Somewhere on this planet there must be an Adult Children of Counselor’s (ACOC) recovery group for kids like mine who have grown up with a therapist-parent. Let me give you a window into what my children had to put up with while growing up with me….When a sibling conflict broke out, I waited and watched. If John Harry, Lizzie, and Annalise’s efforts at negotiating a mutually acceptable détente failed, they were forced to participate in a thing we referred to as a “peace conference.” These adhoc meetings were called to order when voice volumes escalated beyond acceptable decibel levels. During those moments, I would insist that the warring parties sit on the ground across from one another. Next, the participants took turns speaking their piece while the other was forced to listen.
Interruptions were not permitted. If Annalise was the listener, then she was not allowed to respond until after she had paraphrased John Harry’s position. Only after John Harry agreed that she understood his position was she allowed to state her response. Then it became Annalise’s turn to be the speaker, and the same rules for listening were imposed upon John Harry.
I would like to tell you that these meetings always proceeded in an orderly, even-tempered way. I would also like to tell you that protests like, “You’re always on [his/her] side!” never occurred. And I would really like to tell you that my uncanny skill as a mediator is responsible for blessed outcomes each and every time we convened one of these peace conferences.
I recall an old Lakota Sioux saying about not being able to understand someone until you walk in their moccasin’s for one moon. My peace conferences were really a structured attempt to get my kids to try on his or her sibling’s moccasins for just a little while. What I have learned from these peace conferences is that the longest distance on earth is the distance between one child’s moccasin’s and the moccasins of another child.
When it comes down to it, children, at their core, are primarily self-interested. A parent’s job is to build a developmental bridge that stretches, on one end, into the self-focused world of the child. Gradually (and painstakingly) a parent attempts to escort the child across that developmental bridge to the other side—to the world of empathy and other-centeredness. An old counselor like me might attempt this task through things like mediated peace conferences. But good parents are constantly performing this bridging task in a hundred different ways. Each time a child is asked to help with a family chore, or to call home when plans change, he or she is being ushered a little further toward the other side of that bridge. Whenever a child is coached to pass a soccer ball to a teammate, that child is learning a subtle lesson about subordinating his or her agenda for the greater good of the team.
The great developmental psychologist, Eric Erickson, asserted that we grow into adulthood through predictable stages. But as we pass into more sophisticated levels of development, we still contain within ourselves earlier, less differentiated parts of the self. Think of those Russian dolls that contain smaller versions of themselves one inside of the other. Simply stated, each of us contains an inner child who has needs, strong emotions, spontaneity, and is in business primarily for the self.
In this week’s Gospel, (Mark 9: 30-37) Jesus got a good look at some childish behavior. He caught his disciples jockeying for who would get to ride shotgun into the Kingdom of God. His response was interesting. He didn’t say, “Shame on you for being self-interested.” He invited them to acknowledge the child inside—to accept and embrace it.
Jesus knew that children respond to love. When confronted with that part of yourself that can be as self-centered and ill-mannered as a little child–as undisciplined as the disciples in this week’s reading–do you follow Jesus’ lead? Do you first acknowledge, then accept, and finally love that inner child within you?
When we fail to acknowledge that part of ourselves that is like a little child, it remains in our unconscious. Things that are split-off and forced down into our unconscious have a way of driving our behavior. In this state of unawareness, it is as if the inner child has gotten hold of the car keys of our psyche. When we listen to and acknowledge the presence of that part of ourselves, and bring loving understanding to it, that adult part of us gets the car keys and steering wheel back. With the right amount of self-compassion, and loving/self-understanding, ego-driven feelings and behaviors have a way of melting just a little bit.
What is unloved within us cannot be transformed. This week when you confront that part of yourself that “wants what it wants, when it wants it,” would you be open to acknowledging that inner child, and allowing Christ to embrace it? Through your awareness, and indwelling Loving Presence, you can be ushered across a developmental bridge a little bit closer to the Kingdom of God.