Growing up as America

Here we are in July, two days after America’s 235th birthday.  Given that parenting requires us to consider issues such as autonomy, attachment, independence and development, perhaps it’s worth zooming out for a moment and considering our current state of development as a parenting zeitgeist and as a country.

Like stars forming from dust and later burning out and blowing up into dust again, countries are born and they also die.  The Roman Empire has dwindled to a tourist destination (an every-other-month cover of Travel and Leisure) while the sun pretty much does set on the British Empire; meanwhile China and India are growing vigorously toward dominance like well fed children… rising once again (if you look at long-term history).

So, where is America in all this?  America seems to be a country struggling to come out of a very long adolescence.  As a psychologist I have seen that insecure attachment leads to distrust, to problems with relationships—sometimes to avoidance of others, at other times to control and dominance and manipulation of others.  At a national level we have oscillated between isolationism and pre-emptive attacks on perceived enemies.

Defenses such as denial allow us to dig ourselves into deeper pits (be it with our personal credit cards or collectively with our economy); projection allows us to park our aggression and problems on others (be it our boss or a terrorist).  Insecurity breeds defenses.

In terms of individual human development, insecurity very strongly correlates with babies being parented by caregivers with unresolved losses or traumas of their own.  It’s as if these emotional states are psychically transmitted to an infant, who is then plagued by a sort of mental virus that it cannot fend off or understand.  That insecure person grows up with a world-view of fear and potential rage—prone to avoidance, control and/or intermittent moments of irrationally “losing it.”  And researchers calculate that seven out of ten of us are insecure.  At a national level, that makes for a pretty twitchy country, a fairly distrusting and frightened body politic, not to mention one virtually unaware that what it most deeply fears (i.e. loss of control and helpless dependency) has already happened at a deep emotional level:  infancy.  It may also be true at a collective national level harking back to our own rockets red glare.

If we extrapolate insecure attachment to America as a country, it might help explain both our history and our current state of things:  futile conflicts, base behaviors, cruel and mocking lack of compassion, hyper-anxious hyper competitiveness, pervasive emptiness, scandal after crisis after embarrassment—all the behaviors one might expect from a mouthy low-self-esteem adolescent wavering between an independence they cannot truly achieve and an angry dependency they can no longer abide.

Our founding fathers and mothers birthed America in the midst of a scary war on its home turf.  Everyone must have been scared out of their wits at some level, and this trauma at the beginning could help account for some portion of our basic national insecurity.  The absolute hallmark of our immaturity as a country is our continued inability to truly look after each other as if we were something of a family; or perhaps the dysfunctional family is our common national paradigm.  The classic thing to do is blame our parents and stay stuck. Growing up is hard, but not growing up is even harder.

If the war for independence at least gave us a common enemy, a patrician Brit parent to hate and against which we galvanized ourselves into a nascent identity, by the time of the Civil War we were a nation literally in conflict with itself—and from a psychological perspective this could be framed as “splitting,” a psychological state in which two things cannot be simultaneously held and are cleaved apart (i.e. the “good mom” who feeds us and the “bad mom” who frustrates us; the good country that protects us and the bad country that messes it all up for us).

Washington and the government basically function as the parent who we blame for all our problems as we refuse to grow up and take responsibility for ourselves.  And, like over-indulgent parents who just want to be liked (i.e. reelected), our government does what we tell it to do; it’s just that our continuing national split, our pervasive frozen fear and confused melancholy, means that we continually tell our red and blue parents (red with our own rage, blue with our own tantruming lack of oxygen) two opposite things and the result is impotent helpless stagnation.

So, are we in some sort of national crisis, or are we merely facing a normal developmental stage as a country?  If narcissism is essentially cluelessness about one’s actually identity, perhaps we are a narcissistic country.  Just like many adolescents who must eventually tame their grandiosity and become a more realistic part of society, we must get over our baffled mirror-gazing, over our Batman/Spiderman/X-Man image as “super-power” and become an actual world citizen.  At 235 years old, it’s really time we took off the Superman cape and helped with the dishes.

As a country we need to stop fighting amongst ourselves and see how we might actually, with all our differences, complement and complete each other.  As it stands, we’re like two partners in a sack-race running in opposite directions.

