How do we know we are human beings ? By Keith White

In the June 2015 edition of TTCJ I wrote an article focussing on “kith” or “nestness”.  It sought to enrich our understanding of the nature of attachment and bonding, in order to know better some of the lesser acknowledged elements involved when there is separation and loss.  The argument put simply was that we have tended (since the work of John Bowlby) to focus primarily on the human relationships between a child and her significant other at the expense of other aspects of what constitutes attachment, and what is lost when there is separation.  Nestness is an image that reminds us that human relationships are set in a context, and that if there is a disruption in a child’s life, there is likely to be a loss of any number of artefacts, places, associations that have to do with what we mean by “home”.  The first and only time I had come across the concept was in the work of Jay Griffiths, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape (London: Penguin, 2013).

Before proceeding with a response to the question at the head of this article, I want to share my sense of surprise and pleasure when discovering that the concept is now being used in the field of sociology.  In the current issue of Sociology, Vol. 51 No. 5 October 2017 there is a study of intra neighbourhood trust in Great Britain and London, and key to this.  According to the paper it is an American sociologist RJ Sampson who has developed the idea in the book, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighbourhood (2012).  Here nestedness is studied with a small neighbourhood as the subject, exploring how this community is set (nested) in wider or larger whole. Further investigation has revealed that we probably owe the concept to the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, who gave the world that richly textured and related concept of habitus. This is heartening because it means that the idea is alive, and so there is hope that we will not lose sight of the significance of the many ways in which an individual or neighbourhood relate to their environment both personal and environmental. Since writing the piece I have listened with renewed intensity to how people describe their childhoods and there is always is an acute sense of place, context, artefacts, objects, colours and textures.

Here I want to explore another aspect or dimension of what might be involved in separation and loss in early childhood.  And this issue is crystallised by the question at the head of this article.  If a child experiences separation and loss from a significant other and the nest in which they have shared their lives, is it possible that a deeper and far more primal separation is at stake?  What if our sense of being a human being, and part of the human race derives in substantial measure from our relationship with a significant other?  Before reflecting on these questions, perhaps it would be helpful if I shared with you the context in which they emerged.

It happened when I was reflecting with my wife, Ruth, on the life and development of one of the children we have cared for at Mill Grove for the best part of twenty years.  I will call her Maddie.  She had experienced traumatic separations in quick succession in her early life that set her apart in turn from her birth parents, her siblings, two different religions, and her adoptive family.  It was after all this that she came to live with us.  Among the many challenges that she faced was the fact that she did not seem to believe she lived in the same world as everyone else.  Another way of putting this is that she felt different from everyone else.  One of the symptoms of this was the fact that she would or could not accept the rules of any games (she simply changed or interpreted them to further her own progress).  Another was her deep-seated fear of water that was not the least assuaged by the fact that on a calm day, in a sheltered shallow lake, all the others in the boat were completely relaxed and untroubled. There were many more, but in essence she was not interested in anything or anyone outside a very narrow personal world.

It is of course abundantly clear that singly, such characteristics are pretty common among human beings.  But in her case they added up to a profound (I believe, primal) sense that she really didn’t belong.  And by this I mean not just to a group, but to human beings in general.  Which led to the almost unthinkable and unbearable question of whether she felt or perceived herself to be a member of the human race at all.  I am aware that this retreat into one’s own world is a primary characteristic of the defence mechanism often termed “flight”, but her story and behaviour forced me to look more deeply than this. Was it just possibly that she experienced life as if she was living in a parallel universe governed by different norms and rules?

With this in mind I began to think of other children and young people with whom I have lived at Mill Grove, and quickly I saw that this same question was just as relevant in their cases.  Yes, they had different personalities and life stories, and there was a range of labels to describe them (including “withdrawn”, “autistic”, “personality disorder”, “difficulty in making relationships” etc.) but was there at heart a common denominator, I wondered?  They had all experienced separation and loss.  Was one of the results or consequences of this a sense that they were on their own, not just because they were lonely or isolated, but because they exprienced a fundamental gulf that divided them from the rest of the human race?

