I read about a Psychology 101 behavior experiment today that raises some interesting questions.
You start with a cage containing four monkeys, and inside the cage you hang a banana on a string, and then you place a set of stairs under the banana.
Before long a monkey will go to the stairs and climb toward the banana.
You then spray ALL the monkeys with cold water.
After a while, another monkey makes an attempt. As soon as he touches the stairs, you spray ALL the monkeys with cold water.
Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.
Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new monkey. The new monkey sees the banana and attempts to climb the stairs. To his shock, ALL of the other monkeys beat the crap out of him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.
Next, remove another of the original four monkeys, replacing it with a new monkey. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment – with enthusiasm — because he is now part of the “team.”
Then, replace a third original monkey with a new monkey, followed by the fourth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked.
Now, the monkeys that are beating him up have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs. Neither do they know why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey. Having replaced all of the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys will have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, not one of the monkeys will try to climb the stairway for the banana.
Why, you ask? Because in their minds, that is the way it has always been!
My thoughts on this.
Unfortunately this is true of many, if not most, of us human beings. We don’t seem to have made the leap from monkeys.
This is why I so admire the human aspect of Jesus. He responded to the challenge to outgrow his prejudices and even his convictions about the limits of his ministry. It was painful (we see him weep as he has to accept that the people he loved and thought he could save from their blindness reject him). Over and over we see him change and grow beyond both the limits and misunderstandings of his traditional religion, beyond his own followers, his era and even beyond his own previous assumptions. Often the challenges to His traditional religious attitudes and limits come from disreputable sources: women, gentiles, Samaritans, the military of the hated conqueror, sinners, and the sick.
That kind of openness is pure grace! And that’s what it takes to become fully human.
A cartoon on Facebook along with my recent immersion in the history of the Cathars while traveling in South Western France resonated powerfully for me along with the story of animal behavior.
The cartoon showed a Knight riding a horse and holding a flag with a cross emblazoned on it while leading long lines of armed soldiers. One of the soldiers says to the man next to him, ” I hear it’s because we’re right and they’re wrong.”
The Cathars were people who began to question some of the priorities and beliefs within the Christian Church of the 13th century. After failed attempts to convince them of the error or their ways, Pope Innocent III with the support of the armies of the King of France mounted a crusade aimed at completely eliminating the Cathars. It took many battles and involved burning down cathedrals while the Cathars seeking sanctuary were inside them and burning thousands of others at the stake. Some pious Catholics attempted to save their Cathar neighbors and friends and were ruthlessly wiped out along with them.
Who do you think were Christ like in this scenario?
WHEN LOVE BREAKS THROUGH, WE ARE SUDDENLY ABLE TO ACCEPT OUR WEAKNESSES AND FAULTS WITHOUT COMING UNGLUED.
“Hungers of the Heart” by Richard Watts.
Watt quotes David James Duncan, who tells about his search that finally brought him to hollowing out a place in his heart about the size of a thimble. Duncan continues, “When I was twenty, in India one day, I turned to God with embarrassed sincerity and said, ‘ Would you care to fill this little thimble with anything?’ and instantaneously, -almost absurdly really, – an undeniable, unimaginable, indescribable lake of peace and love landed on my head in reply.”
Watts continues: “This experience that Christians call grace breaks into the anxiety, confusion and self-doubt that trouble us and frees us to journey along a path toward becoming a real self. ….It need not be as sudden or dramatic as Duncan’s. We need not be “born again;” we live in God’s grace simply by virtue of having been born. Whether for us a breakthrough comes as we look up to the stars, ponder the mysteries of DNA, find someone who loves us, help heal another’s hurt, take a risk for justice, (recognize our limits and helplessness, hit bottom, are forgiven by someone we have harmed* my additions) the experience of being accepted restores us to our real selves.
The paradox is this: that when love breaks through, we are suddenly able to accept our weakness and faults without coming unglued.
We come to accept that even our best impulses are tainted by self-interest, that we pretend to know more than we really know, and to “have it all together” when we really don’t. We begin to see that our strengths are really also our pitfalls: ambition that enables us to achieve can result in a stunted personal life with little time for love and friendship, the pride that allows us to walk in dignity may also keep us from acknowledging our mistakes; the charm that opens doors for us may lapse into shallowness on which we depend without seeking deepening, growth and newness; the intellect in which we trust may mask a denial of the emotions, which one day erupt in us in discomfiting force. (Our tendency to respond to life emotionally may help us understand and reach out to those who are suffering, but since emotions are short term, we may make our choices based on them with consequences that are destructive in the long run.* my addition )
The wonder of grace is that we are increasingly able to see ourselves as we really are without despair.”
