(Earlier written October, 1997; revised July 1, 2002)
In this paper I suggest that even as there are more and less obvious forms of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, I want to extend that idea to other arenas, such as those hurtful and disempowering behaviors that neglect and repress the natural functions of imaginativeness and spontaneity. I've alluded to some of these common trends in chapters on the inhibition of play in my book, The Art of Play, but here I want to remind the reader that this repressive process partakes to some degree of the dynamics of abuse.
When you live in the water, you don't notice it's wet. When you live in a world without insulation or air conditioning, you become hardened to extremes of cold and heat. You try to protect yourself from these extremes with clothes, stoves, fans, but life is really more full of discomfort. Living in modern circumstances, people become "soft," accustomed to a degree of comfort not available to those who don't have this luxury. Many people in the world get used to living with the stench of feces and urine, rotting garbage and clouds of flies. They stop suffering from such assaults on their sense of smell. You get used to it.
People who have been physically abused get used to it. They develop a kind of hardness. They assume everyone lives this way. There have been cultures where violence is much more a part of life than most people remember. Only a hundred years ago, it was taken for granted that parents should beat their children to a degree that has become horrific today. And teenagers experimented sexually with younger children far more freely--it wasn't even worth mentioning.
I make these points because as consciousness evolves, cultural norms evolve also. And there has been a kind of hardening of the imagination in the last few hundred years, living in a culture that has gone overboard in its campaign to stamp out "superstition."
The philosophy called "positivism" has infiltrated and come to dominate culture, not because of the logical arguments of this complex of concepts, but because it serves the economic interests of the ruling classes: We need people to stop being dreamers and get to work. And in an industrialized world, daydreaming can allow your hair to get caught in the machinery.
It's really far more complex than this--actual history is "caused" by thousands of factors, from the influence of individuals to the fashions in science and the ways people develop some sense of importance and value. In our culture, status has come to be overly associated with science, and in a lower key, science has become associated with the work of men. That science has been significantly funded by social structures who are mostly interested in its military application should not be ignored.
The bottom line is that there has emerged a general consensus as to the desirability to "get real." As differentiated to living with illusion. Now, illusion, pretend, imagination, subjectivity, fantasy, story, myth, and other products of the mind's capacity for imagery and intuition have become neglected, devalued, discounted, associated with women (in the negative, not-to-be-respected sense) and children, who are too immature to be considered capable of seeing, hearing, or knowing anything of value.
Of course, we still live in a time in which infants are viewed as being relatively incapable of feeling pain, and not only circumcisions, but even other surgical procedures have been inflicted on babies with the belief that they won't remember it! As our consciousness is growing, as we learn more about memory and infant development, such beliefs are becoming horrible--yet there are still many hold-outs who still don't accept this new data.
Another assault on imaginativeness has emerged, a more subtle and seductive form--closer to a type of sexual seduction than physical abuse. Let others do your imagining for you, as if to say, "Relax your mind. You don't have to pretend, we'll create the images, we'll play out the stories, we'll exercise these capacities for you!"
There's a certain point at which watching sports can serve as a stimulus to playing the sports; and another point when one slips over into letting the spectator role substitute for the active role, and one becomes a couch potato. And similarly, there's a point at which a certain richness of exposure to how others have used imagination serves as a stimulus to a person then exercising his or her own imagination; and it's possible to so saturate one's existence with that which has been created by others so that one literally forgets to create for oneself.
The combination of being told in a hundred subtle ways not to indulge in imagination and the exercise of imagination becoming the (commercialized) province of experts--artists as entertainers, leads to a profound dis-empowerment of one's own capacity to create imaginatively. People, more often than not, tend to deny their ability to make up melodies, dances, poetry, stories, to dramatically improvise, even to play freely with young children. These most natural of activities have become somewhat atrophied!
Women who live in abusive relationships, even those without overt physical violence, come to believe themselves incapable of living without the perpetrator of that abuse. They believe they deserve the abuse. From the outside, we call it "poor self-esteem," but from the inside, it's just reality.
It's time to realize that we have made a normal, natural part of our culture a general belief that imagination and intuition are second-class (or worse) capacities--that they incline people to insanity, foolishness, illusion, and that the more one indulges in such activities the weaker one's mind becomes.
This belief has a certain power of self-fulfilling prophecy, because when an activity is exercised in secret, or alone, when there is a lack of interpersonal and group validation or a clear social role, a vehicle for channeling that activity, it tends to become mixed with that which must be kept secret, a good deal of which involves the darker dimensions of the psyche.
But when intuition and imagination are consciously cultivated, they become channels of great power and creativity. And these sources are as natural as the sexual impulse. Freud was somewhat correct about sex, but became overly focused on that dimension of life; Adler, Jung, and others noted that what he said about repression applied also to the need for feeling effective in life, for spirituality, for the tendency to avoid responsibility, and other sources of motivation. And I would add that the very abilities for intuition and imaginativeness, if not channelled along socially acceptable roles, also tend to become neglected or even actively repressed.
