Autism spectrum/A few impertinent questions/Do people generally choose the challenges which force them to grow?

As I read psychiatry books, I came to realize most psychiatric patients are convinced they were starved for affection during an unhappy childhood. Dr. Zircon would not have approved of my childhood, but I honestly didn't remember it as unhappy. On the contrary, I had many happy childhood memories. I was the eldest of four children. Mother was busy doing all the work required of housewives in those days. No one worried about how we related to our peer group or whether we were living up to our capabilities. Unaware of the formulas of child psychology, my parents accepted our deviations from average, allowed us to make decisions, and assumed growing up came naturally. We attended school, did our household chores and would have been amazed at the thought of adults trying to “understand” us. We enjoyed the freedom of living in a small town. Pulling our wagon around the hills and pastures, we pretended to be explorers on dangerous journeys. We dammed the creeks and waded in them. My earliest happy memories include the sounds of birds and small animals in the quiet of the woods, wild flowers and the different smells of spring and summer in the sunny fields. We built a tree house up in an oak tree, where we published a newspaper. We sat up in that tree and made up scandals involving the neighbors. Then we delivered our "newspapers" to everyone's porch, which I'm sure (at least, I can hope) disappeared into the trash unread. In the winter we entertained ourselves by cutting paper-dolls from catalogs. Copying the crises ridden lives of radio, soap-opera characters, we enacted stories with them.

One of my first memories is from when I was about five. I suddenly felt an urge to examine the contents of a jewelry box Mother kept on her dresser. Mother confined us to her bedroom when we misbehaved, and it occurred to me that such punishment might offer opportunity for a leisurely examination of the treasures in that box. I asked for a glass of milk and dropped it on the floor. Mother got a mop and began to clean up the mess.

"Dam milk," I said. I'd never uttered this word before and was confident it would result in punishment.

"Little girls shouldn't swear," Mother scolded absently.

I pulled a stack of pots and pans off a shelf, scattering them over the floor with a loud bang and clatter.

"What has gotten in to you today?" Mother exclaimed. She felt my forehead to see if I was feverish.

I deliberately knocked my sister down, making her cry.

"Go to my room and stay there until you can behave," Mother finally ordered. Suspicious of my quick compliance, she checked after a few minutes and found me sitting on top of the dresser, draped with chains, pins, rings and necklaces. She lost patience and spanked me.

  • -*-*

One day my brother and sister and I were playing store. Our merchandise consisted of cans of acorns on an assortment of boards, stacked on bricks and boxes. Unaccustomed to adults participating in our games, we were surprised when two Indian women in long, calico skirts stopped to examine our store. There was an Indian reservation somewhere near Ukiah, although I'm not sure exactly where it was. We were used to seeing Indians around town, usually sitting on benches around the courthouse. The two cultures rarely seemed to interact much. No Indian children attended our schools or churches. At the movie theater the Indians were made to sit in the balcony, our version of segregation. I can't imagine why people weren't more curious about their lives. These Indian women were accompanied by a couple of children our age, who watched us with solemn, big, brown eyes. The women were talking in their language. We ceased playing, three barefoot, scruffy, little kids, and stood silently as they discussed our store.

How much?" one of the women asked in English.

"Pennies?" suggested my enterprising brother. We had been using rocks for money.

They conferred, and then offered us three real copper pennies in exchange for our entire stock of acorns. We eagerly accepted.

"We come back tomorrow," they promised.

We spent the rest of the day scampering around the hills gathering buckets of acorns, thrilled to be able to sell something so freely available. It was like finding someone to whom we could sell mud pies. I don't know if we were the only individuals to be thus exploited by Indians. Their children apparently weren't interested in picking up acorns at that price. However for several summers we were happy to gather them for a penny a bucket. A couple of years later a man who kept deer as pets paid us the magnificent sum of ten cents a bucket.

In addition to all our cats, dogs and hamsters, we also kept wild animals such as chipmunks, raccoons and salamanders as pets. We even played with a catfish in a tub of water for a few days, until mother cooked it for dinner. Once, Daddy came home from a fishing trip with a box of bats for us. They escaped and flew all over the house. It was hours before we got rid of them. None of us thought they were cute.

