The Marlborough Man vs. Godzilla

big bird on small treeWe’ll finish our week of exploring anxieties in the service of better parenting by delving into the final frontier of dread:  annihilation anxiety.

This psychological black hole is a “primitive mental state,” meaning a mind-set harking back to a time before we had a coherent framework to hinge together our sense of existence (i.e. in the first few weeks of life).  This is a feeling of nameless dread that drives parents to the brink of losing it, and sometimes beyond. 

A newborn’s psyche is a bit like a cloud of atomized dust, echoing perhaps the very chaos of non-being from which we all have come.  They are also wired for fear and rage, and their cries are not only heart-breaking, they can also be maddening—perhaps designed to force us to feed and soothe them just to keep the annihilation anxiety at bay.  As parents, it may be useful to better understand this most disturbing of human emotions.

Parenting newborns can be very emotionally challenging because their minds are so completely open and unbounded that they have a way of mentally teleporting into our own minds and then evoking feelings of dread and chaos.  Since it takes a village to raise a kid, part of what that village needs to do, at a mental and spiritual level, is to psychologically hold parents so that they can hold their children.

In a sense, anxiety is the unremembered past projected into the future; if we had never experienced any pain or hurt, we wouldn’t fear these potentially occurring in the future.  Annihilation dread may have increased on our planet after the emergence of nuclear weapons, but it is also possible that our collective human psyche, so fearing its former state of non-being, yearned for the power to create the very chaos from which it emerged.  In unlocking the energy that is trapped in all matter, Einstein also unleashed the dark powers of the divine, as they live an breathe in us humans.

Jung said, “That which we cannot be conscious of will materialize and meet us as our fate.”  This has deep implications for each individual and for us humans as a group.  If we cannot mentally hold our annihilation dread, then we are at greater risk of acting it out—both by mentally dropping our children who may later “materialize” as our own wounded and out of control selves, and at a collective level we risk acting out our annihilation dread on the battlefield.  When our dread grows more denied and thus potentially more severe (like an escalating tantrum) the weapons of destruction grow more devastating.

It may sound naïve, but perhaps if we can make more of our kids secure and confident (i.e. that they are lovable, adequate) we decrease the collective urge toward destruction.

My main point here is to try to put into words of comfort, a validating and compassionate recognition that as parents, and in life, there are terribly painful moments where we think we are coming undone.  If we label this feeling as annihilation anxiety, perhaps we can normalize it and encourage parents to ride it out without panicking that it will never end, or that it will destroy them.

It is interesting that in traditional Japanese child-rearing, there were virtually no limits set on children before the age of two (i.e. they could crawl right on the table at dinner), this fosters a secure base and a trust in the group; also, the key play interaction between moms and children was essentially the endless exchange of toys or objects, “You give it to me, I give it to you.”  In contrast, Western moms tend to do a lot of naming of objects, “This is a car, these are the wheels.”  It is noteworthy that a culture that will later place relatively high emphasis on the group (Japan) sets the foundation by fostering a free, happy and secure attachment.  The west, conversely, has tended to set a person up for independence and autonomy by equipping them with a thing-orientation rather than a relational one.

After World War Two, Japan was coming to terms with its national trauma of having been nuked, and Godzilla emerged as an icon of the destructive and annihilating powers that can be unleashed by us humans—a symbol of an inhuman America (and a projection of Japan’s collective Shadow).  In contrast, a key American icon emerged in the Marlborough Man, the lone cowboy who depends on no one and nothing, save a cigarette.  The Marlborough Man was how America saw itself, and Godzilla was how the vanquished “enemy” saw us.

Now what does this have to do with parenting?  Well, firstly, the young baby splits the world into good and bad; so when they feel bad, father is the Marlborough Man who is remote and self-destructive and mother is Godzilla (the devouring monster-mama).  What this “mirrors” to a child is that they are either uninteresting (which is why dad rides off into the desert with his cigarettes as coffin nails) or horribly maddening (which is why mom turns into a fire-breathing beast).  Another gloss on this, is not that we are inadequate parents, but rather that we are keenly attuned to our children’s vicissitudes:  we feel their strange isolation in having just gotten to earth and not being acclimated (but may mistake it for our own dread that we are no longer loved or understood); and we feel their rage and dread—when we turn monstrous we may be tapping directly into the out of control blind and terrified rage that newborns come with already installed.  Knowing this can help us better contain it, maintain more compassion for ourselves as well as our children and avoid acting out our annihilation and isolation dreads (i.e. being neither destructive toward, nor abandoning of, our families).

We humans have deep potential for annihilation and despair, and also for love and creativity.  Denial of emotion fuels cruelty and destruction.  Humans feel things.  Let’s deal with that by being conscious instead of acting out.

And let’s dedicate today to the compassionate recognition of annihilation anxiety, as it exists in each of us, and in all our children.  While we may tend to run away from it and deny it, if we can be more conscious and compassionate toward our own annihilated selves, we move closer to never again annihilating our children, or each other, in actuality, with words or weapons.

Namaste, Bruce

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One Response to “The Marlborough Man vs. Godzilla”

  1. Jen Says:

    You’ve wowed me again Bruce! Thanks for your thoughtful, profound perspective on such complex emotional issues. You inspire me to maintain self-awareness more of the time and remind me of the power of compassion.
    Namaste, Jen

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