In the Spring of 2009, I attended a psychology conference being held in Portland. Following the morning meetings at the convention hall, three or four female students from my university and I walked 10 or 12 blocks through the city to meet one of our professors for lunch. At one point along our walk, I had strolled three or four paces ahead of the group – navigating while they enjoyed the sights and talked. When we came to one particular street, my friends sort of blindly followed me into an empty crossing. By the time I was three-quarters of the way across, they had just left the curb. This SUV, which I had seen from a distance, came speeding up and had to basically slam on its breaks to avoid hitting the group of girls. They scurried across in front of the driver, unharmed. But, looking back, I felt bad. It was like they were this caboose of an invisible pedestrian train that I was the conductor of – speeding along without regard to the safety of those that followed. It wasn’t that big of a deal: we made it to the restaurant – had a good time, had a good conference – but that street crossing stuck with me, because, oddly enough, something exactly like that had happened to me before.
When I was three or four years old, my family lived in a caldesac of 10 or 12 houses. Traffic was rare and always slow, so I was allowed a little more freedom to roam than otherwise would have been usual. Down the street and across the way, I had a little friend named Ashley K. One afternoon, we were over at Ashley’s house with a group of her friends and we all decided to go back to my house to play. Out the front door and down the steps, I led the way – navigating while they talked. Across the grass and to the sidewalk, I had strolled three or four paces ahead eager to cross the street. I led the group out into the road at full speed, despite an oncoming navy Buick: “Run, run!” I said. The Buick saw us with plenty of time to stop and put on its brakes, but it was too late: under the pressure, Ashley tripped on the asphalt and scraped her knee just terribly.
Well, both times I not only felt responsible, but like there was something wrong with me. And what really stung the second time was the memory of what had happened before… almost like things hadn’t changed a bit in 20 years. This was a weird feeling because, when I was a kid, I remember thinking that adults really had things together… like they were responsible and knew things and weren’t at all like children.
As an adult, I know different. We don’t have things together. We’re not THAT responsible. And in many ways were the same little kids we always were, which is exactly why I found myself in two thematically identicle circumstances 20 years apart.
So how does this happen? How do we convince ourselves that somehow we’ve grown up and put our childhood behind us – like some great and enduring change has taken place?
Well after Portland, I got to thinking about all of this and surmised that I could back track through my life and show that not much had changed since I was a wee lad… at least not much in the thematic sense. I suspected, upon further reflection, that I could easily flush out some clear evidence of this idea and show that I really am myself and always have been.
So I set to work and, funnily enough, the first bit of proof came easily. I remembered a weird fact about myself that I had discovered as an 18-year-old while studying birth order. As the youngest of 10 children – 9 boys and 1 girl (my favorite sister) – I was interested to see if I had experienced more positive relationships with youngest children, middle children, or oldest children. So I started to make a list of all the girls that I had dated up until that point and immediately came to a striking discovery: every girl that I had dated since age 14 (about a dozen or so) was either the youngest child or only girl in her family or both! Every single one! This was astounding to me at the time, but at 18 I didn’t really knew what it meant. My experiences in Portland, however, caused me to want to do a more thorough investigation.
So, in a very belabored fashion, I took it upon myself to write down the name and birth order (insofar as I knew it) of every single person I had ever been good friends with, attracted to, or dated. Having had a life-long preference for female company, the list was about 95% girls. To be thorough, I contacted a bunch of my old friends, from middle school and such, to have them verify my memory. In the end, the list contained about 250 individuals whose birth order I could be certain of – all people I had been good friends with, attracted to, or dated. Now, of the 250, a whopping 200 were either the youngest child, only girl or both. 200!! That’s 80% of my most significant interpersonal relationships during 24 years of life! The remaining 50 were, interestingly, comprised of 4 or 5 sets of twins, about 30 oldest children, and only about a half dozen middle children.
I was blown away! And, by the way, remember little Ashley K. that tripped in the street? She was my first friend and, of course (she had to be!), a youngest child.
The results suggest, at least for me in my life, something that is very real and substantially enduring: my personal preferences for interpersonal interaction is not only well defined, but has drastically steered me towards certain relationships and experiences. To this day, I’m not sure if this interpersonal paradigm has more to do with my preference for that type of friendship or if I simply attract that kind of friendship by nature. I suspect it’s a little bit of both… any ideas?
Coincidentally, the month after Portland, in one psychotherapy class we were discussing something that would further my reflective investigation into the enduring nature of my personality. The instructor had very enthusiastically outlined the theories of Carl Jung, who amongst many great contributions to the field of psychology, posited the idea that each individual not only has a persona – a part of themselves that they willingly project to others – but also, hidden within, a shadow – a part of themselves that remains secret and protected. As Mark Twain quipped, “Every one is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”
Well, Carl Jung not only believed that this was so, but encouraged the open and willing exploration of the shadow, as he argued: “There is a deep gulf between what a man is and what he represents,between what he is as an individual and what he is as a collective being.Good does not become better by being exaggerated, but worse,and a small evil becomes a big one through being disregarded and repressed.” Looking into oneself and determining to face one’s shadow head on- very much like Luke Skywalker in the cave on Degobah, for those of you who care – is called Shadow Work and is supposed to lead to some rather intense conclusions and, subsequently, some rather desirable outcomes… if done correctly.
Well, I wondered if this kind of Shadow Work would help me find further evidence of my hypothesis – that I am still the same little red headed boy I always wad. So, feeling undaunted by pride or pretense, I set out to explore my shadow, not only to discover its nature, but to determine if any progress really had been made over the years.
What I found was oddly very fulfilling.
First of all, to the extent that my memory would serve, I combed through my past and began to catalog every offense that I could remember having personally engaged in – every moment of lying, stealing, and lasciviousness that I could recall in my 20-something years of existence. This took several days, to be sure, and when the task was finished, a very clear pattern emerged. There were, in fact, only eight main groupings of offenses (lying, stealing, snooping, and coercion, among others) in which I had engaged myself. I know because I used powerpoint to organize and group them in a little pie chart and histogram (having a master’s degree in experimental research can really pay off!). Fascinatingly, many instances were exact thematic copies of previous instances of the same injustice. As I reviewed the list and the scenarios, increasingly similar series of events could be recalled for each group… as if, the whole time, I was the same little cuss I had always been.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m under the distinct impression that I’m no worse off than anyone else. In the least, Paul tells us (as he told the Corinthians) “There hath no temptation taken you such as is common to man…” So I’m not all bad, right? But my findings certainly gave me pause for reflection. Couldn’t I change all of this around? Couldn’t I get better and grow up and stop being so similar to my four year old self? …maybe even develop into a better version of myself?
Well the answer, of course, is yes… but the real question left to be answered is how…
To be continued.