As we grew older we enjoyed working. We pulled our wagon around town, selling produce from the family vegetable garden. We baby-sat, did chores for the neighbors, sold magazines, worked in the movie theater and picked prunes. A few migrant farm workers came from the South each year, but local people did most of the farm work in those days. The entire town, including children, was happy to turn out to earn a few dollars helping with the harvest in the fall, and school didn’t start until late September to accommodate such work. We undoubtedly had less money than most people in town, but we didn't feel poor. We took a can of food to church at Christmas for the poor people. If we ever became the recipients of any food collected for the poor people, my parents never told us.

We always had enough to eat. My father liked to hunt and fish, and during the depression we ate illegal fish and game. We all enjoyed family camping trips, and the most exciting were those times we thought the game warden might be pursuing us. I've since learned many people in town were aware of Daddy's illegal hunting. If the game warden had wanted, he surely would have had no trouble catching my parents, four children, baby bottles and diapers, two hound dogs, a cat, a canary and our camping gear piled into an old open touring car. (Mother, reluctant to leave Tweety Bird alone in an empty house, took the canary on camping trips that lasted more than a couple of days.) We spent time in the car like normal rowdy kids - until we had a flat tire or broke down. Then we got out and sat by the side of the road, silently, and without moving. Daddy's temper was on a short leash when the car wasn't running properly. Once the car was fixed, we continued on our way with our usual noisy bickering and teasing.

I wouldn't want to give the impression we were just a happy, carefree, fun-loving family. Daddy was uncommunicative and must have found it difficult to express himself, or to show emotion. He used to read at the dinner table. He claimed the doctor prescribed it as a way to help his indigestion. I suspect the truth was, Daddy just lacked talent or tolerance for the kind of chatter that went on during mealtime with four noisy children. My father was an alcoholic. His drinking seemed a part of my earliest memories. We would awaken in the middle of the night. Sometimes Mother would get us out of bed, and all of us except Daddy would go stay with friends for a while. Neither my parents nor their friends were sophisticated enough to be aware such experiences might damage a child's psyche. They wouldn't have known the meaning of the word 'psyche'. We were pretty much ignored during such episodes. Actually, children are adaptable, and we learned to cope. We accepted disruptions in our lives and sometimes found the visits an entertaining break from routine. After we had lived with friends a few days, Daddy would show up and persuade Mother to return home. Daddy might work on one of his inventions and apparently wouldn't drink for a while. Sometimes during one of these more harmonious periods, we made exciting plans to go live in the mountains and earn our living prospecting for gold - or some other grandiose scheme to become rich.

Another disruptive element in our childhood was my maternal grandmother, who divided her time by living with each of her two children. In both families she chose one grandchild upon whom she lavished love and gifts, and regarded the others as antagonists. My sister was the recipient of her affection in our family. Mother would call us together and warn us Gram was coming. "Try to behave," she would beg us.

My brother and I would regard each other with sudden agreement, forgetting all personal differences. We wouldn't have dared do anything to Gram, but we could torment our sister, Gram's favorite. My brother and I remained united until the day Gram finally returned to my uncle's family. (Our baby sister, nine years younger than I, wasn't yet involved.) Gram's husband, my maternal grandfather, died when I was three, and I never knew him. His children always spoke of him with respect and affection. Housing his family in a covered wagon, he had earned a living as a traveling photographer. When he became older, he went off and lived alone in the Arizona desert, near his son's family. Considering Gram's sharp, caustic tongue and cantankerous disposition, one might understand his desire to escape. Gram was scornful of the preacher. Once when he called, Gram got a glass of water and sat smacking her lips over it, pretending it was gin. Mother may have been embarrassed, but she seemed to have endless patience with Gram. When we were small we fought and bickered like a bunch of puppies, and Gram participated in the turmoil. Daddy, for whom she never had a kind thought, usually suffered in silence, but once she must have gone too far, and he told her to leave. She wasn't ready to return to my uncle's house. She put a tent up in the back yard and camped out there until she wore Daddy down with her sarcastic remarks, and he allowed her back into the house. Today I can feel compassion for them all, as I try to imagine having to live with my grown children and sleeping on a cot in the dining room. In her later years Gram had to work as a “practical nurse” for what little money she could earn. The day she turned sixty five, and the State granted her an old-age stipend, she went to bed and stayed there until her death some ten years later.

