A Newborn is Perfect and You are a Survivor

A newborn is as perfect as it will ever get (Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net at http://www.freedigitalphotos.net).

A newborn is as perfect as it will ever get, its brain and senses wide open. From then on, it can only go downwards. Some go dramatically down (most), repressed and oppressed by the environmental conditions. They survive though, some better than others. Others (the few lucky ones) only get their potential reduced by a margin dictated by the inexorable selective environmental exposure. Like a mirage, they develop into balanced, happy adults.

Paradoxically enough (inevitable as well), the loving parents, even the educated and well-intentioned, are the cause number one of the newborn’s fall. From day one, the parents begin teaching the newborn the science and art of survival, which includes a variety of skills. They begin limiting the newborn’s potential, creating likes and dislikes, fears and phobias, ambitions and illusions, the notion of the good and of the bad, fixed patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. Some of it is inevitable and will serve the newborn well for the rest of its life. Most of it is harmful, serves no practical purpose and will be excess baggage in adulthood for which one will continually have to pay a high fee.

For the balanced, well-intentioned parents, the problem is to train the newborn to succeed in a world that is not there yet. Parents train their offspring to be successful adults in their own world, not the world when the offspring will reach adulthood and will have to fence for themselves. Most parents teach their offspring particular skills and norms that will be obsolete once they become adults. Partly, this is inevitable once the cultural environment changes faster than any genetic evolution can cope with, which is our case. Our brain is still roughly the same as the brain of our stone age ancestors. The environmental and social pressures it has to cope with are not.

So what can we do? It seems to me that a solid agenda for any parent, one resistant to time and change, is to create for their young a close contact to nature, of which we are a part. We must awake our sense of the beautiful and the good, of wondering rather than rejecting, of ‘living it’ rather than ‘analyzing it,’ of open-mindedness and acceptance rather than pettiness and oppression. We must re-awake our values long obscured and repressed by scientism, technomorphia, and political correctness; re-awake our perception of entirety before particularity.

You are a survivor. You’ve done well, but you don’t need to stop there, no matter the odds. The next step, alas the most difficult, is to take away the ‘sur’ in survive, leaving only ‘vive’ back, which means ‘to live’. ‘Living,’ rather than ‘living in spite of,’ seems to me to be the ultimate goal.

Keep smiling. Life is great!


2 comments on “A Newborn is Perfect and You are a Survivor

  1. So much to agree with in this posting – the aims of seeking flexibility, learning and teaching to live rather than merely to survive, thinking/feeling for oneself rather than through others, leaning to open-mindedness and acceptance…

    But I have a problem when you say some parental intervention is good and necessary yet most of it is harmful; and I have to comment on the use of the terms “political correctness” and “scientism” in this context.

    It’s hard for parents to know what social changes offspring will be encountering in life, but how can it be right, not to teach the child what you know, or think you know, about what is going to help them survive?

    As parents – or aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends of the family, since “it takes a village to raise a child” – we may choose not to be intentionally directive, to have the child learn much more from social example than from explicit norms (I enjoyed and would recommend the book “The Continuum Concept” which makes the excellent point that we learn a lot from what we see around us), but whatever we do is done in a social context – not giving a child a Nintendo DS is not a punishment in a village in Kerala, but in a modern Paris middle-class neighborhood the child may well experience this as a punishment – and a curtailment of opportunities – whether we intend it that way or not, unless we are immersed in a whole community of people who don’t use Nintendos. (Actually, let’s replace “Nintendo” with “computer” just to drive the point home.)

    Anything we learn is a pruning of other opportunities. Aiming for total flexibility (a strong tendency in me, by the way) is like trying to keep all your options open for Friday night till the last minute – by the time you’re out of the office and ready to make that momentous choice, your gang is already out of town, the concert tickets are sold out and while you’re happy to go to a poetry reading, the friend you really enjoy going with has gone off to the beach with someone else. It’s like saying you want to learn to play an instrument but you’re waiting to find out which one before you start so you won’t pick up any bad habits – the years go by, and by the time your choice falls on the saxophone, you don’t even have the music skills you would have had if you had started out with the trumpet even if it wasn’t the perfect instrument for you.

    We can encourage contact with nature by all means, but forcing it down their throats if they’re just not into it probably won’t work – yet, who’s to tell us that they won’t suddenly discover it and start to love it? We have to go by our reasoning and our instincts – it’s the best we can do.

    As for right and wrong, we can’t *not* convey our values, the ones that we actually live by. They’re part of us. I’m persuaded that moral judgments are part of being human, in fact Frans de Waals has persuaded me that the origins of moral judgments can be found in chimps. Our choice of values will vary but if we’re neurologically whole we can’t really not have them. “Awakening our sense of what is good and beautiful” implies a sense of what is right and, implicitly, of what is wrong.

    On “scientism”: science doesn’t tell us everything, biology isn’t physics, rational thought is inadequate to the task of living and even merely surviving, and you as a scientist are well placed to point that out. But there is an equally strong trend among relatively educated people to dismiss science altogether, indeed to dismiss rationality. But if we go by feelings and intuition alone, we’ll be relying on what we’ve learned from our experience and (ha-ha) from our parents’ teaching. If I get taught to be a racist at my mother’s knee, I’ll probably act like a racist around some people — who will react accordingly, confirming all my prejudices. Barring an unusual experience, only rational thought will bootstrap me out of my prison.

    On “political correctness”, my main objection to the term is the fact that so many people who use it as an put-down, as a dismissal — I’m not saying you’re one of them — pretend or assume that deliberate changing of popular terminology only happens in left-wing circles, or only in feminist circles, or only among antiracist or disability rights advocates. I’ve heard Spanish speakers object to someone using the term “discapacidad visual” instead of “ceguera” and in their next breath scream that you’re not supposed to say “Falklands” because the islands are the “Malvinas”. I’ve seen Catalan nationalists lambast someone for using the term “gender discrimination” instead of “sex discrimination” and then launch into a tirade because someone else said “region” instead of “nation” referring to Catalonia. The Spanish nationalists, meanwhile, go up in arms over the use of “nation” instead of “region” for Catalonia and the use of “state” instead of “country” or “nation” in reference to Spain.

    Deliberate changing of usual terminology is fairly normal social behavior that serves all sorts of purposes other than Doublespeak of any color (indeed, science does this all the time, to refine and specify exactly what is under discussion). Go too far and communication becomes meaningless or even empty, but terminology changes and evolves as society evolves.

    In fact, some people (including close friends of mine) would probably consider your call for closer contact with nature in raising our children a clear case of political correctness in the sphere of education!

    Sorry to have written for so long but it’s complex sorting out all the mixed ideas and emotions aroused by your post. I’ve been mulling over this reply for several weeks. What I love about reading you and hearing you speak is that the ideas resound in my mind for a very long time!

  2. What a wonderful thread and an important one to note. There is no doubt that our present educational systems and the pace of society have to be revised, but even then, are we just cushioning the fall?

    I very much enjoy your word-play, and it makes absolute sense; why just survive when you can actually live. This may be the true message to learn from fellow animals. Yes, life is a struggle for most, more so for some than others, but is it all about the struggle for survival, and if so what is struggle? For some struggle may be simply regaining a conservative equilibrium in their state of affairs, while for others red, tooth & claw fits the picture better.

    A great professor once suggested I should perhaps study Philosophy to better understand animal behaviour. At the time I was perplexed by his suggestion, now I thank him for it! Gracias!

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