And that is the first step to becoming free to grow and change in ways that give us more balanced, appropriate and grace-filled responses to life.
I’m pretty sure that anyone who knows me, knows that I’m a big God and Jesus and Holy Spirit fan. What not everyone knows is that I was an agnostic for some years and a big Madalyn Murray O’Hair fan.
When in college, I visited Nursing Homes, in my mid twenties I taught ballet at a Children’s Psychiatric Ward, in my late twenties, I worked at the NAACP offices for Project Equality, and also wept while watching battles in Vietnam on TV. It was hard to find God in those situations.
In 1963, my dad, Pope John 23, and John F. Kennedy all died. It seemed like all my heroes of hope were gone.
It isn’t very comfortable to hate God, so I simply stopped believing in Him.
My journey to personal faith ultimately took several years spent in a serious search for some sort of meaning to life. That search was motivated by having my own children begin asking me hard questions. And though it is still obvious to me that life is not fair and that life is often hard and miracles are rare, I have found purpose, meaning, and great joy in life through an ongoing growing relationship with Jesus Christ, who made life and God understandable for me. It was a journey starting from faith in religion and faith in heroes, through disillusionment with those, on to a first hand experience of the love fleshed out by Jesus and the call to pass it forward.
I worry about the young people who are being exposed to both the hardships of life and its dark side in so many ways long before they have their love for their own children to motivate them to seek meaning in life instead of escape.
That seems to be the crux of the problem. Whenever we become aware that life is going to be hard sometimes for everyone, will we have the maturity to search for meaning rather than to seek escape?
Everyone’s journey is different, so all I can do is share that the search is well worth the effort and struggle and pain. My way may not be your way, but ultimately the truth will set you free for joy, hope, and love.
But it is hard in different ways for each of us, because we are different from one another. Ask any mother of more than
one child. They will tell you we are all born different. Some babies are quiet and placid, but solemn. Some are quiet
and calm, but smile and laugh easily. Some are hyper-active even as infants lying on their backs in a bassinet. Some
are hyper-sensitive to sounds, startle easily, and react to change. Some are tuned in to their inner world,
reacting very little to their environment. Some are quite independent, while others need more cuddling, attention
and support. Some are excitable, with an inborn tendency to over react to both positive and negative experiences.
Many children as early as two or three have vivid imaginations. Some both empathize and identify with story book
characters, often later believing themselves stalked by the story book monsters. Others are thrilled by the vicarious
terror, but don’t identify with it.
When my father read me stories about children being lost or animals being hurt, it would upset me so much that a
happy ending didn’t make it all right.
Watch how differently children and adults react to shows like America’s Funniest Videos. Some wince or even cry, as
if everything is happening to them; others are detached and amused, whether the event is real and painful for
someone else or not.
Each personality trait has an upside and a downside, each dominant trait we have gives us both
strengths and weaknesses. I’ve worked with tools for measuring and illustrating this, such as the Meyers-Briggs Type
Indicator and the Enneagram, but for this short article it is simpler to use more life experience descriptions.
A person who is very aware of and sensitive to their own feelings may empathize with others, championing the
underdog or the vulnerable, but will tend to over-react to slights or criticism, real or imagined.
As a child I was equally excitable and responsive to happy and sad things . When I
was three, I was so excited about Christmas that when I finally was taken in to see my toys under the
tree, I threw up on them before I could even play with them.
In my anxiety filled teen years, my stomach rebelled to even mild stress and I learned to not eat all day before just
going out on dates. Unfortunately for my dates, once I was out, I calmed down and got voraciously hungry. I was
not a cheap date.
As an adult I often experience sheer joy over even small things such as the beauty of nature, children’s laughter,
my grandchildren’s curiosity about the world, but I also experience extremely dark times over my own failures or
the people I love’s pain.
Even traits we consider wonderful have a down side. People with high IQ’s tend to assume they are right and often
are not open to other’s opinions, but the reality is that no one is right all the time.
Years ago, I attended a workshop where slogan and affirmations were posted on the walls. One that simply jumped
out at me was, “I am competent and loveable.”
