Children are trained to notice what is missing from the Christmas presents
that they receive. The massively overpowering commercial advertising machine that is the ‘children’s T.V.’
ensures that the cleverly enticing presents advertised find their way indelibly into the child’s desirings. No
matter how many gifts the parents actually buy, there are too many indelibly recorded presents missing from
under the tree. This training not only renders parents desperate as to their child’s ‘unappreciativeness’ and
to feeling that ‘we can do nothing to please him / her’, but it also renders children unable to focus with
pleasure on what presents ARE present under the tree. We are all familiar with this. Attention is focused upon what
Adults, on the other hand, are ‘different’. They KNOW that they will NOT get what
they REALLY want, and so narrow down their fantasies appropriately - knowing that what they REALLY want is
impossible, too expensive, too exaggerated for their life-style, too out of step with their history of
present-receiving, too much to hope for. So they select a likely present - likely to be agreed to by the Other, and
likely to be ‘useful’ to them in some manner or means. The present comes to have a double representation -
firstly, that of its ‘own value’ as an object [e.g. it really IS a useful gadget], and secondly, it represents
the negation of all of the other choices that the person could NOT have reasonably expected to get.
Is this a million miles from the child crying in his mountain of present-wrapping
debris for that ‘missing’ toy? For the child the toy is simply missing. For the adult, the ‘toy’ is re-presented
as missing in and by the received object.
Let us all cry.
OK - that’s enough!
With children, the absence of a positive parent-child relationship can be obscured
momentarily by some of the flashy, noisy presents - but with adults this bribery tactic works less well to obscure
the missing emotivity. Following the line of thinking above, what is missing is the genuinely positive relationship
between the parties, and the effort to obscure this missing link between the parties is the giving of ‘presents’.
Children can agree to pretend momentarily that this bribery works because they are given to amusements with noisy
toys, but adults either need to receive very elaborate toys indeed or they are unwilling to pretend momentarily that
everything is OK.
In both cases we all know when the requisite positive emotional connectivity is missing.
The gap cannot be obscured for very long with any conviction - notwithstanding expensive fur coats, watches,
The place where this creates the most trouble is between ‘grown up children’ and
their parents. In other words, between adults of different generations. And this shows itself most clearly at
Christmas time when it is the cultural expectation that we ‘go home’ to ‘visit the folks’ and to spend some
of the festivity in the company of those people with whom we spent our formative years. Why does this cause so many
problems? Because we as adult children in the homes of our parents re-live the same patterns of frustrating role
relationships that we were first trained into by our parents and grand-parents - roles which ‘left out’ a great
part of what we came to define as our ‘private experience’, or as our ‘real self’.
How does this work? Simple.
When you are returning to your ‘homestead’ , to your family of origin, you do so
under one or another dominant expectancy. These dominant expectancies are emotional channels which carry you towards
the imminent return to your old family life environment. The first emotional channel is one we can call ‘Same
Old Story...’, and it works like this: - You know that things are ‘always the same’; that no one at home
ever changes for the better; that this Christmas will be a repeat of all the other previous Christmases that you
have ever experienced; that you will find yourself getting annoyed, irritated, impatient, ill-tempered, angry, and
so on with those ‘folks at home’. You know that no matter how much you have changed as a person over all these
years, that these changes will never be seen, recognised, or admitted into the family discussions. People will
expect you to play the same old role that they first fit you into, and they in turn will certainly keep up their own
old style of relating to you. The fact that we anticipate the Same Old Story indicates the type of
disappointment that we feel in the face of the fact that things just never seem to change. This means that the Same
Old Story = the Same Old Disappointments that we feel with these others.
The second emotional channel we can call ‘Maybe This Time...’, and it
works like this:- For some reason we come to expect that things will indeed be different this time. The usual
reasons are that we ourselves have changed so much due to our life experiences that we are sure that we can never
play the same old roles in the family again - and that because of this personal change, that the family system of
conversations and relationships will be different. Another reason we come to anticipate something different is that
the ‘folks at home’ have undergone some intense life experiences which seem to have changed them [at least as
far as we can tell on the phone]. So, ‘Maybe This Time’ we will finally experience .that which we have
always missed in our relationship with our parents, family, etc. Hope springs eternal - in this case hoping that our
parents will [tick one or more of these items!] -
Show that they love you [instead of not caring]
Express affection for you [instead of being inexpressive]
Recognise you for the fine success that you have made of your life [in spite
of the fact that you refused to follow the career they had chosen for you]
Appreciate all that you have done for them [instead of taking it all for
Be sincere and honest in their dealings with you [instead of never directly
communicating with you]
Come to judge you positively [rather than continually write you off as a
....and so on with our list of what is always missing.
