As children, we are incredibly dependent on the love and care of other humans. Even though as adults we are impressively capable, the universe has crafted us in such a way that, as children, we can only survive with the intentional support of a caregiver. On some levels, this is great. It’s helped us develop large brains and specialized roles. Ideally, we live and grow together in community and work collaboratively for the sake of everyone.
But, first, we are babies.
We are born with few of the abilities that we will eventually learn. We eat, we sleep, and we poop. Otherwise, we are helpless. Growth can only happen within the relationships that we share with other people. It’s not quite enough for our caregivers to simply want to keep us alive. They must hold us and keep us warm. They must be attentive to our cries. Our small bodies need food and milk and attention. We are desperately in need of connection with them.
This is complete vulnerability. There is nothing that we can do to dictate the trajectory of our early years. We are completely at the mercy of those who care for us.
Interestingly, it’s during this time that our brain development kicks into overdrive. While it’s nice to think of children as being miniaturized versions of their eventual adult selves, we know that children are born without the majority of their brain’s wiring in place. There’s a lot more work to do. We can see this when some of the cute reflexes that we love about our babies start to fade. I love that babies will grab my finger if I put it in reach of their hands. It’s one of my favorite things about infants, but it’s a reflex and it eventually fades as the baby grows and learns to control their hands more. Inside the brain, this is a result of the baby’s cortex coming online. We are born with the older, reflexive, lizard-like parts of our brain in control, but as we grow, the newer parts of our brain – the right and left hemisphere that make us act more human – start to take over. We start to grow circuits down into our old brain that override these innate reflexes in order to learn what it means to hold spoons and bottles. When we send an email, drive our cars, or play a guitar, we can only do so because, decades earlier, when we were still infants, we rewired our brains and developed an ability to override our reflexes.
This development, though, is an automatic process that happens largely without relying on the outside world. However, there are some essential skills that we learn that are completely dependent on the input of others. When children are born, they cry. When they are hungry, or upset, or hurt, they cry. The cry is a signal that they need to be comforted or provided attention. However, as a 35 year old man, I find that this strategy doesn’t work as well. The ability to regulate our emotions when we experience them is first learned through repeatedly gazing into the eyes of someone who cares deeply for us and having comfort us. Our caregivers, in attending to our calls for attention, in sitting with us to soothe us, lay the foundation for our ability to calm ourselves down when our emotions are running high. There are still times when overwhelming emotion is appropriate, but probably not when dinner is taking a little longer to prepare than we expected.
The same sort of regulation is true when we think about seeing something scary or new. We learn – our brains literally wire – based on the response of those that we love.
Unable to communicate or defend ourselves as babies, we are completely at the mercy of those who care for us. When they gaze into our eyes, circuits in our brain start to form in ways that they hadn’t before. This attachment is rooted in trust and a sense of security. It continues to affect relationships throughout the entirety of our lives. When we seek close friends, spouses, and relate to our children, we are doing so in ways that strongly rely on our attachment experiences and circuitry.
Our loved ones give us more than just our physical development though. They teach us as we grow. Language, math, manners, skills – all of these are things that we begin to learn from our caretakers and carry through life. Each lesson communicates the smallest element of how we should conceptualize the world. By themselves, they are innocuous. Such conversations are reciprocal, flowing naturally from our caretakers’ values as small lessons that give rise to larger conversations about life, meaning, and purpose. How do we see ourselves within our communities, our culture, and our world? If it is good for me to share my toys with another child, how far should that willingness to share extend? What is life about? Is there a supernatural source of all that we see or do we revere the natural laws of the universe that have brought us to this point?
We absolutely learn things through other channels – our families are not the only source of information, especially as we get older. Still, by the time we encounter all of these varying perspectives, we have established a filter through which all novel information must pass. Each time new data are received, they are compared against our existing concepts and we are biased towards those data that reinforce our established views. The lens through which we examine the world is carved and polished by our families and closest relationships. Others may color it or readjust it from time to time – in rare cases, it can shatter and we learn to see the world in vastly different ways – but, during the years that are most formative, we see the world through the lens of our family.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. In a tribal culture, it was important that people speak the tribal language and band together around socially important issues. Each member of the tribe explicitly depended on the other. Survival was communal. The family’s views matched their cultural views and there were few other influences that gave any sway.
Today, though, humans experience a constant barrage of novel perspectives and ways of seeing the world. Our filters are stressed and tested with greater frequency. Survival, though, is not nearly as important a concept and the formation of our views and perspectives seem more tightly bound to ideas – tribes based on values rather than on survival and proximity. We can diverge significantly from the views and perspectives that we were raised with depending on our experiences and the relationships that we form.
It may be tempting to think about this divergence as rebellion or as rejection – that we have found a better way. I find myself being less negative about this idea. Of all of the things that our parents and those who love us most – our greatest teachers – gave us, they could not help but also give us their blindness. Their own lives of learning and experience were filled with the inability to make sense of everything. Ultimately, they can only share with us that which has been a part of their own story. Our early dependence on our parents and caregivers burn into our brains the idea that their projection of the world is somehow correct, or at least safe. We falsely believe what we later know not to be true – that they are super human. They do not – they cannot – have all of the answers. They, themselves, experienced pain and joy and anger as children that literally helped to form who they are and what they believe as adults. At the hands of cultural pressures and simple circumstance, our own teachers were moulded to be exactly who they are now.
Such blindness may be mild or more severe. It may be manageable or more debilitating. Either way, it is a blindness that has been inherited. It was not entirely our parent’s to control. Choice and consequence both play a role, without question, but just as we cannot change those things that have been given to us, neither could those who have come before us. Throughout our long-branching family tree, we cannot know each cycle of parent connecting with child, becoming parent, and connecting with child. Yet, it all has an impact. Every interaction, every behavior that gets reinforced has effects that time travel from generations prior into the present.
We can only give grace and understand that the arc of our family story is still being inscribed, our trajectory long and low. At the leading edge, we are taking what we have been presented with – generations of joy and pain and anger – and must continue to try to see ahead more clearly. We can simply become aware of those areas in which our myopia keeps us from moving forward. Knowing those areas in which we are still blind, helps us as we attempt to see the path more clearly.
This is one reason why facing life with a healthy dose of humility is so important. Culturally, we are rewarded when we act and think as though we have it all together. It is not good to be without the answers. Expressing emotion should not happen in mixed company. There are cultural expectations that largely sculpt what it means to be a twenty-first century westerner. Often we look at past generations as though they came from a simpler time. We see them through a primitive lens while we see ourselves as being modern, accomplished, and capable.
Every moment of every day, though, is a new experience that we process through devices that are generations old. While we may have done considerable work to personalize our beliefs and thoughts – to try to make them our own – the foundation of who we are is irrevocably connected to those that came before us. The things that we value, our priorities, that which we choose to focus on all exist atop a program that was written decades ago. We may have new software designed to override these older circuits, but we are fundamentally wired to carry forward the core of our tribe.
It is important for us to progress and move forward. The adaptations that have resulted in our embodying of those who raised us served to help us survive the things that they had to survive. These same adaptations though can only be effective if they allow us to continue to be flexible and to adapt to novel challenges. We don’t face the same dangers. As a people, we’ve moved on to many other incredible accomplishments of intellect and thought. Our brains continue to respond and rewire and grow allowing us to rise to the occasion. We seemingly have unlimited potential.
And, yet, in many ways, we continue to be fundamentally at the mercy of those who have cared for us. They have laid a foundation for our lives. They have a voice in who we are becoming.