Chapter 7 (continued)
I’ve referred to the full functioning nature of childhood a couple of times already without giving it formal definition – relying instead on context in order to invest the term with adequate meaning. It’s actually got quite a rich history, though, and I would be remiss if I didn’t spend some time exploring it further. Full functioning was first defined by counseling psychologist, Carl Rogers, in order that he have some objective criteria for determining the psychological and behavioral health of the adult individual. Such criteria could then be used to determine the success of the counseling process, or the need for it in the first place, as the case may be.
A key difference between the way I use the term and the way Rogers used it is that, whereas Rogers considers full functioning to be something that the self-actualizing adult has attained, perhaps after having successfully engaged in the process of psychotherapy, I consider it to be our birthright that we unwittingly discard as we grow and mature and engage in the process of constructing our self in this fallen world. These differing views are easily reconcilable as long as one remains mindful of the context. Toward that end, let me take a moment to review the three fundamental components of Rogers’ (1961) conceptualization of full functioning – experiential openness, organismic trust, existential orientation – highlighting along the way how I’ve reconsidered these three components from the vantage point of childhood.
Experiential Openness: The openness to experience that Rogers speaks of does not necessarily have to do with becoming more receptive to hang-gliding, ballroom dancing, or what have you – although I suppose such expanded receptivity would not be out of the question. Rather, our return to full functioning means the attainment of greater freedom from reliance on whatever defense mechanisms we’ve constructed in order to protect our self from that which we’ve deemed uncomfortable. Openness to experience, then, given that defense mechanisms distort our view of reality in service of the created self, entails a newfound openness to experiencing the world exactly as it is, along with whatever difficult emotions such unprotected awareness might bring forth.
Defense mechanisms, in the classical Freudian sense, are constructed and invoked by the unconscious mind. In a more general sense, however, we construct ways of looking at the world that tend to bolster our own self-image. An example might be an individual who enjoys reasonable material abundance protecting himself from the anxiety of seeing others living in poverty by constructing a worldview in which those who work hard are rewarded and those who are lazy go without. Such a “just world” view protects the individual’s psyche from both the worry that poverty might befall him despite all of his hard work, as well as the sense of responsibility that he might otherwise be burdened by with regard to helping those who live in poverty.
Children, however, have not yet constructed the defense mechanisms of which Rogers speaks. And, anyway, the child is as yet without a strong sense of self in need of protection. Sure, a child might recoil from an unfamiliar person or situation, but this is precisely because she greets life without defense. If something frightens her, then it frightens her. She feels no need to justify or explain her fear, or create the false impression that she is not really afraid at all. Her inner feelings and her outer appearance and behavior are congruent. Keeping up appearances for the sake of appearing cool, fearless, in charge, or unfazed will come later – once she has created a self and has an image to protect.
Organismic Trust: Organismic trust is trust in one’s being, one’s gut, one’s felt sense or intuition. The fully functioning individual trusts himself to assess whatever new situation might present itself and behave accordingly. He doesn’t feel any compulsion to “follow the herd,” or to check on how some respected individual might have behaved in a similar situation, or to reflect upon how his actions might be viewed by others. He has confidence in his ability to read situations clearly and accurately, and to read his own feelings about those situations clearly and accurately.
So often we adults end up second-guessing ourselves – especially with respect to the various personae we adopt. Since our personae do not necessarily arise from any innate or natural need, we often need to learn the “right way” to behave. For example, suppose a new corporate manager gets a call from one of the low level staff in another department. The new manager might ponder what the corporate culture would have him do. Should he feel honored that he’s already being viewed as a valued resource on the corporate team, or should he feel chafed that some underling thought he could just call up the manager of another department without going through the “appropriate” communication channels? Should he simply return the call, then, or should he find out who the caller’s supervisor is in order to have a chat with him?
This is a contrived example, of course, but don’t we think along very similar lines much of the time? Which persona am I in this particular case? What are the expectations for someone in this role? How will this look? What will people think of me? We often go through life figuring out how to behave based on our observations of the behavior of others who’ve adopted the same persona. It’s as if we’re constantly comparing some cardboard cutout version of ourselves to whatever template exists “out there” in society of who we think we’re supposed to be.
The fully functioning individual, on the other hand, has a diminished need for outside validation of his feelings or actions. He can be himself regardless of the situation. If he is not expert, then he is not expert; he has no ego to protect. If he is expert, then he is expert; he feels no need to hide his talents. He is, once again, congruent. He is authentic. He does not fear the world seeing him precisely as he is.
Isn’t that largely how children behave? They fumble about in their play without regard for looking silly or being judged. They sing and draw and run and dance, without any self-image to protect. They play when their being says play. They eat when their being says eat. They rest when their being says rest. And if you ask a child a question, you know that they will do their best to answer it – without any ulterior motive, or hidden meaning, or guarded language. ‘From the mouths of babes’ is an expression that honors this truth-telling tendency of young children. This is the organismic trust of children. They’ve not yet learned how to second guess their feelings or motives. They’ve not yet learned to feel inadequate for what they don’t know, or what they can’t do.
Existential Orientation: A life lived from an existential orientation is a life that is very much in tune with its unfolding in the here and now. An individual with innate trust in the totality of who she is (the entirety of her organism), who is unhindered by cumbersome defenses, is freer to live life in the present moment. She doesn’t need to selectively edit her experience in order to make it safer and more palatable. She doesn’t need to run it through a filter of thoughts and concepts in order to make it fit the way she thinks it should be. With fewer preconceived notions as to the nature of her self, she is free to become whatever the present moment might “need” her to be.
I doubt that I need to convince the reader that children are inherently expert at living in the moment. What is the play of children, after all, if not absolute engagement in the moment to moment unfolding of the circumstances in which they are immersed? A child can give himself up entirely to his play without concern for how he looks, and without feeling the need to conform to any standards that others have set for him – least of all himself. He isn’t pondering for even one instant how any particular experience will assist him in furthering his play career. Rather, he becomes his play. And when he is done playing, he will become the eating of his snack, and then the taking of his nap.
What would it be like to have such freedom once again? What would it be like to live without our self-imposed constraints, and our various and sundry conceptualizations? We need only to look within. We already know how to see without projecting who we think we are and what we think we need onto everything that comes into view. We already know how to be without measuring every action against those of another. We already know how to engage the world with the fullness and totality of our being rather than with the fragmented and inhibited self that we’ve become. We only need to recall the full functioning of our childhood days.
End Chapter 7
Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin Company.
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