Now if you are flowing in the first channel [Same Old Story = the Same Old
Disappointments] you are not expecting things to be any different this year. But to have this negative anticipation
means that you also must still have the desire that they could be changed ‘if only...’. It is important
to ask yourself some questions about this persistent desire.
Why do you still nurture this desire, in the face of many years of invalidation?
Why is it so important to you even now?
What does it mean to your personal identity to hold onto this impossible desire?
What would happen to you - who would you become - if you left this desire go?
If on the other hand you are flowing in the second channel - Maybe This Time -
you are clearly betting [for some reason] that this time there is a chance that you will get that which you have
always lacked from these relationships. Also in this case you could usefully ask yourself some questions.
Why are you so willing to make such a bet on what is probably fairly slim evidence
of change in others?
What do you think counts as a significant personal change in your family life?
Why do you think that others also will see the changes that you happen to see in
your own or in their lives?
Don’t you remember what happened when you made similar bets on others in the
Here is what David Smail says about personal and interpersonal changes - ‘The
‘person’ is not a bounded entity separated off from the world in which he or she exists, but an interaction of
body with world, consisting partially of both. People cannot control their beliefs and attitudes because people are
their beliefs and attitudes. ...What seems like our ‘inside’ - what psychologists so often refer to as the ‘self’,
‘inner space’, etc. - does not exist in any material sense. Nor does it ‘exist’ in any immaterial sense - it
is, rather, a way of referring to our self-consciousness. Exactly as we can talk to, as well as about, others we can
talk to and about ourselves [though perhaps with differing degrees of honesty] concerning our experience of the
world. ... What makes a difference to the way we are, what changes us or permits us to change, is not the voluntary
manipulation of inner resources [for there is no ‘inner’] but the influence of or access to outer resources and
powers. Neither ‘self’ nor world can be influenced or changed by anything other than the exercise of power.’
[David Smail . The Origins of Unhappiness - A New Understanding of Personal Distress. Harper Collins. p.p.
In other words, unless we have personal access to pretty powerful resources for
influencing others-as-collective, there is unlikely to be any sign of change in the way our relationships with
others are organised and experienced. Bateson makes the same point when he talks about the impossibility of
In yet other words, we have every reason to believe that the Same Old Story
will be replicated till the end of time, and that the Maybe This Time... channel of anticipation is pure
fantasy unless there is clear access to the powers and resources for triggering changes in social systems, in this
case the family system as a network of conversations.
This is not an argument for the inevitability for becoming either continually
disillusioned, or embittered and cynical [or at least heavily ironic] about our lot in life. Rather it is an
argument for coming to see our social and interpersonal organisations differently - and to understand our place in
these social inventions from a different point of view.
To start with I am emphasising the importance of the following points -
1. To be clearly aware of our desiring anticipations in relation to Others - and the
impossibility of such desires ever being satisfied.
2. To see that ‘desire’ can only exist insofar as it remains recurrently
unsatisfied. Every satisfaction of desire is only a guarantee for a further experience of unsatisfiable desire
[think how drug addiction works - one always needs more of the same in order to achieve the same level
3. To understand the nature of our acute sense of what is missing or lacking from our
personhood as a result of the way that our parents related to us within their own constraining history.
4. To see clearly how our personal identity is formed around this lacking - usually
as a recurrent negative experience of self / others.
5. To understand how our personal ‘lack’ fits into our overall family picture as
one piece of a jig-saw - and come to see how our personal jig-saw part fits intimately with the jig-saw parts of all
of the others in the family drama.
6. To see how our day-today living relationships [at home and at work] is channelled
in a specific direction and form of experience by our experiencing of this central lack.
7. To perceive how our future choices are all determined, pre-empted, and configured
by the ever-present core of lacking.
So far so good. But what are we supposed to take out of all of this? Are we to be
Depressed? Resigned? Fatalistic? Deeply unhappy? Bitter & Twisted?
Not necessarily. Very often these feelings are in fact the standard responses to the
realisation that we are unable to change that which we would like to be different. But there are other ways of
confronting this awareness.
Consider for a moment what Erich Fromm was saying in 1979 when he wrote about the
need for a new society to emerge which would bring forth the New Human Being whose character would be
radically different to that of the humans in our consumer-dominated western civilisation. He listed 21 qualities
necessary for the emergence of the new person.
