Foundational to our personhood is the freedom to make our needs known to others without shame or negative repercussions.
Babies are born with an innate understanding of this freedom. They shamelessly scream to the world their wants and needs, and it is considered quite acceptable (for a season).
Over time, we teach a child to present their desires appropriately, such as waiting for Mom to get off the phone or saying “Please may I” not “I wanna,” but still, the freedom to express needs AND desires is a foundational part of a healthy childhood.
Clearly, we do not give our kids everything they want. However, in an emotionally sound environment they should be free to express their wants, even when those things are inappropriate, and to not feel assaulted, even when the answer is “No.”
There are several aberrations to the normal parenting curve.
-One very simple scenario is parents who are too busy or too self-absorbed to listen with their heart to the heart of their children. While no overt offense is intended, being too busy with adult stuff to engage in the world of a child’s needs or wonderings, sends a very loud message to the child about how valueless their feelings are. Only their behavior is considered significant to the adults.
-In the home of an alcoholic or rage-aholic, children’s needs are often treated as an offense to the family, since the only needs that matter are those of the emotional tyrant in the tribe.
-In a very poor home, the desires children have for the things that other kids have cause shame and hurt to the parents who can’t provide those things even if they wanted to. If the parents are not well grounded emotionally, they will tend to react to the kids and make the kids feel guilty for wanting things that the parents can’t give.
-If the child’s desires are different from that of the family culture, those desires may be highly dishonored. Imagine the child designed by God to be a violinist, being born into a family of committed farmers, or the doctor whose daughter wants to be an auto mechanic. In an ideal situation, the parents can embrace God’s design for their kids, but too many parents have some pre-defined limits to what constitutes an acceptable career path for their kids.
-And in a home where the parents suffer from lack of legitimacy, it is quite common for all of the children’s needs to be subordinated to the central metric of the kids looking good so that the parents look good.
-Perhaps the most difficult is the child whose feelings are considered to be aberrant by the parents. Many children have spiritual discernment which the parents don’t have, and when the kids say they are afraid to go somewhere because it is scary, they are apt to be ridiculed or rebuked. Others have sexual desires that are abnormal for their age, and they are shamed and punished instead of having parents who work to find the root cause.
When a child finds that sharing his needs and wants is unsafe, it will dampen his or her sense of personhood. When another sibling has free rein to share their feelings and to be validated for them, it really slams the first one as being quite flawed, unnatural or defective, further solidifying exclusion from the office of personhood.
Think of it in terms of the service industry. We treat them like non-persons in this regard. I show up at a hotel to check in. There is a humanoid on the other side of the counter who smiles politely, checks me in and sends me on my way.
But suppose that polite lady is hurting because her father had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s the day before, and she desperately needs to talk to someone who had been down that road and could give her some perspective.
She has some needs, but the business culture vigorously urges her not to share them with the general public. She is hereby removed from the office of person for the eight hours she is on duty and is placed in the office of “economic unit designed to generate value for the boss.”
So aside from work where we learn to put on a “professional” (i.e. non-real) face, what does it look like to be a non-person in this sector of the puzzle?
-You are a parent who listens to everyone else’s life at dinner but no one asks about your day, and you don’t feel free to intrude your emotions into the discussion.
-You are at a restaurant with a glass of tea. You like real sugar in your tea, but all that is in the box is artificial sweeteners. You don’t ask the waitress for a refill on the sugar, even though you know you could.
-You never ask to borrow a tool from your neighbor, even though you know he is generous in sharing his resources in the neighborhood.
-Someone asks you what you want for Christmas and you tell them something you think they can afford, not what you really would like.
-You are in a group discussion about sports, religion or politics. You have strong opinions but never jump into the conversation, and no one ever asks what you think.
-Five people are going somewhere in a car, and the other four swiftly decide who sits where, without even consulting you.
-You are on a prayer ministry team, but you don’t feel free to share what you heard from the Lord.
-You think about blogging but conclude no one would want to hear what you think anyway.
-You read an intense thread on someone else’s Facebook regarding something you have deep feelings about, but you don’t jump in and comment.
In short, you live in a world of feelings, opinions, thoughts and ideas which are not shared voluntarily and which few people seem to seek out! What is particularly ironic and grating is that you have learned to be exceptionally sensitive to other people and what they are thinking and feeling, but it is not reciprocated.
So how do you change that scenario when it operates outside you?
For me it was a quite surprising transition. As a child, I wondered about a lot of things other people did not wonder about, had no answers for, and were quite at peace with not knowing.
(Message to Arthur: you think weird thoughts).
For example: I wondered why God used a Roman census to move Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem instead of sending an angel. None of the spiritual giants who wrote the sundry commentaries available to me ever wondered that, apparently. I know. I checked.
(Message to Arthur: you think really weird theological thoughts. Quit it and get a life).
But one day decades later as I was flying from London to Newcastle, God spoke and explained why He did that. It was a fascinating discovery!
That was the beginning of God answering questions I had wondered about that others didn’t wonder about. Sometimes He would bring me someone who would offer up some tidbit of information I wanted. Other times He would take me to Scripture and show the answer. And sometimes, He would just tell me!
I loved receiving the data, but never connected the critical dots for years. Eventually God pointed out that He was not just serving as my cosmic reference librarian. Rather He ENJOYED the ramblings of my brain! He enjoyed listening to what I was pondering while waiting in line for the airplane (which had nothing to do with the airport or its environs).
That was a milestone day.
God was not humoring me.
God was not just resourcing me for Kingdom ventures.
God was enjoying me AND my thoughts!
I pondered why He would enjoy my questions which seem to irritate other people. Suddenly the picture was clear. I thought those thoughts and asked those questions because He wired me to! My questions originated with Him! Of course He would enjoy them.
Something huge shifted in me that day but I want to make a fine distinction here.
People are broadly self-absorbed. Most people like me for what I can help them with and they don’t generally take the time to know me as a person. I am their encyclopedia. And that has not changed. We Americans are not the most sensitive, outward focused, community oriented people. Simple reality.
HOWEVER, after that encounter with God, I have found that I have permission internally to express my wishes. Whether it is asking for extra blue cheese on the side or letting my host know that there is no soap in the bathroom, it is easier.
Also of note, is that with the exception of the occasional perennially rude service person, I am broadly accepted when I share my wishes or needs — I am not seen as rude or demanding (I think, anyway!).
Copyright November 2011 by Arthur Burk
From the Quarterdeck, in Anaheim after five hard days of grinding on this one little blog. Grrr . . .