling at what point any given child may learn to distinguish the difference between a thing that is imagined and a thing that is real, a thing existing in the material and visible world from a thing truly existing in the spiritual and invisible world, a thing safe from a thing dangerous, a thing that is only a whim from a thing that is essential for survival, and so on. So many distinctions are to be learned and made, and every child is quite helpless and dependent and so in need of parenting and guidance and formation and discipline.

Parents, older siblings, aunts and uncles, clergy, teachers, coaches, neighbors, and all manner of folk in a position to accompany and guide a child on a single occasion or in a longer term relationship - all of these find themselves - whether they realize it or not in a position of fiduciary trust. The well being of each child coming into their orbit is entrusted to them, and because the relationship is lopsided in a position of great dependence, much is expected of those who are older and should know better.

Every moment of every day presents to each infant, toddler, child, adolescent, and adult a plethora of options, a veritable labyrinth of choices which, ultimately, either lead toward more abundant life or towards death. Those in formation, and at times even adults, do not immediately see the long term effects and consequences of any given experience, decision, work, act, or failure to speak or act.

How can a human being navigate towards life and away from death?

We all realize and accept that moment by moment we have access to countless points of contact with our inner and outer worlds, and the sheer number of considerations around any given experience or decision or action often drives us to distraction, if not to frustration, or on the contrary to delight. In the school of hard knocks we learn by getting hurt or failing; while in the schools of family, church, and society - both in learning institutions and in the workplace - we benefit from the experience of others. There is no shame in accepting guidance, discipline, and formation. On the contrary, it is wise to do so. At the same time there is satisfaction in making one's own discoveries.

We live in a multiplicity of universes, each with its own laws and ways of functioning, and we refuse to learn them at our own peril. Our own human body is a universe unto itself, with each of billions of cells functioning like little factories with countless intricate and complex functions operating in great harmony. We know about these things now, but from time immemorial people lived in awe of their own body and its many processes.

Our natural environment in which we live and move and have our being also has its own laws and ways of functioning, as do each of the countless living creatures who share this environment with us: micro organisms, insects, fish, crustaceans, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, birds, and those who most resemble us, the great apes. The environment itself is a complex web of interaction and equilibrium between earth, air, and water with such complex operations as plate tectonics, weather, and water currents.

We live in the solar system and, though we cannot reach out to touch the sun, moon, or stars, still they have had a huge impact on our lives, thought, and human society. Since the dawn of time celestial bodies stimulated the human spirit to take notice of the invisible spiritual world, that of God the Creator, angels, saints and demons. While some whimsically dismiss all of these as imaginary, still there is considerable evidence in human history, culture, and religion to indicate that they are all real. That they are invisible to the eye or inaudible to the ear does not necessarily make them unreal.

How then is the human being to navigate successfully towards more abundant life and away from pain, death, and destruction? To use commonly accepted expressions, we must "listen to our body", pay attention to nature and take care of it, take notice of and give consideration to others, and open ourselves to the mysterious realm of the invisible.

In all wisdom, it makes no sense for each human being to have to reinvent the wheel. By schooling at home or in educational institutions we as a society try to inculcate as much knowledge and wisdom as we can in our children and young people. We want to help everyone understand and take care of their own body, to understand and care for nature and the environment, to learn to relate well with others in any number of social situations, to find their place at work and in the world, to discover and relate to the spiritual world, and live a rich and abundant life while contributing to the common good.

It makes no sense for each human being to have to rediscover from scratch any of this common fund of human knowledge, including about moral values and absolutes. Pretty much every human culture, ethnic group, and religion has acquired ways of transmitting to the younger generations what wisdom can derive from the experience of the older generations. In the case of Judaism and Christianity, there is ample and solid evidence to support the claim that God, the Creator of the universe, has intervened directly and revealed certain truths deemed essential for both the survival of humanity in general and the abundant and fruitful life of the individual as well as of the whole community.

Differences in ability and sensibility

Some children - perhaps because they enjoyed an unusually rich family life and loving environment - have in human history displayed remarkable ability in one or more domains from a young age.

Austrian Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, played the harpsichord at three and composed at six; Irishman and future mathematician William Rowan Hamilton by three mastered 4 languages and 13 by the age of 13; Spaniard Pablo Picasso by 15 displayed his first large oil painting; Robert James "Bobby" Fischer won the World Chess Championship at 14; South Korean Kim Ung-Yong began to speak at four months and at two could speak Korean, Japanese, German, and English; Californian Kathleen Holtz became a lawyer at 18; Connecticut environmentalist boy genius Colin Carlson enrolled as a college sophomore at 12 and founded an environmental organization; Jacob Barnett of Indiana began to attend university at 8.

Thérèse de Lisieux at 15 exceptionally was accepted to enter a Carmelite convent and took the name Thérèse de l'Enfant Jésus et de la Sainte Face. She died young and was soon after canonized in the Roman Catholic Church. At two she had a mystical, spiritual experience of Mary the Mother of Jesus and this experience marked her for life, opening her up to the spiritual realm. Once her attention was attuned to the spiritual realm she entered into a personal relationship with God, the divine Trinity of Father, Son Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit, which she related in her journal, kept at the request of her superior. Otherwise the world would never have known anything about her experiences.