1. Willingness to give up all forms of having, in order to fully be.
2. Security, sense of identity, and confidence based on faith in what one is,
on one’s need for relatedness, interest, love, solidarity with the world around one, instead of on one’s desire
to have, to possess, to control the world, and thus become the slave of one’s possession.
3. Acceptance of the fact that nobody and nothing outside oneself give meaning to
life, but that this radical independence and no-thingness can become the condition for the fullest activity devoted
to caring and sharing.
4. Being fully present where one is.
5. Joy that comes from giving and sharing, not from hoarding and exploiting.
6. Love and respect for life in all its manifestations, in the knowledge that not
things, power, all that is dead, but life and everything that pertains to its growth are sacred.
7. Trying to reduce greed, hate, and illusions as much as one is capable.
8. Living without worshipping idols and without illusions, because one has reached a
state that does not require illusions
9. Developing one’s capacity for love, together with one’s capacity for critical,
10. Shedding one’s narcissism and accepting the tragic limitations inherent in
11. Making the full growth of oneself and of one’s fellow beings the supreme goal
12. Knowing that to reach this goal, discipline and respect for reality are
13. Knowing, also, that no growth is healthy that does not occur in a structure, but
knowing, too, the difference between structure as an attribute of life and ‘order’ as an attribute of no-life,
of the dead.
14. Developing one’s imagination, not as an escape from intolerable circumstances
but as the anticipation of real possibilities, as a means to do away with intolerable circumstances.
15. Not deceiving others, but also not being deceived by others; one may be called
innocent, but not naive.
16. Knowing oneself, not only the self one knows, but also the self one does not know
- even though one has a slumbering knowledge of what one does not know.
17. Sensing one’s oneness with all life, hence giving up the aim of conquering
nature, subduing it, exploiting it, raping it, destroying it, but trying, rather, to understand and co-operate with
18. Freedom that is not arbitrariness but the possibility to be oneself, not as a
bundle of greedy desires, but as a delicately balanced structure that at any moment is confronted with the
alternative of growth or decay, life or death.
19. Knowing that evil and destructiveness are necessary consequences of failure to
20. Knowing that only a few have reached perfection in all these qualities, but being
without the ambition to ‘reach the goal’, in the knowledge that such ambition is only another form of greed, of
21. Happiness in the process of ever-growing aliveness, whatever the furthest point
is that fate permits one to reach, for living as fully as one can is so satisfactory that the concern for what one
might or might not attain has little chance to develop.
[p.p. 167-8, 1979, To Have or To Be? Abacus Books.]
In our given culture most of these 21 qualities are extremely difficult to develop,
since they run entirely counter to the culture of capitalist-consumerism. Be that as it may, it is a good starting
point to reflect upon this list of qualities describing the New Person, and to select just one as a starting
point with which to make a new experiment this Christmas.
Instead of just hoping for some difference to happen, or being cynically condemned to
expecting merely more of the same that we have always experienced in our family bosom, try on one of Fromm’s new
qualities for size. Decide to approach your family gathering along a new channel - as laid down by the 21 qualities
Many of the items can be gathered under the heading of the ‘Growthful Choice’
as opposed to the ‘Deadening Choice’.
From this list we can see that the value to grow, evolve, and develop oneself as a
human being is contrasted with the opposite trend of failure to grow, of decay, of dying. We are presented with
this fork in the road continuously. How do we know in which direction lies life and in which death? The answer
is that any choice informed by the positive values for Being as opposed to ‘Having’ is likely to
take us forward into a growthful direction. We can attempt a summarising list in the form of these following
|THE GROWTHFUL CHOICE
||THE DEADENING CHOICE
|Living with a Sense of Generosity
|Caring and genuine relationships
||Desire to possess & be Possessed
||absence / unavailability to others
|Without illusions - acceptance of failings
|Creative dissolution of problems
||deadening focus on order
||escaping in imagination
|Sense of being a part of nature
||feeling apart from nature
To the extent that we can try to locate ourselves on at least one of the
Growthful Choice list and not on the Deadening Choice list, we can legitimately have hope for some differences in
our future relationships with others.
The more that we can avoid the fork in the road that is focused upon ‘having’
[possessing, owning, controlling, consuming etc. ] the better that our living will become.
The more we can positively choose the fork in the road leading towards the Being
direction the better we may become as persons-in-relationships.
The less that we think of others who are in relationships with us as a ‘source’
of something that we want to ‘get’ or ‘receive’, the less disillusioned we will become.