Over the many years that I have written columns for this journal (and others) I have no doubt referred to some of these children, but until now I had not considered the possibility of such a huge and seemingly unbridgeable gap between them and everyone else.  There was the boy who was repeatedly excluded from every school to which he was sent, and who regularly called out in a room full of people (whether at home or school) “It’s me.  I’m here.” Pondering this with others the only way we could make sense of its meaning was that he feared he did not exist unless we constantly affirmed and reaffirmed his presence among us as a fellow human being.

Then there was the teenage girl who never seemed to laugh spontaneously.  One day I found her laughing (by the snooker table I recall), and thought that she might have broken through in some way, so I asked her whether she had found something funny: “No,” she replied, “All the others laughed and I just joined them, so I wasn’t the odd one out”.  It dawned on me in a flash that she lacked one of the most basic competencies of what it is to be human: a sense of humour that connects people as people.

And so the examples multiplied.  Despite the variations in their life stories and their very different personalities, was there at the very core of their beings the same fundamental lack of a sense of belonging to the human race in general?  Perhaps the psychological term that comes closest to this might be schizoid.  Schizoid personality disorder (SPD) is characterized by a lack of interest in social relationships, a tendency towards a solitary or sheltered lifestyle, secretiveness, emotional coldness, detachment, and apathy.  It is not the same thing, but is there the possibility that a reason for this set of behaviours or attitudes is the sense that a person does not belong to the human race?  If so, you could easily see why they see others and relate to them as they do.  Is there, I wonder, research on the incidence of separation and loss among those diagnosed as schizoid?

As a sociologist I have often written and taught that socialising and relationships with people in the wider world are learned within the context of the nuclear family, household, or its equivalent.  But now I wonder if there is a deeper relationship at stake: what if we learn that we are humans, like others, from the primal relationship with our mother or significant other?  Does the work of Konrad Lorenz and imprinting have relevance here?  His studies seem to imply that an animal will tend to behave as if belonging to the species with which there is the first bonding with or attachment to a caregiver.

It is, at very least, food for thought, and I will be considering the matter carefully over the coming months and years, keen to connect with any who would like to explore the matter.  Does Bowlby hint at this in his work?  What about others exploring this field?

But let’s end on a positive, because true, note.  How might we go about helping someone like this (who believes or assumes that they do not belong to the human race) to discover their shared humanity?  I don’t know how it works, but I have seen it happen.  Maddie now has a full-time job helping parents with premature babies in a general hospital.  She is very good at the rules of games, enjoys swimming and sailing, and is increasingly able to sense the emotions and feelings of others, and at times to empathise with them.  Somewhere along the way she has uneventfully identified with the rest of humanity.

How?  That’s a big question.  But I know it has to do with the unconditional commitment of significant others.  But it also had to do with nestness.  She continues to spend lots of her spare time at Mill Grove, often not talking with others, but being with us, being alongside, eating some meals, joining in events, and helping with the washing up!  She also takes an inordinate interest in her niece. Sometimes holding her like a baby chick.  Could it be that significant others, a nest (in the sense used above) and then a baby related to a person are three key factors in connecting her to the human race? All those of us involved in therapeutic care in its many varieties would do well to ponder the question that engendered this piece, and the questions that emerge at the end.  It is just possible that we have missed something very important.

One of the archetypes or icons of human relationships is that of the Madonna and child.  I now begin to see that this is not just about a parent and her offspring, but two humans in relationship, perhaps representing how humanity itself is shared and learned.

1 thought on “How do we know we are human beings ? By Keith White”

  1. Keith, a thought provoking article. I am very interested in this area and am keen to study this – we recently had anew member to our family – a beautiful Golden Retriever puppy. My daughter aged 7 at the time said – ‘Daddy, ever since we’ve had Lily, its as if the love between us all has got bigger’. A wonderful insight that brought happy tears to mine and my wife’s eyes.

    Perhaps, puppies, babies, new born mammals introduced into our lives, our nests – bring online/brings alive/awakens/activates neural networks that can be forgotten/dissociated through relational/developmental trauma. Creating the conditions for kindling human capacity to love and be loved deeply and unconditionally is what its is all about.

    I’d like to learn and discuss more….


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