It’s probably way past time to even “ask” what we can do for our country; it will be much more effective for us to use our own best judgment about what’s needed, and then do a bit of whatever we believe that is—and do it at whatever micro level we can muster.  If we care about education, we can tutor or volunteer at a school, if we care about the environment we can keep reducing our carbon foot print, if we care about wellness we can do yoga or meditate and help others along the way… and we can care about each other without telling each other what to do.

If we think micro, and do what we can for our neighbors, our friends, our communities, this could add up to a country busy working to improve health and education, deepen connections and heal vast swaths of insecurity (and resulting fear and aggression).

If big media, big business and big government leave you disenchanted, you can embrace small media (as we do in our blogging), small business (as we do when we buy local and support artisanal products), and ourselves as government (as we do when we become the change we want).  When we behave ethically, authentically and compassionately we restore our faith in both ourselves and in each other.  If politicians are off their nuts, mailing naked pictures and chasing chambermaids, are they not demonstrating both their fear and their basic uselessness for making a better world?

If in a true democracy everyone has a voice and every vote matters, then we have drifted away from our roadmap as a country.  Money is too big; fairness is in short supply as is good will and trust.  The government cannot and will not fix the economy, we are the economy; we, the people, do not trust the institutions that would make for a healthy economy in the world we have forever left.  Yet we could wake up and realize that we can, and do, connect with each other, trade with each other, educate each other, heal each other… and this can shift the way we live, work, parent and even prosper.  The government, like oblivious parents of an at-risk teen, is probably the last to know what’s actually happening.

The real action is between us citizens.  The government has become like a couple with TV trays watching The Lawrence Welk Show—a diorama at the Smithsonian.  If we relinquish our excuses and step up to make things better, rather than waiting for someone else to make it better, we will live richer and happier lives.  When that becomes a cool trend, Washington will be all over it—like the high school guidance counselor trying to sound young and cool; politicians will only actually be cool when they become part of the solution, not when they work with their handlers to sound like part of the solution.

But it’s no longer young and cool and famous that should be our currency—instead it just might be authentic and compassionate.  If that became the new metric, we would have a radically different culture—and perhaps even a kinder, gentler, more effective and more enlightened one—a culture where everyone could be safer, more secure and restored to living as equals.

Is this just pie in the sky, or could it become apple pie in our collective Our Town ovens?  At the micro-level (which just might turn out to be the emerging zeitgeist), it’s not up to anyone but ourselves.

Here’s to wishing America, and all its collective children (and all its world neighbors), a terrific year.

Namaste, BD


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8 Responses to “Growing up as America”

  1. Mark Brady Says:

    This says it nicely for me, Bruce:

    “At 235 years old, it’s really time we took off the Superman cape and helped with the dishes.”

    In precisely that spirit, I spent yesterday building a chicken coop for my neighbors over at the local community center.



  2. Mark Brady Says:

    P.S. I kept my cape on, however. Some illusions die hard.

  3. Sue Says:

    This is a helpful way to look at our country. Thank you.

  4. Pamela Says:

    Such an excellent reminder Bruce! I have been so frustrated with the stagnant efforts in Congress to settle the debt ceiling issues. Thank you for the call to action to help. There are so many things each of us can do to be of service. I am all for paying more taxes, but until that happens I can certainly give some money to causes of my choice – I hadn’t thought of that until now. Great post!

  5. BigLittleWolf Says:

    This is a thoughtful reminder of all that we are and could be.

    It’s funny. Years ago, I recall conversations in Europe with French and Belgian friends who would comment on the contradictions in American society. One or two remarked that we were still in our “adolescence,” and perhaps only time would allow us to see more views than our own.

    But we need awareness and possibly more adult guidance (the models of other countries – picking and choosing what works for them and might work for us?).

  6. Beth K Says:

    Wow, seven out of ten Americans are insecure. Maybe that helps explain why we lack the sense of solidarity felt by citizens in many other countries (and universal health care and the rest of the safety net those countries tend to have).
    I agree, we need to keep on working to help others and make our communities and world a better place.

  7. Chris Says:

    I am starting to think like you, now if I could only write like you.

  8. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Amen, amen, amen.

    I’ve come to believe that all politics – nay, all everything – is local. I’m trying more and more to tune out the sound and fury of the [insignificant] talking heads in order to focus on the ways that I can make my own corner a better place for me and my kids.

    I had the chance to spend time a few weeks ago with a friend who was just elected to the town council in a small community outside DC. When he told me about some of the initiatives he and his fellow council members were working on relating to after-school programs and green building, I was reminded of the Margaret Mead axiom: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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