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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, March 16, 2006

pain and evil

A quiet day of gradually increasing hip pain. One problem is that there is no comfortable position--anyway, none that I've been able to find (and I have looked). I broke down and took an Ibuprofen about half an hour ago, but with no discernible effect.

That aside, I did do some writing this morning, and indeed made three pages. I found myself distracted by my inquiry into the psychology of identity--and particularly as this applies to the phenomenon of evil. Last month I set up a separate Word document entitled "Thinking - Evil". Today I opened it and made another entry.

What are my thoughts on evil? It's not a simple thing. I have been reading books on it (Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy Baumeister and Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing by James Waller) and thinking about it. I have also been reading Vital Lies, Simple Truths by Daniel Goleman, about the psychology of self-deception (props to Goleman for using the phrase "vital lies" in his title, which is from Ibsen). In the latter I felt a spark of special interest in some ideas from the American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan. Here is an extract (compressed):

Trauma in later life can activate an earlier self-image.

Psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan traces the root of this process to the infant learning to pilot his way through the world between tender rewards for being good and punishments for being bad. When the "mothering one" shows disapproval, the infant feels anxiety at the loss of tenderness. He learns to act in ways that will increase tenderness and avoid disapproval.

The range of the mother's disapproving acts, from mild reprimand to utter anger, produces a matching, graduated range of anxiety in the child. This anxiety gradient more or less directs the course of how the child develops.

The child's history of praise or censure comes to define his experience of himself. Three sorts of experience are key to identity. "With rewards, the anxiety gradient, and sudden severe anxiety there comes a personification of three phases of what presently will be me": "good-me," "bad-me," and "not-me."

In the "good-me," satisfactions have been enhanced by a reward of tenderness. "As it ultimately develops," says Sullivan, the good-me "is the ordinary topic of discussion about 'I'." The good-me is who we like to think we are.

"Bad-me" entails experiences in which varying degrees of disapproval have generated anxiety in the child. The bad-me is the sense of self connected with the anxiety, guilt, and shame of being naughty. The naughty child feels love withdrawn, which in turn generates anxiety. The bad-me arises in the mind with those things we do or have done about which we feel regrets or remorse.

Some of my notes from yesterday:

The early parenting of the child, the "good" and "bad" commands from mother, and the effects of these on generating our defense mechanisms, may be a key clue to evil. Evil is simply the agglomeration of the "bad."

The thing is that we learn good and bad this way--and that we are both: sometimes one, sometimes the other. And that we are to train ourselves to be the good in us, and not be the bad. As we try to grow into the good-me, the bad-me lives on in the unconscious--Jung's shadow, the (implied) personality that holds the rejected traits and behaviors. This is our dark twin--the me that was entire before I was trained to reject the bad-me. We are torn in two along an ethical divide.

And here are some of my notes from this morning:

The infant is born with a huge task of personal survival, and as a human being has a vocation to discover his oneness with others, his essential identity with them. From this view, the moral training of the parents is doing him a favor, as though to say, "We are getting you to behave the way you would want to behave if you were fully aware of all the relevant factors--we are yourself, your future self, acting on behalf of 'yourself' to constrain you in the right direction."

In this view, raising a child is a matter of getting him to inflict a minimum of harm on himself and others, so that his moral "account" is as clear as possible. The infant's real problem is not his "bad" nature but his ignorance--of himself, of the world, and of morality. He needs to be educated into the way he truly is.

There is much more going on in my mind about this. These are a sampler.

The second Ibuprofen seems to be working. What a miracle analgesics are!

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