Saturday, January 12, 2013

Our parents give us meaning

We crave meaning in the approval of the parent, real and imagined.

How many times do you hear.. if only my father had said I was doing OK, if only my father said he loved me, if only I had a chance to show my mother how well I was doing before she died...? We grow up competing for our parent's attention and utterly dependent on it. If there is one sure influence from childhood, it is the frame of reference and attitudes of the parents. Sometimes this happens in reverse, by rebellion, but inevitably we later become our parents, so enmeshed in their world that leaving entirely is not an option.

And when they are gone? What then? The Romans, Japanese, and many other cultures made cults of their parents (in patriarchial fashion, just the male line). The parent is called to an alter where their judgement, forgiveness, boons, and advice are sought. Their gifts to us and ongoing effects are recognized. Their utter absence is so inconceivable that prayer starts to make sense. After all they are so much a part of us that even if we are mumbling to ourselves, we speak to them too.

But why keep a different flame at every alter and hearth? They are ultimately the same supervisory concept, and a culture gains solidarity from giving them the same name. God. It is funny how, no matter the theological complexity and reasoned mystery of one's god, it is never "it", but always "Him" (or in outré cases, "Her").

The model never strays far from the father/mother model, which makes it immensely powerful- as a way to acculturate children with concepts the actual parents are not strong enough to convey, as a way to sanction whatever the reigning powers want to do, as a way to comfort and soothe adults who remain children deep inside. It goes to the extreme of denying death itself, as if putting our heads under the covers will make the horror go away.

And of course, it gives the deepest meaning to those who believe most "deeply". Who see the universe as a machine to give them meaning through the imagined directives of the invisible father, who gives them the most arduous tasks, attends to their most minute needs, and gives them the most glorious rewards. It almost makes you wonder just how far that great principle of neoteny can go- how far humans can go by refusing to grow up. For creating meaning is the true task of the adult.

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