My immediate reaction was, “No. You can’t be both.”
In my experience the really efficient people are task oriented. They are both competent and persevering. They
focus on the goal, prioritize the details, and plow ahead, often over people who unwittingly get in their way. Many
things would not get accomplished without this type of person, but they may alienate so many people along the way
that in the long run their effectiveness will be diminished.
Personally, my greatest value has been ideas that help people in general and my focus has been on relationships.
Physical details, particularly about machines, don’t show up on my radar most of the time.
I once had a secretarial job that involved a lot of detail and working with elaborate and expensive office machines.
I was a total disaster. Luckily, I realized this and left after three months. I am sure everyone there breathed a sigh of
But later I had a much higher paying job as a director that involved recruiting volunteers and bringing in training
programs for them, creating and organizing new programs, and doing publicity for these. I was successful at this in
spite of it involving a lot of detail, because I was good at recognizing, recruiting, and supporting people with the skills
that I don’t have.
I wasted a lot of angst in my early life expecting to be equally good at everything. I taught first grade and one sweet
little girl simply would not do her math homework. When I finally confronted her over this, she looked at me with her
big brown eyes and said sadly, “Oh Miz Norman, I’m good at reading. Do I have to be good at everything?” My gut
level response was, “Of course.” Luckily, I stopped and thought about it. Finally, I said, “No, you don’t have to be
equally good at everything. But you need to at least learn survival skills in math. If you don’t know basic math, how
will you be able to shop?” She thought about that for a minute and decided I was right.
I’m pretty sure she didn’t go on to become a mathematician, but hopefully she is out there somewhere shopping and
keeping her checkbook balanced.
She actually freed me of the belief that I was stupid, if I couldn’t easily excel in everything, and to accept that I had to
work harder at some things just to survive. I now try to do the things I want to avoid first, but in spurts, followed by
shorter breaks doing things I enjoy or find easy. This is a method of motivating myself with a reward and
encouraging myself by doing something I can do easily.
I tend to envy people who live in the present moment. They seem so carefree, since they are not over-burdened by
past mistakes or wounds and don’t worry much about the future. In fact they hardly think about the future at all.
They are happy, optimistic and fun, but the downside is that they are often oblivious to possible consequences of
their choices in the moment.
I have always tended to focus on the future, imagining its wonderful possibilities. Sometimes this has helped me be an
agent for change and to plan ahead for a lot of eventualities. But I also end up living in a picture perfect world in my
head. Then when reality doesn’t measure up, I don’t persevere if I see that I can’t achieve the ideal I have
pictured. I think that a lot of my life has been lived by the motto, “If at first you don’t succeed, don’t make a
fool of yourself, try something else.” Now in my later years my life challenge is to learn to persevere even through
failures and to accept that nothing is perfect. At seventy-six I still haven’t quite gotten there , but I have made a lot
I am emotionally volatile. In the early years of our fifty-six years of marriage, my husband said I could go from
bubbling with joy to total despondency faster than a speeding bullet. And sometimes when I fell into one of my
feeling pits that make doing anything seem like struggling through quicksand, I would become almost paralyzed. But
along the way I discovered that I can continue to function even when depressed, if I cut myself some slack by
prioritizing and only doing what is completely necessary. And, if I don’t waste time and energy by beating myself up
over this trait, I pull out fairly quickly and can go longer periods without becoming a bottomless pit of wants and
People like me should be assigned a counselor at birth. At several crisis points in my life I have gotten counseling,
some good, some not so much. But good or not, because I’m all about evolution, on the grand scale and the
personal, once I recognize that I’ve bogged down, I persevere at finding what I need to work through it.
And I’ve come to see that we all evolve in different patterns of stages and in a circle. For instance at a different
time in life, I and others like me, begin to focus temporarily on being more task oriented people. And the task
oriented people will at some point do just the opposite, thus developing skills in our weaker traits.
The good news is that in our later years we find it easier to become reasonably competent in our weakest
areas. (Easi er, not easy, because in order to do this we must let go of our strength, a kind of dying to self.)
And for me that means being able to accept imperfect reality and to be willing to persevere in inching toward
becoming the unique, though imperfect, person I was created to be. And along the way are times of lovely peace,
great joy, unmeasurable love, and sneak peaks at what the journey is all about.