Mother was friendly, out-going, tolerant and non-judgmental. Crippled by rheumatoid arthritis since the age of thirty, she was cheerful and affectionate in spite of constant pain. Everyone liked and admired her. I’m sure she didn’t regard her life as unhappy. I remember her laughing and joking with friends. She seemed proud of how she kept the house clean, the clothes she made for us, food she canned and the meals she cooked. She was an enthusiastic camper, making our hunting trips exciting. Once she made yeast doughnuts over a campfire and shared them with other campers, including some Indians camping near us. Those doughnuts, fresh from a pot of oil boiling over a campfire were delicious, and it was the closest we ever came to having a social interaction with Indians. As we grew older, mother was supportive of our aspirations and decisions. (Although she surely must have felt skeptical about some of mine – such as sailing off to Alaska.) My mother provided all the love and understanding necessary for a happy childhood. Her remarkable cheerfulness was most apparent later, near the end of her life. She became severely crippled with arthritis. Nevertheless she managed to live a successful life in a nursing home. It was the first nursing home in Ukiah, and most people regarded it as luxurious, compared to the boarding house where Mother and Gram had been staying. Mother became a baseball fan and shared her enthusiasm with other residents, quoting baseball statistics and convincing everyone to watch games on television. She also conducted a business from the nursing home; she crocheted and sold baby outfits. Many a new-born went home from Ukiah hospital in Mother’s exquisite little sweaters, caps and booties. She once fell and broke her hip, and was told she would never walk again. She exercised, though, secretly, under the covers, and she did walk again. Her enthusiasm for life lasted until her death at the age of eighty four. Anyone believing a mother creates her child's emotional health would have a hard time explaining how, with a mother like Gram, my mother turned out to be such a remarkable person.

As teenagers, the highlight of our life was a church summer-camp for which we worked all year to earn the money. One evening at camp, six of us - all girls - decided to do the most daring, outrageous thing our imaginations could devise. Pulling the blinds and locking the door of the cabin - we played strip poker! The Methodists running the camp learned of our escapade and announced our scandalous behavior publicly. They stood us up in front of assembly, and everyone prayed we would repent our sins. Such humiliation might have been painful if there hadn't been six of us. Together, we just obligingly repented and allowed ourselves to become “saved”, creating a big emotional event for everyone. None of us had actually considered ourselves “lost”, but our contrition and forgiveness was the most magnificent climax for a summer-camp that anyone could remember.

I embraced my salvation enthusiastically, and when I got home I looked around for someone to proselytize. My father had never to my knowledge been to church. At my question of, “Have you considered accepting Christ into your life?” my inarticulate father shot me a startled glance and got up and left the room without answering. I didn’t remain preoccupied with religion for long though. No matter the religion or sect, I’d never heard of a deity known for his sense of humor, and I was committed to fun. I remember an aunt's evasive answers when I asked why she didn't go to church, but I never had serious doubts about religion until I reached the university, where the 20th Century, scientific materialists were waiting to challenge all religious beliefs. Many people who become skeptical of religious myths and legends turn to materialism, under the impression that is the only alternative to Theism. Some materialists promote Atheism and become just as zealously evangelical about their newly found “scientific truth” as any religious fundamentalist. They insist the universe is merely the result of accidental, mechanical processes, all mysteriously popping into existence without design, plan or purpose, and that life consists of nothing but matter and deterministic, physical forces. Some materialists even insist that free-will is an illusion. They point to life’s imperfections as an argument against the existence of purpose and design in nature.

I've always suspected that the way things are, is the way the universe is supposed to be. Surely Heaven (no evil or suffering) would be too boring for human tolerance, and would soon cause most of us to self-destruct. Or take up drugs. I don't regard imperfection, injustice, sin or suffering as examples of nature's foul-ups. Imperfections exist, so they are obviously essential aspects of reality. A perfect society would be incapable of growth, static rather than dynamic. In other words, dead! Perfect organisms would have no reason to evolve, and perfect people would have no reason to grow. Regardless of where we start in life, all of us are capable of some improvement, and personal growth seems like one of our most satisfying achievements. “Resting on one’s laurels” might even be a handicap for someone born with an excess of talents. If self-regulating systems such as life are designed, (or self-designed by individual organisms striving to adapt) I'm confident imperfection is an essential aspect of the process.

