Monday, May 21, 2012

Octomom, Co-dependancy, and Intentional Love - M. Scott Peck

* I've been randomly going through the sections that have really struck me in M. Scott Peck's book The Road Less Travelled. In his section on love he attempts to define love by describing what love is not. Last time I wrote about love not being the same as "falling in love",

Peck has a chapter on "Cathexis Without Love". I think we'd define it it as co-dependency, and the chapter made some great points about the way some people pour out "love" for pets and yet struggle to form healthy relationships with people. Peck compares this to military men with war brides that couldn't speak English. "When their brides learned English, the marriages began to fall apart. The servicemen could then no longer project upon their wives their own thoughts, feelings, desires and goals and feel the same sense of closeness one feels with a pet."

"I define dependency as the inability to experience wholeness or to function adequately without the certainty that one is being actively cared for by another." The concept isn't new to me and I've had some great discussions on co-dependency in marriage and in friendships. Still, Peck's descriptions are fascinating.
Dependency may appear to be love because it is a force that causes people to fiercely attach themselves to one another. But in actuality it is not love; it is a form of antilove. It has its genesis in parental failure to love and it perpetuates the failure.
Rapid changeability is characteristic of passive dependent upon as long as there is just someone. It does not matter whom they are dependent upon as long as there is just someone. It does not matter what their identity is as long as there is someone to give it to them. Consequently their relationships, although seemingly dramatic in their intensity, are actually extremely shallow. Because of the strength of their sense of inner emptiness and the hunger to fill it, passive dependent people will brook no delay in gratifying their need for others.

Maybe what struck me most was when Peck talked about co-dependency as exhibited by people overly attached to their pets, overly-submissive wives, or infants. Think octo-mom here, but then much more personally and convicting, I think I can see this in myself too. I love babies, but it gets harder to connect after that.
Affection is dependant on her being a pet who lacks the capacity to respect her strength, independence and individuality. Probably the most saddening example of this phenomenon is the very large number of women who are capable of "loving" their children only as infants. .... They may be ideal mothers until their children reach the age of two - infinitely tender, joyously breast-feeding, cuddling and playing with their babies, consistently affectionate, totally dedicated to their nurture, and blissfully happy in their motherhood. Then, almost overnight, the picture changes. As soon as a child begins to assert its own will - to disobey, to whine, to refuse to play, to occasionally reject being cuddled, to attach itself to other people, to move out into the world a little bit on it sown - the mother's love ceases. She loses interest in the child, decathects it, perceives it only as a nuisance. At the same time she will feel an almost overpowering need to be pregnant again, to have another infant, another pet.
What this suggest is that the "love" of infants and pets and even dependently obedient spouses is an instinctual pattern of behavior to which it is quite appropriate to apply the term "maternal instinct" or, more generally, "parental instinct." We can liken this to the instinctual behavior of "falling in love": it is not a genuine form of love in that it is relatively effortless, and it is not totally an act of will or choice; it encourages the survival of the species but is not directed towards its improvement or spiritual growth; it is close to love in that it is a reaching out for others and serves to initiate interpersonal bonds from which real love might begin; but a good deal more is required to develop a healthy, creative marriage, raise a healthy, spiritually growing child or contribute to the evolution of humanity.

The challenge for me, am I committed to the complexity and pain of raising a child rather than just mothering an infant? Yes, I am, but I have to say that there are times when toddlerhood is incredibly draining compared to the one-sided relationship of early infancy. I suppose in the end it emphasizes that love is relationship, interactive, growing. Peck says that love is not just giving, it is "judicious" giving. I think he means intentional. If I substitute that word, "Love is not simply giving; it is intentional giving and intentional withholding as well. It is intentional praising and intentional criticizing. It is intentional arguing, struggling, confronting, urging, pushing and pulling in addition to comforting. It is leadership."

