It helps to know how the truth works.
You can try importing it into your life whole, as a set of rules carved in stone, and struggle to live up to it. A lot of ideas, even good ones — from religious creeds to diet plans — present themselves to us that way, as systems of perfect thought independent of the flawed slobs who would adhere to them. As far as I’m concerned, any idea that comes on those terms, imperiously demanding obedience, is a scam.
Truth occurs in the moment. Like the life force itself (a.k.a. evolution), it is continually innovative. Our lives are the milieu in which ideas flourish. Ideas matter and have life only as we reinvent them by living them. My sister’s encounter with behavioral modification, when she was a young mother who wanted to go to graduate school, illustrates this point.
The problem was, her 5-month-old daughter, Laura, suddenly — after a vacation in which she was exclusively breast-fed — refused to take a bottle. This development threatened to doom Sue’s plan to start classes, because she’d need to be away from the infant for several feedings a week.
When her husband, Fred, tried to get Laura to take a bottle at night, “She just screamed and screamed and wouldn’t take it,” Sue said. “I’d be sitting in bed crying, with milk streaming from my breasts, and Laura screaming and choking on the bottle while Fred paced for an hour, saying ‘I will get her to take the bottle!’ There was one week of hell.”
During that week, she had two guests. Both were behavioral psychologists. They saw what was going on and suggested — carefully — that Sue and Fred needed a behavior modification plan. “They didn’t thrust behavior mod on me, just suggested it. I picture them whispering the words.
“But I tensed up. My image (of breast feeding) was one of nesting in a little cocoon, just the two of us — cozy, pleasant, full of milky smells, baby smells, diaper smells — in very close intimacy, where I was sure who I was. I was her mom and she was my baby.”
Behavior mod meant “schedules and measurements — hard angles and linear thinking,” Sue said. “The image that came to mind was of this schedule stuck between myself and my baby.” But in the midst of one of the 3 a.m. feeding fiascoes, she had a revelation: “Laura doesn’t know Fred is trying to feed her.
“That led me to think, what was the feeding arrangement? It was an 18-inch circle: my arm, my face, her face, my breasts. We’d exchange mutual gaze.” Fred’s bottle-feeding attempts broke that connection. Sue formulated a plan influenced by behaviorist-style intervention, but fully her own.
“I drew a circle in my mind of this intimate, closed space. The first thing I did was bring something into the circle. That was Fred. He put his head on my shoulder while I was breast-feeding — and Laura pushed him away. She didn’t want him there! It was several sittings with just Fred’s face until she could tolerate it and didn’t push him away.
“Then I did the same thing with a bottle. I laid it on my chest (during feeding) — and she threw it away. But I kept at it, brought it closer, till she accepted it. When she could tolerate the bottle nearby, I removed my breast and put a bottle in her mouth. She pushed it away at first. But the idea was to play with it, let her get used to the idea that they’re interchangeable.
“Eventually it was her taking the bottle from me, then — very soon — taking the bottle from Fred. By the time I had to start school, it was taken care of.”
Her plans would have fizzled if she’d rejected behavior modification outright as Wrong Thought, or tried to incorporate, rigidly, some behaviorist fix into her life that ignored the intimacy of the “feeding circle.” They succeeded because she maintained the integrity of her value system while allowing potent idea fragments to mutate and find new form in her imagination.
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at email@example.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)
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