People who survive unusual experiences sometimes write books about their lives. Such accounts often include more difficult childhoods than mine. Contrary to psychological orthodoxy, some people seem proud of surviving a challenging childhood, rather than feeling damaged. The most traumatic event of my childhood happened when I was twenty three. Some people might be adults at that age, but I still had lots of growing to do. Mother left my father, again, and came to live with me in Berkeley. She bought a house with the money my brother in the Navy was sending her. When I decided to go to Alaska, I took a bus trip to the town where my father lived to tell him goodbye. Daddy walked out of the garage where he worked and stood silently, his eyes on the ground, while I explained why I'd come.

"Go away," he said, glancing at up me with bitterness. "I'm not interested in where you go. Your mother has been with you for months now, and I haven't heard a word from you."

“I'm sorry, I--”

"Just go away. I don't want to see you again."

He turned and walked away from me. His back and lowered head disappeared into the busy garage. I stood there a moment, overcome with terrible, confused feelings of anger, shame, guilt and regret. (None of those feelings were the least bit subconscious; I was painfully aware of them). Then I got on the bus and returned to Berkeley. I had been focused upon my own life, and it hadn't occurred to me that my father might want to see me after Mother left him. During college I'd made trips home several times a year. My father, with problems of his own, never had much to say. Mother was the one who showed affection and expressed interest in our lives. At the age of twenty three, I had the rest of my life to sort out my thoughts and feelings, but my last sight of my father was his back disappearing into that garage. Daddy died a few months later, while I was in Alaska, and I was left with the pain of all the things I might have said to him. Self-centered at that age, I didn't understand much about suffering. So far my cheerful, optimistic nature had allowed me to sail through life unscathed. As the years passed and I gained understanding, I realized how lonely and abandoned Daddy must have felt. He was inarticulate. I have no clear picture of what he thought or believed. I don’t think he even had real conversations with my mother. I never heard any. However Daddy wouldn't have stayed and worked to earn a living all those years if he hadn't loved us. The worst thing he did while drunk was fall down. I remembered incidents which must have been his way of showing affection. For instance my sister once forgot her kitten on a camping trip. Daddy turned the car around and drove fifty miles back into the mountains to search for it.

Oh, I had painful childhood memories all right. Every year that memory of the suffering I inflicted upon Daddy by my thoughtless concern with my own life has become more painful. If only I had acquired more wisdom and understanding by that age! I experienced all the violent emotions of childhood: anger, resentment, jealousy and envy - and I suffered them consciously, not subconsciously. I remembered occasions when I was dishonest and hurtful. And then, after some well-deserved punishment, I remember fantasies of tragically expiring - and that would make everyone sorry for the way they had treated me! I have since become aware of some of my own traits, such as my nonconformist tendencies, which I felt I inherited from my father. I'd seen Daddy's algebra and trigonometry books. He didn't even finish high school, but I knew he'd taught himself a lot of mathematics. I, and each of my siblings, inherited a bit of our father's nature. None of us are extroverts. Relating to people has sometimes required effort for all of us. Everyone has some ability to change and grow. Talents are gifts, and we should take no credit for them; overcoming deficiencies are achievements for which we can be justifiably proud. I sometimes wish I had exerted more effort to develop a few extrovert talents for myself. Much of the growth I’ve achieved was stimulated by resentment of that misguided therapy that was imposed upon me, rather than by any innate urge to achieve. Nevertheless my siblings and I have all been more successful than our poor father was, and I don't regret the way I was born. Our father was apparently unable to bring about much change to his nature, but I’m sure he tried. Perhaps just being a part of his struggles helped us, his children, to be more successful in dealing with our own imperfections.

But while I had painful memories, I also remembered birthday parties, the circus coming to town, and Mother making me a new dress. I recall hot summer afternoons when we walked two miles for a swim in the river. I remember Daddy coming up with the price of a quart of ice cream on a sweltering summer evening. We all slept outside during hot weather, and I can still recall the delicious, cool nights when we first moved our beds into the back yard at the beginning of summer. As a teenager I remember boyfriends, picnics, dances, football games and stealing watermelons from farmers' fields. We lived by the railroad track, where the rent was cheap. One summer a boxcar load of watermelons was damaged, and we were allowed to steal all we wanted. I also have joyful recollections of singing Shine on Harvest Moon or My Gal Sal at the top of our lungs on balmy evenings, while chugging down a country lane in a jalopy overflowing with seventeen-year-olds. I remember laughing until we collapsed at things adults didn't seem to consider funny.