He also has a great section on intimate connection being confused with love. We intimately connect with people and things, and it looks a lot like love but is not love. We may deeply connect with a person but this, "does not mean that we care a whit for that persons' spiritual development. The dependant person, in fact, usually fears the spiritual development of a cathected spouse." And, "the intensity of our cathexes frequently has nothing to do with wisdom or commitment:...."

The fact that a feeling is uncontrolled is no indication whatsoever that it is any deeper than a feeling that is disciplined.... While one should not be a slave to one's feelings, self-discipline does not mean the squashing one's feelings into nonexistence.... The proper management of one's feelings clearly lies along a complex balanced middle path, requiring constant judgement and continuing adjustment. Here the owner treats his feelings with respect, nurturing them, listening and responding to their voices, encouraging them... yet also organizing them, limiting them and teaching them, all the while leaving no doubt as to who is the boss. This is the path of healthy self-discipline.

Then, after talking a lot about what love isn't, Peck talks about what love is, and how truly loving will mean experiencing pain. He also talks about commitment. I've always said that love can be equated with commitment, but commitment without love can also exist. A commitment TO love is crucial.

Commitment is inherent in any genuinely loving relationship.... Couples cannot resolve in any healthy way the universal issues of marriage - dependency and independency, dominance and submission, freedom and fidelity, for example - without the security of knowing that the act of struggling over these issues will not itself destroy the relationship.

This reminds me of the book The Giving Tree, in which the empty tree is a sad ending for many nurturers. What Peck says is what is true of how believers perceive a life fueled by the Spirit rather than simply giving up yourself and being left with nothing.

Call it what you will, genuine love, with all the discipline that it requires, is the only path in this life to substantial joy. Take another path and you may find rare moments of ecstatic joy, but they will be fleeting... Genuine love is self-replenishing. The more I nurture the spiritual growth of others, the more my own spiritual growth is nurtured

And, most fascinating to me is that Peck worked himself through psychology to God and religion. You can see the beginning of this journey in this book and in quotes like this:

Clearly there are dimensions of love that have not been discussed and are most difficult to understand. I do not think questions about these aspects (and may more) will be answered by sociobiology... The people who know the most about such things are those among the religious who are students of Mystery.

And, totally randomly, he had this rabbit trail in the chapter that included this gem of a quote on hobbies. I wrestle with knowing when a hobby is healthy and needed (which is true for me, a bit of a work-a-holic) and when they can be destructive distractions:
Hobbies are self-nurturing activities... To nourish the spirit the body must also be nourished. We need food and shelter. No matter how dedicated we are to spiritual development, we also need rest and relaxation, exercise and distraction. Saints must sleep and even prophets must play.... But if a hobby becomes an end in itself, then it becomes a substitute for rather than a means to self-development.... This dedicated effort to improve their skill serves to give them a sense of progress in life and thereby assists them in ignoring the reality that they have actually stopped progressing.


Jaimie said...

I like that last paragraph. Since I was raised with so much Protestant guilt, I always wonder if anything I love is actually Bad For Me. Because, you know, if you love something a lot You Might Love It More Than God. As if love can be measured like that...

But I like the idea, instead, that over-devotion to one thing might be impeding your personal growth. I think the key for me, as a writer, is to diversify. Don't just write. Do other things. Get out. Make friends. Live.

Rae said...

Peck's main example struck me because it is my father much more than my mother who absolutely adores babies and has a much harder time with older children. And, somewhat related, he would say that we could have a kitten/puppy as soon as we found one that wouldn't turn into a cat/dog.

But maybe there is something to that:

And no, I didn't ignore your real point, I just feel like I know very little about love. Though I do know that parenting can be a killer hobby. :-D

Kacie said...

mmhhm, yes, I've heard about that research before. It's true that so much about infants is made to bond and build intimacy with the parents. Makes sense, because if there wasn't this instinctual bond, many wouldn't stick around through the incredibly draining infant stage where every moment of your attention is taken.