Children perceive a rich world of life. That they attribute life to things is not simply a projection of an animistic tendency in cognition. This judgement arises from our dominant cultural bias that what they perceive is not "really" there. "They're just making it up." Note the implicit disqualification in that word, "just." Consider, however, the outrageous possibility that there may be a world unseen to most adults in this culture, but to those "who have eyes to see," there are perceptions that, while not being exactly "extra-sensory," are significantly influenced by or interactive with that sense called "intuition."
For some people, intuition is a very strong sense, and many life decisions are based on it. For "primitive" people (there's that term with its devaluing connotation--should we call them "non-technologically developed"?), some remarkable (to us) abilities for hunting, healing, and other activities are ordinary to them.
What if children have a natural capacity for spirituality and art that is largely neglected and subtly suppressed? In fact, once your consciousness begins to get raised on this issue, the ways our schools, churches, ordinary parenting techniques, recreational centers, camps, and the like do suppress such dimensions isn't very subtle at all!
We have a mixture of an over-valuation of competition, physical strength, speed, and other types of prowess, a willingness to face physical fear, a hardness to being teased and a readiness to fight back, a cultural iconography of physical violence, and similar values which offer strong "flavors" tinged with intimidation to those who might be "sissy" enough or too "puny," "childish," "feminine," to seek other channels of experiencing life. And the analogy to flavor is valid in a physiological sense--one can become accustomed to coarse, high-stimuli experience in order to dampen the system's sensitivity to more fine-tuned experiences.
Fine-tuned experiences, such as softer or more complex music, more natural, non-spiced-up foods, slower actions, and the like, tend to be associated negatively with "sensitive" types of people. Yet at another level of historical evolution, we are moving toward that very sensitivity because it's really not so necessary for adaptation to be hard--to physically fight; to endure extremes of heat, cold, fear, etc. And certain activities occur more effectively when people are allowed to relax and become safe from such coarse activities--activities such as creating new computer software.
In fact, the world really needs far less of the warrior mentality and far more of what still tends to be devalued as "sensitivity." We are historically in the middle of the changeover to learning to flow more imaginatively, and in a more integrated fashion--integrity being defined as the integration, the bringing together, of the various dimensions of the mind and life, including those dimensions which had been historically denied, disowned, neglected, or devalued. We need all parts of life in order to be most adaptive; we need to be able to access all emotions, all mental capacities, in order to redeem their potentials for good and discriminate their less helpful features. It doesn't work to generate broad categories of the repressed.
So people need to become re-empowered, self-assertive--such ideas are becoming currently fashionable. I would submit that we also need to be collectively more open, receptive, gently and playfully and at times with deep respect, inclined to draw forward the more subtle capacities, the inner voices, the whispers, the fine impulses, the power of the muses which infuse the creative arts, and ultimately, the capacity to sense the great Unity Beyond.
Meditation, simplicity, and opportunities to unfold unhurriedly, with great subtlety--what has been called "soul making," all needs to become an important and valued part of our culture's processes in churches and schools, in politics and business. I'm not sure how we can help television and the internet to evolve, but oddly enough, I trust that as the culture evolves, the forms of literature can correspondingly reflect and support that evolution. Still, we need to take responsibility to become aware of the many regressive pulls, the tendency to thinking in polarities, right and wrong, strong and weak, real and unreal, and to be seduced into thinking in this simplistic fashion.
In summary, the currently fashionable mode of discourse which re-frames certain undesirable behaviors as forms of abuse--loud noise abuse, smoking or letting dogs run free as environmental abuse, jokes about heavy people as politically incorrect and a type of subtle emotional abuse--may seem at times to be ludicrous or extreme. Still, new ideas, good ideas, can be overdone--and just because they're presented at times in ways lacking in fine discriminations should not justify a counter-reaction of devaluing or discounting the real values in what they're trying to affirm! The idea of abuse has some value. It helps us to stop and look with some dramatic emphasis at behaviors and attitudes that we had been taking for granted.
First, consider that intuition and imagination are as powerful resources as electricity and petroleum--and remember that a few hundred years ago neither of these sources of energy were known. Then, consider that our culture gives a little lip service to these resources, but on the whole, neither understands nor supports them--and, indeed, values instead their coarser opposites--cold reason, objectivity, and other tools which are most appropriate in the realms of military struggle.
We're also talking about the emergence of what have been values traditionally associated with femininity--and thus this enterprise is related to the deeper structures of feminism. But the qualities needing to be reclaimed transcend gender.
By thinking about intuition, imagination, and, to some extent, the finer aspects of feeling, from the viewpoint of the psychosocial dynamics of abuse and oppression, we may better perceive the pervasiveness of cultural influences, socioeconomic forces, and the profundity of the issues involved in seeking to reclaim these dimensions of being.
I'd be interested in your comments or suggestions for revision or addition. Email me.
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