There was the time I sent for travel brochures from magazines in the library. The mailman delivered our mail in a carton for a few weeks. I spent hours of exquisite fantasy in exotic places like Ceylon and Maracaibo and, of course, being rescued from a never-ending series of perils by a stalwart hero on a white horse. (It would be difficult to reach the Seychelles on a horse, and my hero often rode a yacht.) Believing myself to be the only person living a fantasy life, I never admitted to such a pastime. Mother fussed because I absentmindedly put the dust pan in the icebox and the butter in the broom closet. Meanwhile I floated serenely down the Congo. Crocodiles frolicked in the muddy water and naked pygmies hid behind banana trees along the shore. Tarzan lurked up in the taller trees, ready to rescue me from perils. Throughout my life I’ve maintained such daydreams to which I could retreat when nothing else required my attention. It’s how I put myself to sleep at night. I don’t know if it’s a normal practice, but I’m glad no psychologist ever cured me of it. I have always been confident that I was “normal”.

Questions edit

The original images may be found on this pdf copy of the book.

Current page: Do people generally choose the challenges which force them to grow?

  1. Wouldn’t volition be an essential aspect of creativity?
  2. Could an inherently creative universe, a living universe, ever be defined by mathematical formulas?
  3. How did the laws of nature originate?
  4. Are some scientific concepts too sacred to be debated?
  5. Are intelligence and creativity two separate and distinct processes?
  6. Are psychoanalytic theories profound? Or just convoluted?
  7. If purposeful creativity exists as an aspect of reality, why should we assume it is a process unique to human consciousness?
  8. Can the value of scientific knowledge ever justify enrolling people in research projects without their knowledge or consent?
  9. Exactly what technical knowledge enables psychiatrists to manipulate ids, egos and psyches?
  10. Should "normal" be equated with average?
  11. What technical knowledge enables psychologists to declare people emotionally abnormal?
  12. Are psychologists able to scientifically measure parental love? Or its lack?
  13. Is the universe, including life, an automatic, mechanical process, driven by nothing but the laws of physics and chemistry (the materialist position)? Or do other forces play a role, such as mind, consciousness, judgment and volition - most of which we presently have only have limited understanding?
  14. Should doctors and scientists refrain from expressing skepticism about theories of colleagues in other fields?
  15. Do people generally choose the challenges which force them to grow?
  16. How can we claim to scientifically manipulate thoughts and emotions if we don't even understand how such elusive phenomena relate to physical reality?
  17. What is faith? If belief that God organized the universe is a matter of faith, why isn't the materialist belief that the universe came together by some accidental, mechanical process also a matter of faith? (Or, the Buddhist belief in self-organization.)
  18. Are living creatures constantly evolving as they strive to grow and adapt? Or must evolutionary adaptations passively wait around for a random mutation to accidentally pop up in someone's genome?
  19. Should we have official committees to define scientific knowledge? Or is an ever-changing, constantly-challenged, general consensus our best way to keep our understanding of reality vibrant?
  20. Could lying on a couch and obsessing over a traumatic childhood ever be therapeutic?
  21. Would it even be possible to conduct a scientific study to determine whether psychological treatments are effective?
  22. What is racism?
  23. Does free-will exist?
  24. Would obsessing over a traumatic event ever cure any mental illness?
  25. Could a creative intelligence be an innate aspect of all Nature?
  26. What would define economic theories as materialistic or non-materialistic?
  27. Is intolerance often the result of personal insecurity?
  28. Consciousness and free-will may be defining characteristics of all life, but do we have much understanding of what they actually are?
  29. Can we do other people's growing for them?
  30. Are Western democracies civilization’s ultimate achievement?
  31. Which would produce the most psychologically stunted individuals? Being emotionally challenged? Or never encountering any challenges?
  32. Could the purpose of life be to participate in the growth of the universe?
  33. Can science investigate and attempt to describe a non-materialistic version of the universe?
Current page: Do people generally choose the challenges which force them to grow?