Sunday, September 30, 2012

The borderline society and its discontents part II - Arrested development

The last post set up the following ideas: that at times in our past certain types of mental distress have been seen as appropriate reactions to the stresses and demands of the times, and that all of society may be mentally ill, in which case we may need to look carefully at the individual's place within it and work out what is problematic and what may be actually quite healthy.

If society has a mind, and there is something wrong with it, the models i found most useful here turned out to be staged models of individual development. The classic one is  Kohlberg's stages of moral development. Maslow and Erikson also used staged models of the human life cycle.  In all of the models i looked at there is a normative progression from the infantile ego to the mature involement of the person in the whole of society. Some models even hint at a more universal stage where the person understands connections not just to others in society but to the planet or the spiritual realm. Of course all of these models are roundly critiqued and with some justification, especially by earlier feminist thinkers. It is no coincidence that the features of a mature individual in the global North are the stereotypical features of a  European man. Aside from these useful critiques, i am interested in the general trend of development, from smaller egocentric world to the bigger concerns of family and work, to the care of others and eventually the whole world. i was interested too in the views of both Kohlberg and Maslow that many people do not develop fully; they get stuck at a kind of middle level where they can see the needs of others around them but they do not progress beyong their immediate concerns. Kohlberg could find nobody who acted consistently at the highest level. Is this our problem? Do we all get stuck at a level around, perhaps, late adolescence?

There are lots of  views on the issue of prolonged adolescence. Prolonged adolescence was first noticed academically as far back as the 1920's. An article from that time observed that young men of privilege were beginning to shy off adult reponsibilties until later in their lives. Now, we observe that young people are more self absorbed, stay home longer, take less financial repsonsibility and have a stronger sense of their own entitlement. We have a stereotype of the 35 year old petrol head who hates the parents he lives with, is in and out of menial work, and spends all his money on toys. It wasn't like that in my day, we say. We left home at 17 and never looked back. Our kids are buoyed up, told they're special, lack for nothing except good discipline, we say. No wonder they can't cope.

Someone with a deeper view of the whole arrested development thing is Bill Plotkin. He wrote a book called Soulcraft where he developed his own model of development. As usual his stages move from an infantile ego stage to further and wider exploration of the world of family, nature, intimate relationships, community service and eventually an integrated wisdom as we give back to the universe and prepare for the next great step. He also sees this model working on three levels of ego, soul and nature. This is his beginning point:

'Over the past two hundred years, industrial civilization has been relentlessly undermining Earth's chemistry, water cycles, atmosphere, soils, oceans and thermal balance. Plainly said, we have been shutting down the major life systems of our plantet. Compunding the ecological crisis are decaying economies, ethnic and class conflict, and worldwide warfare. Entwined with, and perhaps underlying, these devastation are epidemic failures in individual human development.

'True adulthood, or psychological maturity, has become an uncommon achievement in Western and Westernized societies, and genuine elderhood nearly nonexistent. Interwoven with arresed personl development, and perhaps inseperable from it, our everyday lives and drifted vast distances from our species' original intimacy with the natural workd and from our own uniquly individual natures, our souls...

' My beginning premise is that a more mature human society requires more mature human individulas...My second premise is that nature, (including our own deepr nature, soul) has always provided and still provides the best template for human maturation...A third premise is that every human being has a unique and mystical relationship to the wild world and that the conscious discovery and cultivation of that relationship is at the core of true adulthood. In contemporary society, we think of maturity simply in terms of hard work and practical responsibilities. I believe, in contrast, that true adulthood is rooted in transperonal experience... This mystical affiliation is the very core of maturity, and it is precisely what mainstream Western society has overlooked - or actively suppressed and expelled.'*

Plotkin goes on to advocate for rites of passage and for a very intimate involvement with nature in order to work ourselves past the adolescent stages. He is quite radical on this. We need real rites that involve descent into true life threatening spiritual darkness. We need to get beyond playing with this stuff.  On adolescence he says:

'Arrested personal growth serves industrial "growth". By suppressing the nature dimension of human development...industrial grown society engenders an immature citizenry unable to imagine a life beyond consumerism and soul-suppressing jobs.'

With regard to Borderline Personality Disorder, a lot of work has done on early attachments and early failures to mentalise. For example, at the age of about four a child develops theory of mind. At that age she learns two vital things - that people cannot read her mind, and that she can understand the feelings of others (empathy). If these theory of mind processes are interrupted the emotional development can be thwarted. For many of us, we notice that when we are desperately, self destructively upset we regress to about four years old. We fail to empathise. We think others should instantly understand us. We don't get it when they can't read out minds and yet we think we can read theirs. Sometimes great distress can push us back to an infant state - we are not yet capable of words in that state, we can only cry or throw things. This is all fairly well understood.

Well and good, but I think it is no coincidence that personality disorders emerge in adolescence. i think lots of us get stuck there. So, what is it like being an adolescent mind in an adolescent society, and what do we need?

The lacunae are all his except the last one. A larger excerpt from the book is on his website.

No comments:

Post a Comment