‘Tis the season of beginnings, most obviously of a new cycle of time of course. This often comes with some attempts at fresh starts and renewed resolutions. I have a number of such beginnings in mind for myself.
What I am thinking about however, is something more philosophical but also much more salient, especially in the current context of the confusion that still reins regarding human development – that is, how to raise children to their fullest potential as human beings.
In a nutshell, everything development-wise begins with attachment – whether it is particles that combine into atoms, elements that merge into compounds, seeds that attach by their roots, humans that couple up to make babies, and of course, the attachments of the zygote, embryo, fetus, baby, toddler, growing child, adolescent, and beyond – each a prerequisite for the further unfolding of potential.
And everything attachment-wise begins with the dynamic of dependence – one entity depending upon another to be taken care of in some way or another. Dependence is the essence – indeed the purpose – of attachment, whether it is a plant attached to the soil, fungus attached to a tree, electrons attached to the atomic nucleus, our moon attached to the earth, or humans attached to each other.
Our mistake has been to think of attachment and dependence as stages to be grown out of. In our immature either-or way of thinking, we have created false dichotomies of these primordial dynamics, seeing them simplistically as opposites. As such, beginnings ultimately become threats, to be feared rather than revered. We worry that beginnings may tarry too long, thus interfering with getting on with progress, indeed with life.
Simply put, what is missing in this reductionistic thinking is an appreciation of the developmental nature of the unfolding of potential. When viewed developmentally, beginnings are foundations that must remain for the lifespan of what depends upon it, like the foundations of a house or the roots of a plant. We should be thinking of these beginnings as perennial beginnings, or everlasting beginnings, or beginnings without end, not a dynamic that serves temporarily at most and then needs to be shed, like baby teeth or the skin of a growing snake. Dependence is not the enemy of independence – far from it. The growing capacity to function as separate beings is the continuous and ongoing result of satiated dependence.
For those of you who have heard me speak this year, whether at our annual conference or in the webinar series this Fall, you will recognize this theme. My mind continues to be filled with reflections and ruminations on the dynamic of dependence – how we fight it, how we are afraid of it, how we run away from it, how we hate the responsibility of it, how we distrust it, how we rob it of its dignity.
These ideas have continued to reverberate in my mind as probably the most significant philosophical issue in the raising of children. This deep-seated belief system cannot be resolved by telling parents how to raise their children, or teachers how to teach their students, or helping professionals how to treat distressed kids. Certainly, these teachings can lead to some dissonance when the message conflicts with the philosophical bent of the receiver, but that dissonance will have some of its own work to do in order to ultimately correct the primordial dance of attachment.
To summarize, there are beginnings that must never end, attachments that remain foundational to everything that matters, dependencies that need to be appreciated and affirmed rather than fought against. For example, our dependency upon this earth to hold on to us and take care of us is never ending, and we best take care of the earth so it can take care of us. A plant’s beginnings must never end; to become uprooted is the beginning of the end. And so it is with us as humans as well.
I am reminded of one of the pivotal turning points in the 1987 movie adaptation of a 1973 book, The Princess Bride, that has long been accepted into our family cannon of stories we refer to. For those not familiar with this inventive modern-day fairytale, it is not only a satirical treatment of ‘true love’ but also a rather humorous depiction of our human proclivities when facing separation from our loved ones. At one point, the skilled Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya who is seeking revenge for the loss of his father, loses his own bearings and has to fall back upon the mantra that was given to him – when lost, to go back to the beginning.
We do need to have some sense of the beginning however, to return to it. That is, that relationship is the beginning of what matters, and that the dynamic of dependence is at the beginning of relationship. It also helps to know that these beginnings must never end. They are always there to return to, at least theoretically, and must be returned to when we lose our way or become stuck in our ways. We may not always reach the beginning, as defendedness and desperation may get in the way, but that doesn’t mean that the beginning dynamics no longer exist. Unless we can find our way back, any future unfolding of potential will remain on hold.
To return to the beginning – at least our loved ones’ beginnings – is to come back to the place where we invite the other to depend upon us to take care of them. To return to the beginning for us alpha types, it may mean leaning into those who care for us a bit more. For those of us who are coupled, it may mean tweaking the dance of taking turns taking care of each other. Regarding our children, whatever age they may be, it may be remembering where all good things come from – and that we can play a huge part in this unfolding.
I tried to capture the idea of these endless beginnings in Hold On To Your Kids. The book was in some way a repentance – or turning about as it were – of my earlier focus on individuation and independence rather than on their roots in satisfied dependence. I was in a hurry as a young parent, teacher, and theorist, and not quite respectful enough of the role that Nature plays in all of this. Interestingly enough, Hold on To Your Kids is also having a renewed beginning of sorts this year: the 20th anniversary of its publication, with an added chapter on the roots – or the endless beginnings one could say – of mental health. You might guess the content.
In conclusion, nothing is more fundamental, and indeed more foundational, than getting the message across to one’s dependants: that they can depend upon us to take care of them. And then doing our best to make these intentions come true. This is the endless beginning of fruitful relationship, and one that could benefit from being refreshed and renewed over and over again. New Year might be a good time.
Editor’s Note: In keeping with the preeminent nature of this theme, we decided to release Gordon’s 2023 conference keynote on The Wisdom of Dependence on the Free Resources page of our website. Please feel free to share this resource with others. We have also decided to make available for purchase the complete the recordings of last fall’s Wisdom of Dependence Webinar Series for those who were unable to attend. And in keeping with this perspective on mental health, our upcoming conference theme will be ‘The Current Crisis of Well-Being.’