The less that we see our parents as a ‘source of love or validation’ then the
less we will approach them with an expectation that we ‘might get it this time’, [or indeed with the
expectation that this time will be no different because once again they ‘will not give us what we
But we are so used to reading others in this way - as a ‘source of’ that which we
believe that we need and deserve, that it is difficult to begin to approach these same people in a different way.
But if we do manage to approach them in a different way what we find is this: - they are no longer the ‘same
people’ at all. What we see and experience are in fact different people. Our parents, for example, come
to look very different once we liberate ourselves - and them - from the framework of being a ‘begrudging source’
of some thing that we want or have wanted for many years. It is this possibility of seeing your parents as ‘strangers’,
as people who you actually do not know [once you let slip the label of them as a ‘begrudging source’] and begin
to approach them from a different point of view - from the direction of a different interest in who they might be,
and might have been in their living.
Your sense of what has always been missing from your life is like the initial
irritating grain for the oyster, which once entered into its system provokes the oyster to produce the
self-protecting substances which grow over time around the irritant until it produces a pearl. Unfortunately, the
type of ‘emotive substances’ that we secrete around our sense of irritating lack is usually premised upon the
‘having’ fork in the road. So we remain focused on the irritating lack, and the substances we produce serve only
to make things even more irritating by prompting us to make useless demands on others, or to take up very ‘irritated
attitudes’ with those who refuse us.
But instead of spitting our irritation for what we do not ‘have’ at the presumed
guilty parties, we have a different fork in the road to choose. We can encounter our irritating lack with a
different type of emotive secretion - this one based upon the Growthful Choice values outlined above. They represent
a very different set of emotional values.
They focus in part on ourselves in terms of developing a self-critical awareness - as
for e.g. in going beyond all that which we know so well about ourselves, and beginning to elaborate those
obscured aspects of ourselves that lie beyond the simple formulae of ‘deprivation’, of ‘love hunger’ and so
They also focus upon the manner in which we can sense ourselves to be a constituent
part of nature rather than feeling to be standing apart from nature. The latter positioning encourages in us an
exploitative attitude which prompts us to extort from others that which we feel we need and deserve. In other words
an entirely manipulative approach to others.
Instead the Growthful Choice secretes positive emotions around our sense of lacking
in such a way as to develop, at every choice point, a value for personal movement and development which carries us
ever further away from the flow of possessions, greediness and exploitativeness. Over time, and continuous growthful
secretions, we develop [unintentionally] the pearl of personal wisdom which is described in the list above.
The pearl is composed of acceptance, forgiveness, understanding, conciliation,
tolerance, presence, respect for all nature’s works, and the elaboration of the sense of personal creativity for
the meaning of one’s life.
As a final inspiration for taking the alternative fork in the road this Christmas,
let us turn to Winnie-the-Pooh as representative of the quiet connectedness with nature that we need to develop if
we are to get anywhere. [quotes from p.p. 111-2, The Tao of Pooh - Benjamin Hoff, 1982, Methuen].
‘What do you like doing best in the world Pooh?’
‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best -- ‘ and then he had to stop and think.
Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which
was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.
The honey doesn’t taste so good once it is being eaten; the goal doesn’t mean so
much once it is reached; the reward is not so rewarding once it has been given. If we add up all the rewards in our
lives, we won’t have very much. But if we add up all the spaces between the rewards, we’ll come up with
quite a bit. And if we add up all the rewards and spaces, then we’ll have everything - every minute of the time
that we spent. What if we could enjoy it?
The Christmas presents once opened are Not So Much Fun as they were while we were in
the process of examining, lifting, shaking, thinking about, and opening them. Three hundred sixty-five days later,
we try again and find that the same thing has happened. Each time the goal is reached, it becomes Not So Much Fun
and we’re off to reach the next one, then the next one, then the next.
That doesn’t mean that the goals we have don’t count. They do, mostly because
they cause us to go through the process, and it’s the process that makes us wise, happy or whatever. If we
do things in the wrong sort of way, it makes us miserable, angry, confused and things like that. The goal has to be
right for us, and it has to be beneficial, in order to ensure a beneficial process. But aside from that, it’s
really the process that’s important. Enjoyment of the process is the secret that erases the myths of the Great
Reward and Saving Time.
What could we call that moment before we begin to eat the honey? Some would call it anticipation,
but we think it’s more than that. We would call it awareness. It’s when we become happy and realise it,
if only for an instant. By Enjoying the Process, we can stretch that awareness out so that it’s no longer only a
moment, but covers the whole thing. Then we can have a lot of fun. Just like Pooh.’