Son, Father and Man (August 2006)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:23

Saga August 2006

Son, Father and Man 

Jack had fallen off a ladder and broken his hip. When I went to see him after he’d left hospital he was reclining on a sofa with his wife May tending to his every need. I asked whether his surgeon had given him a programme of exercises to get him back on his feet and walking normally. He responded with a string of expletives which consigned the surgeon and his team to the netherworld. Jack was not going to do what that power-mad doctor and the bossy physiotherapists (Jack called them ‘physioterrorists’) told him to do. May chided him gently, ‘Our GP won’t be pleased with you at all, Jack.’ Jack said defiantly, ‘That doesn’t worry me in the least.’

On a bus I overheard a woman telling the woman beside her about the holiday which she’d booked. She said, ‘I think I deserve a good holiday. I’ve had a really hard year at work, and Mum’s been ill and I’ve had to look after her, and then my son broke his collar bone playing football . . .’ Her description of her selfless devotion to others went on for some minutes, but she finished with, ‘The holiday’s more expensive than usual but I don’t feel guilty about that. I think I deserve it after all I’ve been through.’ Her friend agreed.

Carol and I met for afternoon tea at a café that specialised in the most sumptuous cakes. She chose two rather large cream cakes, and said, ‘I know I shouldn’t do this, it’s very naughty, but just for once.’

Disparate though these incidents might appear to be, they have one thing in common. The three people involved are physically grown up but they still think like children. They make their decisions about what they will do according to what their parents think, except their parents aren’t the ones who created them but the parents they carry around inside them. We all carry our parents inside us as what therapists call ‘internal objects’. For some of us our parental internal objects are no more than our memories of our parents, but for others they act as parents, rewarding and punishing the child within who obeys and disobeys as children do. Jack, his wife May, the woman on the bus, and Carol are like this. They don’t experience themselves as one, whole adult person but as three people, a child, a parent, and an adult who tries to mediate between the child and the adult. Freud called these three people the id (the child), the ego (the adult) and the superego (the parent). Eric Berne, the founder of the form of therapy called Transactional Analysis, used the obvious terms, child, adult and parent, and studied how a person can alternate between being the child, the parent and the adult. 

The child is sometimes wilfully disobedient and sometimes tries hard to be good. When I saw Jack he was in his favourite role, that of the wilfully disobedient child who is defying the parent, represented in his mind by his doctors and physiotherapists. May is in the role of the good, obedient child, an older sister to Jack rather than his wife. The woman on the bus is in her parent role. She has assessed her child as having been very good, hard-working and uncomplaining, and therefore deserving of a treat. She feels that she must prove to her friend that she is not a naughty, self-indulgent child who has taken a treat which she does not deserve, whereas Carol is the child who wants to enjoy an undeserved treat and feel the thrill of being sinful.

Babies don’t come into the world divided into three. They arrive as an embryonic whole person. However, they cannot enjoy this state for very long because they soon encounter good and bad, rewards and punishments. Much of what they do as a child is called bad by the adults around them, and so small children start to think of themselves as being bad, or at least unacceptable. They take inside themselves their parents’ way of judging them, and soon there is a conflict inside them between their desire to please their parents and their desire to be themselves. Some people waste their lives trying to please their internal parent who gives nothing but grudging praise, while others seek revenge against an internal parent who as a real life person treated them badly. The child within tries to justify his or her existence to the internal parent, whereas an adult knows that we do not have to justify our existence by being good. An adult is good simply because it is more pleasant to live in a society where people behave well towards one another than in a society where they do not.

In childhood and adolescence the independent whole person, the adult, struggles to survive amongst the conflicts between the internal child and parent. Some children manage to establish a balance between their child, parent and adult so that as they enter adulthood their adult becomes their dominant way of assessing a situation and making a decision, but, alas, many people do not manage to do this. They lose the sense of being a whole person and live unhappily with a child and a parent battling inside them. That this is so is revealed in their ordinary conversation.

If Jack had been operating as an adult he would have said, ‘I can’t say I enjoy all the exercises I have to do but if I want to be as active as I once was I just have to do it.’ The woman on the bus would have said, ‘I’ve got a lovely holiday booked. I’m really looking forward to it.’ Carol would have said, ‘I fancy a couple of cream cakes.’ However, being an adult means giving up some of the pleasures of being a child. Jack would have had to give up the pleasure of being cosseted by his wife/mother. May would have had to give up the pleasure of priding herself on being so good. The woman on the bus would have had to give up the pleasure of complaining about how hard done by she was. Carol would have had to give up the pleasure of being sinful. As Saint Paul said, ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ (1 Corinthians: 13:11) Anyone who’s old enough to read Saga is old enough to be one whole person, an adult.