These examples bring to our attention that each human being needs to pay attention to their own self, to others, to the world around us, and to God. To the degree we ignore or are hindered from opening up to any of these, then to that degree our life is limited. We can still attain great heights, but for us to experience "our full potential" - a phrase very much in favor at this time - we human beings need to open up to all the realms of which we are a part.

Our own abilities and inner disposition are as important as the quality of the care and guidance we can receive from others from a young age. It has been proven in the lab that living beings, including us humans, quickly die without loving care in infancy when we are so dependent. The more we know we are loved, the more we can thrive and embrace fully the life within and without.

Life is a constant process of observation, awareness, discernment, decision, and action

Some life lessons are easily learned because there is almost universal agreement about their truth. No one who truly cares for children would want them to burn themselves or harm themselves in any way. Physical harm is more easily recognized but some forms of harm are less so. Children abused by their own father, especially sexual abuse, suffer this harm usually in hidden ways and silence. They are in some way threatened to keep silence and when they break the silence, such as speaking to their own mother, they are often disbelieved because the mother cannot bear to accept the truth.

Some truths about life are generally accepted to be stable or always true. In our own day much that at one time was considered so is now coming under question. Male human beings were always known to be boys and females to be girls. While there might we a very wide range of expressions of male and female gender; still no one ever seriously questioned their gender until now.

In the ongoing moment by moment labyrinth of sensations, emotions, thoughts, social situations, inner spiritual movements, and overall human experiences, how can human beings from a young age make sense out of all that comes in and that they experience unless they allow themselves to be guided by trustworthy mentors and teachers, not only by word but especially by example?

For Roman Catholic Christians, the model for marriage and family life continues to be one woman to one man for life in complete fidelity and chastity, through a life of sacrificial love and self-giving. However, given all that we have reflected upon above, it is not difficult to conceive how any one child - depending on the accumulating universe of sensations, experiences, choices, pains, joys... might call in question much about themselves.

With the help of psychotherapy and spiritual direction and the strength afforded by God through the sacraments, some men and women who self identified as gay or lesbian have come either to identify as simply man or woman capable of traditional marriage and family life. Others do not achieve this outcome but do embrace a life of chastity through celibacy and discover a meaningful and fruitful life beyond their wildest dreams. Many testimonies can be found with the "Courage" movement.

The current trend to manipulate "gender identity" seems an error given the high complexity of the human experience in general and of human sexuality in particular. Sex is so powerful a faculty by itself as well as in tandem with our fertility and procreative faculty that outside of marriage and family it is difficult to imagine who sexual experience can be "tamed" or "life giving". The sheer magnitude of the desire / pleasure / ongoing desire cycle tends to resemble addiction more than anything else when engaged in outside of the stable structure and support of faithful, life long marriage and family life. It is the family after all that best supports human development and allows human beings to fully develop and open themselves up to others while avoiding the deadly traps of self absorption and obsession that we so so rampant in the world as it is currently so distorted by the degradation and disintegration of western society.

If we human beings are to find our way amid the confusion and safely navigate in the dark towards the light and life while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls that lead to so many forms of death, we need to observe astutely, to be exquisitely aware, to discern rightly what is true from what is false or only apparent, we need to avoid or renounce what is evil and to choose and act for what is the good. We have no lack of resources, teachers, mentors, good examples, and even divine revelation to guide us on our way. It is up to each of us to choose life and renounce death.

It is good that we are not alone

One of the great values of human existence is the treasure of human community. We need not be or live alone because there are always some or many who love us and some or many whom we can love and serve to help them achieve the good. Even those who know nothing of God or the Creator can and do live extraordinary human lives in great philanthropy and public service. The family itself is the place where the most generous human acts take place, often hidden from public view. Children know best the rich ways in which they have been beneficiaries of the selfless service of others.

However, we are often dealt bad hands, find ourselves in deadly situations, get caught in nasty traps, make bad decisions and get into trouble and even hurt. That is why Jesus consistently taught what He called the truth while practicing what He called mercy. According to Jesus, God is patient with us, to allow us time to pick ourselves up with his help; while at the same time out of love for us He warns us quite sternly to avoid all that leads to death. "Choose to live and not to die" God says to everyone.

Our individual roads may not always be straight, but it is important that we look up to see our good destination and navigate by all the stars at our command. It is important that we never give up or give in to discouragement or despair, because we are not gods. We don't need to try to carry the burden of the whole world on our frail shoulders because that is God's job. As John quoted Jesus in the Book of Revelation chapter 3 verses 19-20:

"I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me."

God wants to share our life, to help us reach higher and achieve farther, all the while enriching the lives of others around us and in the world. We all find it inspiring when we catch sight of someone doing something remarkable for others, with no thought of gain for themselves but only the sheer joy of enriching the lives of others. In our own day we see prepubescent children starting projects that turn into worldwide caring projects thanks to the powerful media of social networks. Churches also continue to act as powerful agents for the common good.

Happy New Year!


My purpose in these posts is to help spread the contributions of a variety of Christian and other writers in a desire to share significant writings that in my estimation contribute to the common good and directly or indirectly give glory to God and extend the Lord's work of salvation to all of humanity. G.S.


© 2004-2021 All rights reserved Fr. Gilles Surprenant, Associate Priest of Madonna House Apostolate & Poustinik, Montreal  QC
© 2004-2021 Tous droits réservés Abbé Gilles Surprenant, Prêtre Associé de Madonna House Apostolate & Poustinik, Montréal QC

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